Q. How many chefs does it take to teach a novice how to cook pig’s cheeks?
A. Ask Twitter.
Despite the recession, the standard of food in Irish restaurants has improved dramatically in recent years. A new generation of young chefs and well established celebrity chefs are using considerable skill and imagination to create taste memories and to offer value for money to people dining out on more limited budgets. I’ve noticed a growing emphasis on cooking meat “low and slow” and on using lesser known cuts of meat that cost less at source but are full of flavour when cooked creatively. So belly of pork, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, beef cheeks and pigs cheeks pop up all over the place and even pig’s heads find their way on menus, tastefully described of course.
Although the cooking techniques can be quite different, this new emphasis reminds me of the attitude to meat in China where virtually every component of the animal is valued and used so that pig’s ears and chicken feet are a sought after delicacy. The butchery demonstration in Avoca Food Market Monkstown which I described in an earlier post left me intrigued to learn how to cook these cuts at home.
When I visited the Tannery in Dungarvan a few months back I ate pig’s cheeks for the first time. I was blown away by the delicate, almost creamy texture of the meat. Paul Flynn (Chef No. 1) showed me how to cook it low and slow with beer at the Tannery Cookery School recently so I got some idea of how to handle the cut and bring out its flavours. But in keeping with the Shananigans’ Chinese theme I wanted to come up with a recipe that would be more oriental in its ingredients.
I purchased a batch of them from James Whelan Butchers to cook for a meal for friends last weekend. They arrived vacuum packed and my first thought when I unpacked them and looked at their sinewy, fatty exterior was that they seemed nothing like the tasty morsels I had eaten in the Tannery. Feeling slightly daunted and unsure where to start, I put out a Saturday afternoon plea to Twitter for help.
First up was the ever-helpful Tom Walsh (Chef No. 2), the head chef at Samphire Restaurant in Donabate, Co. Dublin, who gave me so much advice on my Short Beef Ribs recipe the previous week. He suggested a marinade of garlic, lemon grass, chilli pepper, sugar and rice vinegar with rapeseed and and sunflower oil and then long, slow cooking at 110C.
I hadn’t been able to get hold of lemongrass and I was still contemplating my options when Rozanne Stevens (Chef No. 3) suggested I ask Kate Lawlor (Chef No. 4) the head chef at Fenns Quay in Cork who is a whizz with pig’s cheeks. Kate told me that in her restaurant they cook them slowly on a low heat on the stove with orange slices, onion, fennel, leek and bay leaf. This rang bells for me as I had come across a recipe in Ultimate Slow Cooker for pork shoulder or spare ribs with orange and star anise.
I went to sleep mulling over the possibilities for sweating down onion, leek, fennel, carrot and bay leaf as a base for the slow cooking, mindful of what I learned from Paul Flynn about layering flavour on flavour – fennel seed, star anise, fennel – and watching what matches with what – carrot with orange, fennel with pork for instance. As I described in an earlier post, I learnt a lot from attending Paul’s master class and it is gradually seeping in.
Then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Niall O’Sullivan (chef No. 5) the head chef at Isabel’s in Dublin tweeted me the suggestion that I brine the meat for tasty and tender cheeks. Now Isabel’s is currently serving some of the most exciting food in Dublin and I had a sublime dish of pressed pork shoulder their recently so of course I was going to sit up and take note. I could hardly admit to him that I had only the vaguest idea what brining entailed so I was up at the crack of dawn on Sunday googling “brining pork”.
I gathered from the internet that the basic principle of brining was to use a solution of 1 tbs salt to 1 cup of water (about 1 : 8) and then add sweetener and some seasonings that would gently bring out the flavours I planned to use in the subsequent dish without overwhelming the meat. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked for the brining so I decided that less was more the first time around and gave them 6 – 7 hours.
I’m grateful to Derry for figuring out a way of trimming the cheeks after brining so that he removed most the outer fat but left each cheek intact and looking more like what Paul Flynn cooked for us in the Cookery School. I’m sure your friendly butcher could be prevailed upon to trim them for you if you ask nicely.
Anyway after much deliberation, and remembering advice from my Twitter friend and chutney maker Audrea of Tastefully Yours to trust my instincts, this is what I did:
Pig’ s Cheeks with Fennel, Orange and Star Anise
Serves 4 – 6 people
- 12 – 18 pig’s cheeks, trimmed and outer fat removed (allow 3 for person, they shrink down during cooking)
- 1/2 litre boiling water
- 1/2 cup salt
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1/2 onion finely chopped
- 1 heaped tsp fennel seed
- 1 tbs crushed dried chilli flakes
- 2 – 3 star anise
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 1/2 litre cold water
- Dissolve the salt in boiling water. Mix in the other ingredients. Finally add in the cold water.
- Pour over the pork cheeks in a flat container, ensuring they are completely covered and refrigerate for 6 t0 12 hours.
- Remove from brine, drain and pat dry. Remove any remaining excess fat from the cheeks.
- 2 heads fennel
- 2 carrots
- 1 leek
- 1 onion
- 1 clove garlic
- Sunflower oil
- Potato flour
- Salt and white pepper
- 3 oranges
- 3 tbs plum sauce
- 2 tbs soy sauce
- 3 – 4 star anise
- 1 fresh red chilli
- Pre-heat the oven to 110 degrees.
- Roughly chop the fennel, carrots, leek and onion. Finely slice the garlic. Sweat over a low heat in a large casserole in sunflower oil and butter, covered, for 15 minutes until soft but not coloured.
- Heat sunflower oil in a flat based frying pan over medium heat to high heat.
- Dip the pig’s cheeks in potato flour seasoned with a white pepper and a little salt and brown all over in the sunflower oil in batches. Add to the casserole dish, placing them gently on the “trivet” of softened vegetables
- Mix the juice of two of the oranges and strips of the rind and bring up to 3/4 litre of chicken stock, the plum and soy sauce. Add in the star anise and a finely chopped red chilli. Taste to adjust the seasoning if necessary.
- Add the stock to the casserole, ensuring the meat is fully covered. Bring to the boil and lay slices of the remaining orange on top. Place in the oven, covered with baking parchment and a tightly fitting lid.
- Depending on the time available and the heat of your oven, cook at 110 to 140 degrees for between 2 and 4 hours. (I started it at 110 and then turned it up to 130 for the last hour, cooking it for about 3 hours in all.)
- When the pork cheeks are very tender, remove from the cooking broth and keep warm.
- Strain the vegetables from the stock and reduce the remaining broth over a high heat before serving a little drizzled around the pork and the rest as a side sauce.
Serve with simple side dishes such as five-spiced steamed greens and baby potatoes.
The pig’s cheeks cooked this way were meltingly tender and had that texture and richness of flavour I recal from first eating them at the Tannery. I used only a very little of the concentrated jus when serving them as I didn’t want to risk overpowering the delicate, flavoursome meat with too much of the sweet-sour sauce.
In the throes of entertaining I forgot to take a photo of the finished dish but my friends’ verdict was that the dish would put a restaurant to shame. I hadn’t told my guests in advance what the cut was for fear of putting them off. And I had to admit to them afterwards that it took lots of help from professional chefs to create the dish.
The generosity of those professional chefs sharing their passion for food and their ideas on Twitter is really quite amazing. For instance Niall sent me his suggestion that I brine the pork after what must have been one of the busiest Saturday night services of the year. Mind you by the Sunday afternoon interesting suggestions were emerging on Twitter for a new “Tweet a Chef” service which would earn them decent Sunday rates…
So how many chef’s does it take to help a novice cook pig’s cheeks? Well in my case at least 5.
A heartfelt thanks to one and all 🙂