Pig's Cheeks with Fennel, Orange and Star Anise

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.

Pig’s cheeks at the Tannery, Dungarvan

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
Browned off pig’s cheeks on a bed on sweated vegetables

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