Pig’s cheeks are a delicacy in Spain and Italy, revered for their incredibly tasty flesh and unctuous, sticky texture. You have to cook them for a couple of hours to get the meat really soft but they’re completely worth the wait. Your butcher will be happy to supply you with these as they’re relatively underused in the UK and often go to waste. We like to serve pigs’ cheeks year-round, not just in the colder months. Although the cheeks are richly braised here, this dish is made lighter by the bright, summery flavours of the apples, pancetta and peas.
Serves 4 as a main or6 – 8 as a tapas
8 pigs’ cheeks, trimmed of fat, ask your butcher for the ‘spots’, not the whole jowl
1 large carrot
1 small onion
1 stick celery
2 bay leaves
½ head garlic
250ml dry cider
1 – 1.25 litres dark chicken stock, enough to cover the cheeks
120g pancetta or smoked bacon, cut into lardons
1 Braeburn apple, peeled, cored, cut into 12 slices
400g peas, fresh or frozen
40g unsalted butter, diced
2 sprigs oregano, leaves picked
Olive oil for cooking
Sea salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 160˚C.
Peel and roughly chop the carrot, onion and celery. Heat a large ovenproof casserole pan over a medium heat and add a lug of olive oil. Add the cheeks and colour for 3 minutes on each side to caramelise and create a nice crust.
This process is very important and will add layers of flavour to the finished dish. When the meat is well-coloured, add the carrots, onion, celery, bay and garlic and stir well to coat with the oil. Cook the vegetables for approximately 5 minutes to achieve a good colour. Next, pour in the cider and bring to the boil. Reduce the cider until it’s nearly evaporated and the alcohol has burnt away. Now add the chicken stock and again, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat so you have a slow simmer. Skim off the scum that forms on the surface of the stock with a ladle. Cover the top of the casserole with a lid and place in the oven for approximately 2 hours, or until the cheeks are meltingly tender and the stock has reduced to a rich, thick gravy. Have a peek under the lid every so often to see how things are doing. 30 minutes before the cheeks are ready, take the lid off to let the stock evaporate and reduce more quickly.
20 minutes before the cheeks are ready, heat a large saute pan to a high heat and add a lug of olive oil. Throw in the lardons and cook briskly to colour lightly and release their fat. Next add the apple slices and colour on both sides. Add the peas and butter and turn the heat down to low. Season with salt and pepper and simmer slowly until the peas are cooked. At this point, add a splash of water and the oregano leaves.Lightly crush some of the peas with the back of a fork to create some texture. Check you’re happy with the seasoning.
When done, remove the cheeks from the oven and check the sauce has reduced to a thick gravy. If still a little thin, transfer the casserole onto the stove top and heat briskly over a high heat to reduce the sauce.Divide the apples, peas and pancetta between plates and then spoon the cheeks, vegetables and sauce from the casserole on top.
Serve. This dish is lovely with some creamy parmesan-rich polenta to soak up the juices.
Tip |Never season a braise before or during cooking, as you can never tell how its taste will develop over the long cooking process. Generally, it will be very full-flavoured and not need any additional seasoning.
Try arich, rustic red from Umbria, Italy. Try a Sagrantino de Montefalco.