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pig cheek ragu

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek Ragu

pig cheek raguThere is always room in my life for pig on a plate. From bacon, just crisping round the edges to slabs of Christmas ham in Coke or a grilled glistening chop or chorizo jam, I love pork in all its forms. It was of course, the one thing that tempted me from vegetarianism in all those five years and I still feel no qualms about the bacon sandwich eaten late at night up one of the Mourne Mountains after a long day’s walking on my Duke of Edinburgh Silver expedition. I went back to instant couscous the next day and avoided porcine temptations for years more.

But when a rare steak lured me back to omnivorousness once again, it was pig that kept me there. Just around the time Babe hit cinema screens, I was incapable of cooking anything with pork in it without gleefully exclaiming that ‘pork is a nice sweet meat‘ like a demented CGI mouse. More than anything else I eat, I am most able to separate the cuteness of piglets from their taste and texture and the only thing I feel guilty about is my inability to feel guilt about it all.

At first the attraction was that pork is pretty easy to cook. Compare grilling a pork chop to getting a steak just right and you’ll see what I mean. I wasn’t a confident cook at all (if you’d told the 19 year old me that I end up writing two cookbooks, I’d have laughed myself inside out) and meals that were easy to make really appealed. Pork is also often lower in fat which as someone who had just had their gallbladder removed was crucial and combining all these factors with the fact pork is the most affordable meat for free range or higher welfare standards, I’ve cooked it a lot over the years.

We all know that you can eat everything on a pig except the oink and I find it a good way to keep expanding my horizons. Black pudding is a borderline North/South Food obsession and I’ve certainly been won over to the taste if not the texture of trotters, so it was inevitable that pig’s cheeks would call to me. Technically classed as offal as they come from the head, they are in fact pure muscle and perfect for low slow cooking to help the meat fall apart in a tender tangle. Very inexpensive at around £2 for 4, they’ll easily feed 4 people cooked well.

I get mine in Morrisons or Waitrose (and yes, that £2 price is correct for Waitrose as part of their Forgotten Cuts range) and tend to make a massive batch of this ragu in the slow cooker before portioning it up and freezing it until needed. It makes a lasagne of such beauty it’s hard not lick your lips as you describe it. It also goes well with either baked potatoes or as a porky version of cottage pie with cauliflower and potato mash on top. I served it simply here on top of some rigatoni with a hearty sprinkle of parmesan for the first properly autumnal day here in London.

It’s a slow cooker dream and makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork. I’ve made it without onions as I don’t eat them and I suggest you leave them out too. They bully the soft sweetness of the meat into something less soothing. Read more

slow cooked pork

Slow Cooked Spiced Pork

slow cooked pork

Much as I love cooking, I’m less inclined when the weather is warm. My kitchen is quite small and my hair can’t take standing next to a hot oven or over a sink of steamy suds without expanding to an enormous size. I make a lot of salads and sandwiches and usually rediscover the George Forman grill for cooking summer veg without heat or hassle.

This year though I have a new trick up my sleeve: the slow cooker. Sitting quietly in the corner, just getting on with things, it’s a great way to whip up proper food without heating the house up or having to be indoors when the garden looks so inviting in the brief flashes of sunshine. I had such good results with cooking ribs in the slow cooker recently, I decided to do my take on the pulled pork craze sweeping street food circles at the moment.

My local butcher had a piece of pork shoulder for around £4.50 a kilo and I knew that slow cooking would render it something special. It cried out for lots of spicing and a bit of chilli spiked heat and after marinading for 24 hours, it went into the slow cooker for 8 hours for a no effort meal. I ate the leftovers for several days afterwards, piled high on tortillas with shredded cabbage and salad like a homemade kebab, dotted through rice and packed into a sandwich and slathered with homemade salsa.

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East meets West – wild garlic, Sichuan-style

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This week we went foraging for what’ll probably be the last of this year’s wild garlic. It’s rare to be able to gather it so close to the start of June, and after a late start – disrupted by the snows at the back end of March – this year’s ended up yielding a good crop. I’ve made plenty of wild garlic butter; there’s a kilner jar of pesto in the fridge, ready to add a splash of bright viridescence to a bowl of pasta; and we’ve sprinkled flowers over half the dishes we’ve eaten this week. Forget the adage of ‘make hay while the sun shines’… more like make the most of nature’s most abundant free food while you can.

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I love cookbooks, but it’s rare a cookbook excites and engrosses me as utterly as Fuschia Dunlop‘s Every Grain of Rice. Recommended by a swathe of foodie friends, I got it six weeks ago and have been rapt with attention… more so than her other writing. The sheer simplicity and balance of the many recipes chimes with my style of cooking; and the comprehensive yet conversational tone draws the reader in. As a result I’ve already cooked a broad selection of recipes from the book, with many more earmarked to try soon. However one recipe leapt out at me as soon as I opened the book… and it’s one of the very simplest. It’s called Stir-fried Garlic Stems with Bacon (La Rou Chao Suan Tai).

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Too good to stop eating

Feijoada – the ultimate pork and pulses dish?

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Ah, Feijoada: the national dish of Brazil, straddling the culinary and cultural tectonic plate boundaries of Africa, Europe and South America. Possibly the stoutest meal you’re likely to encounter, and enough to give any vegetarian a dose of the cold shivers.

Feijoada marries the southern European / Romance tradition of slow-cooked pork cuts and beans, but with the addition of west African and Amerindian flavours and techniques. It’s often described as originating from slave fare (the story being it was made up of scraps and offcuts of meat that plantation owners disregarded), but like many classic dishes comes loaded with myths and romanticised stories of its origin. Regardless, it reflects the melting pot culture of modern Brazil, which perhaps explains its extraordinary popularity across generation, class, race and region.

I vaguely remember reading about feijoada many years ago, amongst a glut of facts about Brazil gleaned from geography schoolbooks. At the time it didn’t really register…as a teenage boy I was focusing more on images of the impossibly gaudy and glamorous Carnaval and sugar cane-fuelled cars than meat-heavy dishes. A few years ago, as part of an impromptu South American-themed meal, a good friend brought her own version of feijoada, and that sparked my interest. Ever since I’ve resolved to make my own.

Regular readers are probably spotting a pattern here: yet another dish pairing pork products and pulses, and another opportunity to indulge in the joys of black pudding. Well yes, guilty as charged. And having access to some superb rare-breed pork from our friends at Porcus, I’m inclined to work my way through the world’s greatest pig ‘n’ bean dishes, one by one.

When it comes to feijoada there are a plethora of recipes out there. My well-thumbed go-to-guide for South American recipes, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s ‘The Art of South American Cooking‘, suggested one needs at least five types of pork in there, including the snout. Others suggest a bit of pork belly and sausage is enough. In the end I ploughed my own furrow, referencing recipes from the ever-enjoyable Flavours of Brazil blog and a smattering of others.

I’d previously procured a Tamworth tail and trotters (being able to source a pig tail generally points to it being raised ethically, as sadly most intensively-farmed pigs have their tails cut off) and had also set aside some artisan chorizo from the fabulous folk at Levanter Fine Foods. After visiting Miss South in Brixton, allowing me to pick up some genuine morcela de lamego from the wonderful Continental Deli on Atlantic Road, I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Here’s the final recipe: it took a day of preparation and cooking, but believe me, it was worth every minute.

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Cooked tongue and cheek pudding

Tongue ‘n’ cheek: a hot, steamy, sticky pudding

Tongue and cheek steamed pudding

Regular readers have no doubt picked up on our growing love affair with offal. Over the last three years we’ve embraced cooking and eating the more esoteric, wobbly and less-eaten parts of various animals… mostly successfully. In part this has been driven by our curiosity; in part interest in rediscovering traditional dishes (thanks to championing chefs like Fergus Henderson and Robert Owen Brown), and in part because it’s a cheap and healthy foodstuff. Oh, and we’ve laid a few demons to rest in the process too…

When we were young, our mum used to serve us tongue sandwiches, and I loved them. Despite being a reasonably smart kid, I never made the connection between the name ‘tongue’ and the actual muscle inside an animal’s head; I just assumed it was another odd quirk of the English language. My illusions were shattered when I walked into the kitchen one day to find mum making pressed tongue: setting a boiled ox tongue in jelly, then pressing a plate down with an old-fashioned iron. Suddenly I put two and two together and realised why the slices were round, and curled. Although I was fascinated by the size, texture and feel of the ox tongue, I was also pretty creeped out. Both familiar and alien, one glimpse of the tongue was enough to change my attitude to it as a foodstuff. No longer was it a welcome morsel to find in my packed lunch, now it was a giant freaky cow tongue. I didn’t eat tongue again for over twenty years.

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