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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

Hare removal… or who killed Roger Ragu…

Hare ragu, plated and ready
It’s game season again, and my thoughts have been straying towards furred and feathered fare as the hills and woods around here turn various gorgeous autumnal hues. Here at North/South Food we seemed to have cooked a disproportionately large selection of locally-sourced wild beasties over the last couple of years, perhaps motivated by an interest for something a little bit different, combined with a healthy desire to keep food miles low and quality levels high.

The blackboard in the local butcher’s been filled with a good variety of game in the last month: it’s been a bumper year for berries and fruits, so it stands to reason that many of things which feast on them will be in particularly fine fettle. Time to sharpen the steak knives, check the juniper berries, dig out the redcurrant jam and pour a glass of home-made damson gin!

I was gutted to have missed out on hare recently at the butchers (hare today, gone the next… buy it when you see it is the moral of this tale) so I was extremely chuffed to be offered a hare and three rabbits from another source; all local, lean and super-fresh. I’ve had hare in the kitchen once before, but it was more memorable for the cooking than the eating, perhaps as I’d ad-libbed the ingredients and found the beast a bit stringy and wanting for flavour. Since then I’ve read a lot more about hare – how in many respects it’s more akin to venison than rabbit – and wanted to give it a proper go before I made up my mind. So I took no chances and decided to follow a proper recipe this time, rather than make it up as I went.

The beast had been jointed and came without blood or giblets – jugged hare obviously wasn’t an option – so I delved into the excellent ‘Game: A Cookbook‘ by Trish Hilferty and Tom Norrington-Davies (now my go-to book for all things game) and plumped for a classic northern Italian dish of Hare Ragu. It sounded perfect for these cooler autumn evenings. I’m not a great fan of that hardcore, machismo-laced strain of game eating: you know, when the meat’s been left to hang for so long it’s high to the point of walking around the kitchen on its own. Not appealing to me… I’m all for flavour, but not so dominant it threatens to overpower everything else. This hare had been caught the day before I had it, and it spent a day resting before I started cooking. I reckoned the extreme slowness of the recipe would compensate for a lack of extended hanging.

Before going to bed I finely chopped up the veg and aromatics to make a marinade, gave the joints a good coating, mixed up everything and left it overnight to mellow and rest. I then did the same, minus the marinade. Next day I chopped up the last of some wonderfully smokey Porcus backfat and bacon (to keep with the local, hilltop vein), and rendered that down, substituting this for the oil in the recipe. Then the veg got sweated down, accompanied by what few drips of marinade juices were left in the bowl, then in went half a litre of red wine. This took a while to simmer down and evaporate, then I added a dollop of tomato puree and some cocoa.

The addition of cocoa powder might sound a tad unexpected… but after the frankly amazing rabbit with morcilla and chocolate I’d previously cooked, I didn’t need much persuasion to whack a generous teaspoon into the mix. The cocoa-y flavours add a richness with a slight tang, just enough to play off the tomato and sweetness of the veggies. Finally in went the meat, the pot was filled with water, and everything simmered slowly, softening and bubbling away for a few hours until the meat threatened to slip unbidden off the bones. It was at about this time that my guest for the evening, a good mate who’s recently recanted an adult lifetime of vegetarianism, helped me to clean the cooked meat from the bones for the second stage of the cooking. To be honest,  this was above and beyond the call of duty, but he threw himself into the task with more gusto and enthusiasm than many a seasoned carnivore would; driven by a combination of curiosity and hunger. I’d at least warned him that wild beast would be on the menu before he turned up, so it wasn’t too much of a shock for him…

Everything went back in the pot, bar the carcass which was reserved for later use, and the ragu reduced for an hour or so, until it more resembled a dark pulled-pork dish than a normal pasta sauce. By this stage the collective groans of our stomachs ensured the pasta was cooked and garnished. I’d originally intended to dig out the pasta maker and roll out a few sheets of home-made ribbons, but this was a bit ambitious for a midweek work night, so I decided to go with something already in the store cupboard instead. I went for Orecchiette Pugliesi, that curious ear-shaped pasta, reckoning its bite and open shape would work well to catch the thick ragu. It did the trick…

A good helping of pecorino and a twist of parsley topped off the hearty, steaming bowls, and we tucked right in. You know it’s a good meal when there’s little conversation and less left in the dishes by the end. The hare had a big flavour… deeply rich and meaty, with more than a hint of game, but the tastes were balanced rather than overwhelming. Cooking it so slowly meant the meat was soft, succulent and very moist, and had absorbed all the other flavours in the pot, reducing everything down to a dark, unctuous delight. The only criticism is that it was almost too dry for a sauce to coat and accompany pasta… if I made this again I’d take it off the hob slightly earlier.

As is so often the way, the flavour got better over the next couple of days – just as well, as there was a lot of meat on this hare. I was (happily) eating it for days, and there’s still a tupperware container in the freezer, holding at least three generous portions, ready to meets its match with some home-made pappadellle one evening as the nights draw in. And, as the bones were substantial enough to boil up, I’ve also got a good selection of hare stock (or should that be hare restorer?) ice cubes in the freezer, ready to add to something special in the future.

Brown hare are powerful, elegant but shy native creatures – normally the most I see of them is a browny-grey blur when I’m out walking in the hills – so I’m pleased to have gotten a second chance to savour this beast… and that we hit it off better on our second dinner date. I can highly recommend this dish… stop reading this now and make yourself a hare appointment!