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.

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek Ragu (serves 4)

  • 4 pig cheeks, left whole but excess fat trimmed if needed
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 1 x 400ml tin chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 2 anchovies
  • 100ml red wine
  • 2 star anise pods
  • salt and pepper

This is a very simple recipe but when I say slow cooked, I mean slow cooked. It needs at least 12 hours to achieve its full potential. I tend to make it early on a Saturday evening, giving me the excuse to open a bottle of red wine and then leave it to cook overnight until I get up on a Sunday, which is very rarely that early.

Put the pig cheeks into the slow cooker crock along with the diced carrot and celery. Don’t sear them first or it toughens the fibres and prevents them being as tender or flavoursome. It also saves washing up and effort which I like just as much.

Add the chopped tomatoes along with any juice. Use the best you can afford here. I usually keep an eye of for the thicker branded ones when they are on offer and keep a few cans in the house for recipes like this where the tomatoeyness matters. Otherwise I’m quite happy with own brand most of the time. Stir in the puree.

Drop the anchovies in whole. They will dissolve into the tomatoes as it all cooks and you won’t get a fishy flavour from them but a really deep savoury backnote. Still season the dish well with salt and pepper. I always think tomatoes need extra salt to come to life. Add the star anise in and pour the red wine into it all. Don’t be tempted to add more than this. Slow cookers don’t allow liquid to evaporate so a little, especially with alcohol, goes a long way.

Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook on high for 12 hours. If you end up leaving it for 14 or 15 hours, it won’t take any harm, but don’t try to rush it. When you lift the lid at the end of the cooking time, the tomatoes will have darkened and intensified and it will all need stirred together. Fish the star anise pods out and use two forks to pull the cheeks apart into strands of soft meat that further thickens the sauce.

Serve as needed or put into freezer bags before flattening them out on a baking tray so you end up with a thin flat portion you can defrost easily after work if you aren’t with it enough to lift stuff out in the mornings. Everything about this dish will get you ready to love your slow cooker with less than a month to go before Slow Cooked is published on November 6th!

This post is part of Farmersgirl Kitchen‘s Slow Cooker Challenge where I can indulge my obsession with the subject.

It’s also a great way for me to join the famous Credit Crunch Munch run by Helen and Camilla but hosted this month by Hannah.




23 replies
  1. Katie
    Katie says:

    What could replace the star anise? My family dislike the aniseed flavour and I never know what to add instead for that extra level of flavour. I bought a couple of pig cheeks from the butcher, but they came incased in a pillow of fat. Not knowing any better I cooked the things whole – not even my husband, who loves fat, could eat them! But this recipe, presumably without that layer of fat, sounds lovely.

  2. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Katie, yes my cheeks came trimmed of that fat and I didn’t realise it was quite so much so I’ve edited to clarify. Thanks for the nudge! I’d switch the star anise for either a decent sprinkle of nutmeg or a pinch of ground mace to give that spiced note it needs without being dominant. Hope this cures the memories of the previous dish!

  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Oh what a great idea! I’ll buy some pigs cheeks from my butcher next shopping trip and give this recipe a go with a pinch of Mace in place of star anise. Fab. In fact, I think I’ll try that tip with several other recipes I’ve got too. Thank you so much 🙂

  4. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Katie: let me know how you get on. It’s a great super simple recipe and I always buy pig cheeks when I see them to do a batch.

  5. simba
    simba says:

    Everything seems to taste oddly similar out of my slow cooker, can’t put my finger on what the taste is. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but not ‘nice’ either (it was the cheapest slow cooker in Argos, single-setting, works wonderfully despite this). Any tips as to subduing it?

  6. Camilla @FabFood4All
    Camilla @FabFood4All says:

    I have never cooked pigs cheeks before and only just cooked using anchovies the other day so this sounds like something I should try as it looks scrummy:-) Thank you for entering #CreditCrunchMunch 🙂

  7. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Simba: slow cookers can mute the flavours of food due to the higher water content (no liquid evaporates during cooking) so you tend to need to use stronger flavours by adding more herbs or spices, less liquid and seasoning more or the food can be a bit meh. Hopefully this’ll help make things taste different to each other in future!

  8. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    This looks amazing and I want to make it for this weekend but I don’t have a slow cooker. Will a low oven with a Le Creuset type pot do? How low does the oven have to go and do I need to adjust the liquid to take a bit more evaporation into account? Thanks so much in advance for your help. I also have the coconut creme caramel earmarked…

  9. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Audrey: I’m really sorry, I’ve got no idea how this would adapt to the oven as I’ve never cooked pig cheeks that way. But I’d say about 120 degrees and about 25% more liquid to be sure. You want it quite thick rather than watery. Let me know how you get on!

  10. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    Ah thanks so much. It’s in the oven as we speak. I added another 20ml of wine and a dash if chicken stock I had lying around. It’s been in there for 5 hours and smelling really good!

  11. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Audrey: how did it go? Hope it was worth the wait. But we need to get you a slow cooker and soon! Your life will be transformed!

  12. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    Oh my…it was melt in the mouth, super tasty and very moorish. Served it with a mound of mash and red cabbage with bacon and maple syrup and it was a fantastic Sunday lunch. Even my MIL approved 🙂 And all that meat for less than a tenner! Thank you for the wonderful idea. Slow cooker on my wishlist – I often cook stuff for hours in a low oven so it makes sense. Have you ever made Boston baked beans? I cook mine for 6 hours and they are fab with a baked potato….

  13. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Audrey, it sounds amazing. Shamelessly stealing your cabbage recipe for Christmas (And I don’t care that I’ve mentioned it so early). You’ll love the slow cooker. It makes fab Boston Baked Beans or my Brixton version. It also makes stunning baked potatoes when you are out at work all day. It’s a very clever gadget!

  14. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    The red cabbage is amazing. It also has chunks of apple. It’s adapted from a Jamie Oliver one – I know you have ‘parted ways’ but, hey 🙂 – I first made years ago but really looks nothing like the original now. I cook it for hours and it goes all sticky. Start with the onion, bacon and fennel seeds and take it from there….let me know! Love the idea of making bakies in the slow cooker while I’m out! It’s on my Xmas wishlist 🙂

  15. Bighomebird
    Bighomebird says:

    Thanks for such a lovely recipe. For any anchovy doubters out there I live with someone who HATES them (I love ’em!) and thinks he can detect them in a dish a mile off. When he finished licking his plate and said it was delicious I told him about the anchovies, he never even guessed.

  16. Jo
    Jo says:

    This is in the slow cooker now and the house smells amazing – looking forward to tomorrow’s dinner!

  17. Tracey Gosling
    Tracey Gosling says:

    Is it really supposed to be done on high for 2 hours? How aniseedy is the taste when done with the star anise? Plan to do this tomorrow.

  18. Iain
    Iain says:

    Just love this recipe, made it several times. Freezes so well when you’ve made a huge batch and tastes SOOOO Italian!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] cooker with a stew pack of veg and some stock. Boring. Then I stumbled upon this recipe at “Northsouthfood“. Sounded interesting. Never cooked with star anise, anchovy or pig cheeks. And not […]

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