There 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 obsession of mine (pre-fodmaps) 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!