The humble pigs cheek is another one of those oft overlooked cheap cuts that are really quite delicious. Historically cooked in this country as bath chaps, and of course in a traditional spaghetti alla carbonara you should use guanciale, cured cheek, rather than regular pancetta or bacon.
I get my cheeks from the excellent Ginger Pig in Hackney, where one smoked cheek will set you back £3. Waitrose apparently also do them for £2.99/kg – I can’t find them on their webstore, but from reading people’s comments online, it sounds like they are very trimmed – as a kilo is around half a dozen cheeks.
As you can see from the pics, the Ginger Pig’s’ cheek is most definitely not trimmed. It also has a lovely black tuft of bristles still on it. For some reason, this fact seems to make people pretty squeamish – all of my (meat eating) flatmates expressed outright disgust and feelings of nausea at seeing the bristles. Losers.
The last time I cooked pig’s cheek, I used it as a base for a leek and butter bean soup, but on Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer (such as it is), a heavy soup was not what I fancied. So I decided to do a pasta sauce instead. This recipe make an intensely flavoured and rich sauce – almost too much so – I made it with two leeks and made three portions that were extremely rich, so I’ve bumped up the leeks to three and you should get four, slightly more delicately flavoured portions out of this.
1 pig’s cheek, cut into half centimeter cubes
3 leeks, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
large glass of white wine
big handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
400g of pasta – pappardelle (fettuccine or tagliatelle would work fine)
salt & pepper
parmesan to garnish
To prepare the pig’s cheek, you need to cut the flesh into thick rashers. Cutting all the way through the skin is quite tricky, so the technique I employ is to cut down from the non-skin side, into the fat layer, then cut the rasher free. This way you leave plenty of fat behind – and you really don’t need it all.
As you work from the snout end back, you’ll see the thick veins of meat running through the fat grow darker – at the snout end the meat is very pink, like an unsmoked bacon. By the time you get to the head end, the smoked meat is very dark – it looks like a cured ham, like jamon Iberico, and I was tempted just to chew on a raw piece. Good sense prevailed, or I just wussed out. One of the two.
Here you can see the “rashers” cut from the skin and bed of fat. You can see there’s still plenty of fat left. The slices at the top are the pink ones from the snout end, and you can see the much darker layer of cured top meat growing as the cuts progressed. I trimmed even more fat of the fattiest ones, generally trying to the ratio of meat to fat about equal, you can adjust this to taste though. More fat is going to give a much richer final dish.
Then cut the rashers into half-cm cubes. Heat a sauce pan, add just a tiny splash of oil to stop the pieces sticking initially, and fry on a low to medium heat, until all the fat has rendered down, and the cubes of meet are nice and crispy. This should take about 15-20 minutes, crank up the heat if its not looking crispy enough. You should be stirring often, scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan.
In the meantime, chop and wash the leeks. Stick them in the pan, and stir them in with the chopped cheek. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the leeks have softened a bit but are not yet translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes more, stirring. Pour in the white wine, turn up the heat and deglaze the pan, getting all the bits of pork from the bottom.
Cook the pasta and reserve some of the pasta water – just use a mug and scoop some out of the pan before you drain it. Splash some of the pasta water in to the sauce, bit by bit – don’t make it too liquid. Throw in the parsley, and mix with the pasta.
Serve in bowls with a crisp fresh salad – something with a lemon based dressing works well to cut through the richness of the sauce.