Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Pig head project 1: braised cheek with crispy ear, burnt leeks, black pudding, beetroot puree and tarragon mayonnaise

“There a pig’s head in our kitchen?!” she said down the phone, in a way that even without seeing her came with raised eyebrows and scepticism. “Are you sure that you don’t just want to go to the pub instead?” and “please can it not be staring out of the fridge when I get home” (this was not a question) followed. I couldn’t help but grin wryly. There was a huge temptation to divulge that I was in the process of ridding her supper of impressive facial hair and ear wax. There was a vague temptation to decorate my clothing with the ears, tongue and teeth for when she walked through the door. This was quickly discarded, but I revelled in the challenge of making her a lunch that she had already squeamishly written off. This was going to be fun.

I love a good project, and this one had been long in the making. For months I looked at trendy menus that contained pig’s head this way and that, and it just always remained one of those things that I would get around to doing at some point. I had never tackled anything of the sort; apart from eating the cheeks and spying ears on the odd bar menu I had no idea what else was there. This seemed the best way to find out, and before I knew it I was sitting on the bus home next to a large bag, hoping dearly that a child didn’t peek inside. 

It was surprisingly easy to tackle once home, and before long most of the meat was in manageable portions. Although I could have got the butcher to do most of this, and he probably would have made the whole process look so much neater, I felt rewarded in learning a small skill. 

I only needed the ears and the small, dark nuggets of cheek meat (plus a couple of extra) for this recipe, so against my dear lady’s wishes a few largish bits of pig ended up finding their way into the fridge. But they were certainly not wasted, and in the next couple of blog posts I’ll be writing about the recipes that followed. For such a cheap, unglamorous cut of meat it really went far. I’ll certainly be getting another before too long, to roast whole until crisp or make stunning rillettes out of if nothing else. 

In terms of flavours used in this recipe, I’ve stayed fairly safe and traditional. Pork loves sweetness, and this comes through in the beetroot and the leeks. For me this needs to be balanced though, and I often avoid pork dishes when eating out as it tends to come with a sugar overload. The addition of earthy black pudding and savoury sauce achieve this equilibrium, and the tarragon gives an additional fresh tanginess that rounds everything off. 

Serves 2 


For the braised cheeks: 

4 pork cheeks, sinew removed 
2 carrots, roughly chopped 
1 leek, roughly chopped 
1 onion, roughly chopped 
5 garlic cloves, crushed 
10 sprigs of thyme 
2 bay leaves 
2 star anise 
30g butter 
500ml good quality dry cider 
1.5ltrs good chicken stock 
Olive oil 
Salt and pepper 

For the crispy ears: 

1 pig’s ear, any hair and wax removed 
Oil for frying, approx. 1ltr 

For the burnt leeks: 

6 baby leeks 
Olive oil 
½ lemon, juice only 
Salt and pepper 

For the black pudding: 
2 slices of black pudding, cut into 1cm cubes 
Olive oil 

For the beetroot puree: 

2 beetroots 
8 sprigs of thyme 
2 garlic cloves 
Olive oil 
Salt and pepper 
20g butter 
Splash of hot water 

For the tarragon mayonnaise: 

250ml rapeseed oil 
1 large bunch of tarragon, leaves picked 
1 egg yolk 
½ a garlic clove, finely chopped 
Splash of white wine vinegar 
½ lemon, juice only 
Salt and pepper 

For the sauce: 

Approx. 200g of trimmings from the pig’s head, excess fat removed 
1 shallot, finely chopped 
¼ leek, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced 
5 sprigs of thyme 
1 star anise 
1 tsp fennel seeds 
1 tsp sugar 
2 bay leaves 
150ml good dry sherry 
500ml of the braising stock 
20g butter 
Salt and pepper 

First braise the cheeks and ear. Heat a large stockpot with a little oil to a high temperature. Season the cheeks and brown very well on all sides, then remove to a plate. Add the onion, leek, carrot, garlic, herbs, spices and seasoning to the pan and sauté for a couple of minutes. Pour in the cider and bring to the boil, then add the cheeks and ear and cover with the stock. Return to the boil and then reduce to a low simmer, cover and cook for 3 hours. Once the meat is tender and cooked, remove from the heat and allow to cool. Carefully remove the cheeks and ear from the liquid to a plate and set aside or refrigerate until needed. Strain the stock, discard the vegetables and reserve the liquid to make the sauce. 

Preheat the oven to 200⁰C (fan). 

Make the beetroot puree by putting the beetroot, garlic, half the thyme, seasoning and a little olive oil into a small oven dish. Tightly cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 1 – 1 ½ hours, or until very tender. When cooked, remove from the oven and carefully peel the beets and garlic. Transfer to a small food processor along with the butter, the rest of the fresh thyme leaves, seasoning and a small splash of water. Blitz very well until you get a fine puree texture. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then pass through a sieve. Set aside for reheating later. 

While the beetroot is cooking make the tarragon mayonnaise. Pour the rapeseed oil into a food processor with the tarragon leaves and blitz well until the oil is a vibrant green colour. Pour into a jug and clean the processor bowl. Put the egg yolk, salt, garlic and vinegar into the clean mixer and blend well. With the blade still running pour in the tarragon oil very slowly, until the mixture thickens and emulsifies. When all the oil has been mixed add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Let the mayonnaise down with a little water if too thick. Transfer to a sauce bottle and refrigerate until needed. 

For the sauce, heat a large skillet or saucepan to high and add a little oil. Brown the trimmings well on all sides before adding the leek, shallot, garlic, fennel seeds and herbs and frying until coloured. Carefully add the sherry and burn off the alcohol and then top up with the stock. Reduce right down until left with a thick sauce, about 15-20 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan. 

Heat the frying oil for the ears in a saucepan to 180⁰C. Dry the ear with kitchen roll and slice into thin strips. When the oil is hot carefully lower in the strips and cook for a minute or two until crispy and golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Sprinkle with salt and set aside. 

Fill a saucepan with salted water and bring to the boil. When hot blanch the baby leeks for a minute, then transfer to a large bowl of cold water. When cool, remove and pat dry. Put aside for grilling later.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C. 

When the oven is hot, arrange the black pudding onto a baking tray and drizzle over a little olive oil. Bake in the oven for 4-5 minutes. 

While the black pudding is cooking finish off the other elements of the dish: 

Heat a frying pan to a medium-high temperature and add a little olive oil. When hot add the braised cheeks and cook for 2 minutes on each side until browned. Halfway through cooking add the butter and a good tablespoon of the reduced sauce and baste well. 

Heat a heavy griddle pan to a high temperature. Toss the blanched leeks in a little olive oil. When the griddle is hot sear the leeks for a couple of minutes until the outsides start to blacken. Remove to a plate, season well and squeeze over the lemon juice. 

Reheat the sauce and stir in the butter thoroughly just before serving. 

Gently reheat the beetroot puree. 

To plate up, arrange two pig cheeks onto each plate and three baby leeks around and on top. Spoon a quenelle of the beetroot puree to one side and squeeze some of the mayonnaise around the plate. Scatter on some of the black pudding and crispy ear. Finally spoon over a little of the thick sauce.

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