‘Audubon’ turns the other cheek
I abhor waste – and, more than anything, I abhor wasted food. Nothing is more irritating to me than leftovers not used up, produce gone off, or a mistake in the kitchen than renders a dish inedible. Part of this is probably just an excessive attachment to good eating, but I like to think that my anger is at least partially righteous – the consequence of taking seriously the exercise of good stewardship over creation.
However accurate my self-analysis, it is true that the gift of food should not be wasted – Tupperware has an ethical dimension when used as intended. The reduction of waste extends, however, beyond using up leftovers. We must also, insofar as our constitution allows, attempt to eat as much as possible of each animal that we have been given for food. And so a certain adventurousness in consuming less popular parts should be encouraged.
For many, some of the more unusual things that come under the general description of offal will be unpalatable. Kidney and liver are fairly mainstream; and tripe is well-loved in certain parts of the country. But for many, eating even these may seem more like a penance than anything else. Now the cheek of the animal, being part of the head, is strictly in the category of offal. But unlike the more strongly flavoured organs, the taste is comparable to a prime cut. They are often discarded or minced, however, for want of imagination or willingness to tackle an unusual ingredient.
The pig cheek is, for example, a much underrated item. It is a well-worked and well-developed muscle with plenty of gelatinous fat, which therefore requires a long slow braise to get the best out of it. As with any casseroled dish, the essential step for the best flavour is the browning of the meat in a frying pan before cooking in liquid. Called the Maillard reaction, after the Frenchman who first described it, this first step must not be rushed. Try replacing half the oil with butter for an even better result.
Next, deglaze the frying pan with cider (the more alcoholic the better the flavour, I find) and then add to the casserole, along with root vegetables tossed in seasoned flour and some herbs – try a mixture of sage, rosemary, and thyme. If you include potatoes, you have a meal in one pot.
Ox cheeks respond well to similar treatment. Red wine is a rather obvious choice in which to cook them, however – any dark beer, especially in the stout style, is a good variation. But why not try using white wine, as in the traditional ragu bolognese? Choose something fairly dry and the acidity will balance nicely the unctuousness of the cheek.
After the initial browning, and having removed the cheeks, lower the heat and add a little extra fat to the pan. Pop in a carrot, a stick of celery, and a medium onion all finely chopped: soffritto or mirepoix, depending on whether you prefer Italian or French in the kitchen. Once the onion and celery are translucent but not browned (about 10 minutes of gentle sweating) add this to the pot, together with some chopped tomatoes. Deglaze the pan with white wine, and add a touch of chicken stock if more liquid seems necessary. After three hours, the result will be full of flavour, warm, and comforting – but without being overpoweringly heavy. Like pig cheeks (and any stew) leftovers the next day are, if anything, tastier.
Cod cheeks, on the other hand, require an entirely different approach. They are tender and, with just a little cooking, will melt in the mouth. If you don’t have a deep fryer plumbed in (not every home does, after all) and can’t face either the bother or the risk of deep frying on the stove, why not try oven cod-cheek scampi?
For a crispy finish the trick is to use “panko” breadcrumbs. These are a Japanese ingredient, made from bread without crusts, dried more thoroughly and evenly than is possible at home. The product is ground in a way that results in slivers rather than dust, and does not absorb as much fat as a normal breadcrumb. All this means crispy results without deep frying (although they respond excellently to this treatment, too). They are available not just from specialist Asian shops, but from the larger supermarkets as well.
Combine the panko with just enough melted butter to make a mixture that will stick, and season and then coat the cheeks as evenly as possible (remember to dry them in kitchen towel first). Heat a lined baking tray in a hot (220 ºC) oven and cook them for about 10 minutes – watch carefully so as not to burn them. Serve with chips, boiled peas, and tartare sauce. The crispiness won’t keep, so make sure you clear your plate quickly!