Pig (or pork) cheeks seem to have become a trendy ingredient over the last couple of years. I'm a long way from trendy, but I have to admit that they’re a fine cut of meat. As long as they’re cooked slowly and gently, they’re meltingly tender and full of flavour. For the moment at least, they’re also reasonably cheap. In fact, they can be a bit of a bargain. Most of the dishes using cheeks that I've come across recently have been based on traditional European slow braised recipes and there's nothing wrong with that. If you fancy something a bit different, though, I've found that cheeks work well in spicier dishes.
Despite what might seem like a lot of ingredients this is actually a midweek, standby sort of recipe, assuming that you have enough time to let it simmer away slowly. Apart from the cheeks and the squash, everything can come out of the store cupboard or freezer and it’s not only very simple to put together but it will also cook gently while you get on with something useful or diverting.
Actually, this is a simplified and quick version of the way I learned to make a Madras curry in the remote past. The Madras is a very flexible restaurant institution, so who cares about a little extra variation? I've given a simple spice mix here, but you could use a Madras curry powder instead to make the whole thing even easier still.
With a little rice or flat breads of some kind, this will serve 2 people.
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp chilli powder (or more, if you like it hot)
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp garam marsala
Seeds of 4 cardamom pods, crushed
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green pepper, deseeded and chopped into small dice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp tomato purée
280 g (or thereabouts) pig cheek – trim off any large bits of fat or membrane but leave whole
400 g tin tomatoes
200 ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon ground almonds
½ butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into cubes (other types of squash would do)
A few green beans or peas, if you have some – frozen or fresh (optional)
2 handfuls of fresh spinach, or use some frozen spinach
A few leaves of coriander, chopped (you could use frozen chopped coriander too)
1 tsp lemon juice (optional)
Soften the onion and green pepper slowly in a little oil. If they start to dry out and catch, then add a little water. Once softened, stir in the garlic and continue to cook gently for a couple of minutes. Add the tomato purée, the spice mix (or curry powder) and a couple of tablespoonfuls of water and stir together well. Let the mixture cook gently until the water has evaporated. Turn up the heat a little and add the pig cheeks. Stir them around in the mixture for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes, the chicken stock and the ground almonds. Bring slowly to the boil, turn the heat to low, cover the pan and let it simmer very gently for a couple of hours. Ideally, every twenty minutes or so, turn the pig’s cheeks and give the mixture a quick stir.
While that’s cooking, coat the cubes of squash lightly in oil and roast in the oven at 180°C until soft and starting to brown around the edges. This will take roughly 20 to 30 minutes but could vary a fair bit. Cook the beans or peas in a little boiling water, if you’re using them.
At the end of the 2 hours, the cheeks should be very tender but not falling apart and the mixture should have thickened a little. If the sauce is still a little too liquid for your taste, then remove the lid, take the cheeks out, turn up the heat and reduce the liquid until you’re happy. Stir in the cooked squash and beans or peas. Add the spinach and cover the pan again. Cook gently until the spinach has wilted and the squash is heated through.
Add the lemon juice if you think it needs it – that will probably depend on the sweetness and ripeness of the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the coriander just before serving.