As with so much of what I cook, this is a variation on another recipe: this time it’s on this wonderful offering from Delicious Magazine, for braised pig’s cheeks with caramelised leeks. I demanded the recipe from a friend, immediately after she made it for me when I went to visit. I’ve made it several times and it’s gorgeous. I cook the slow cooker variation given in the recipe, so it requires minimal effort or supervision. It freezes well and despite the perceived wisdom about freezing stuff without adding the cream to a sauce, I’ve tried both ways and it consistently thaws well. For this reason I tend to freeze it with the cream added: it’s not something I usually keep in the fridge so the chances of me having any to add to a defrosted portion would be slim. What you should leave out, if you’re freezing the finished dish, is the mustard because the vinegar interacts with the cream. It’s fine if you do bung it in without thinking but the sauce will ‘split’ a tiny bit as it cools (you’ll see white specks) but just stir/whisk it up when when you reheat it. In any case, I don’t think it affects the flavour or texture in the slightest of the reheated version, although I’d want to do it properly for a dinner party.
I hadn’t ever cooked pork loin steaks in the slow cooker before, but I forgot I had a pack in the fridge, couldn’t freeze them at the stage that I rediscovered them and wanted something that wasn’t going to make them revolting when reheated or dry them out when they cooled. Since I like the liquid bit of the pig’s cheek recipe, I reasoned that it should be possible to do that with the steaks and although I knew they wouldn’t puff up into the little melty bits of deliciousness that are pig’s cheeks, I thought they should taste pretty good.
For some reason, when I went out in search of leeks, not a leek could there be found. That’s probably not true, but I am not prepared to become the woman that drives around town at 10 p.m. in search of leeks: life is really too short. (True story: last Christmas my daughter witnessed a woman having a full-on, sobbing meltdown in the local supermarket because “the turkeys [were] all wrong“! I bet she drives around hunting for leeks and she didn’t seem very happy…)
Finally I settled on 3 large white onions and a few sticks of celery, to mimic the greener bits of the leek. I’m really not a fan of celery, having been practically force-fed the stuff raw as an anaemic teenager, but I’ve learned that it has its place and that if you chop it small enough and cook it then it doesn’t taste like death. (I planned to add the rest of the fennel bulb as well, but forgot. I’ll have to find something else to use that up.) I couldn’t get any fresh thyme either, but had some dried and just added that instead. You lose the texture of cooking with the fresh herbs, and a little flavour, but it’s a perfectly acceptable substitution.
Other than adding more wine when the level of liquid was a bit low to cover the meat, which should always be covered, I followed the method and ingredients for the recipe above. The celery cooks down a lot more than the leeks would have done, so having strained out the bulk of the veg to go with the meat, I now have plenty (about 500ml) of the delicately-flavoured sauce to add to other stuff (if I just grill or roast a chop, for example) and five portions of chops to freeze until I need them. I’m thinking of thickening the sauce before I freeze it, or may experiment on the smaller portions, so it can be used like a gravy for pork. Given how easy it is to dry out a chop, if you stop paying attention, I can see this becoming a go-to disaster-recovery solution.
Make that four portions, now I think of it, since I had one tonight. This meal works well when you make a lovely, creamy mash to go with it but I had that the other night so didn’t want to do that again. It’s also nice with any kind of rice, but I didn’t fancy that either. During one of my recent forays into Pinterest, I saw something that reminded me that once upon a time, cooking potatoes in their jackets and then roasting them was the done thing. Having remembered that this existed, I thought it was a good way to use up some pathetically-small potatoes that wouldn’t be up to much once peeled and that it would go nicely with the casserole. Having a legitimate excuse to squish veg with a can or something heavy is always fun, too, so I did that.
I took 4 small (about golf ball-sized) white potatoes and boiled them in their jackets until a skewer went cleanly to the centre. You want them cooked but not so much so that you get mushy potato or the skin splits. Do that and when you bash them they’re liable to shoot lava-like potato into every corner of your kitchen. The starch in the potato will make it set like concrete in the bits that you miss as you wearily clean up and you’ll have to try and chip them off with a knife later, which is hard work. Better to not go down that route and go with ever-so-slightly undercooked – just enough so that the time in the oven will finish it off and cook it through. Nobody likes roast potato with an undercooked centre.
Once I was happy that I’d got there (maybe 15/20 mins in a small, covered pan of boiling water; I wasn’t really paying attention) I drained them and set them onto a piece of kitchen paper to dry off, turning once so the skins didn’t have any water on them as it evaporated quickly. I then put one potato at a time onto a small piece of baking parchment and folded the excess over the top. [NB. The recipe method I followed says to do 2 sheets and lay them all out but since it takes just a second to do the next stage I thought of the planet and did it my way, using far less paper. You could, if doing this with kids or maybe as a group of students, get a little production line going with one person crushing, one person transferring them to the sheet and someone else doing the oil and seasoning – it’s really quick.]
Then came the fun bit. I could probably have just used a potato masher but there’s not really any fun in that, so I grabbed a tin of baked beans from the cupboard and with one swift thunk, squashed the potato neatly between the paper, to the required thickness (1.5-2 c.m. is fine) and then transferred it to a metal tray, using a fish slice so it didn’t break apart.
Rather than drizzle them with oil, I brushed each potato with olive oil and then ground a little black pepper over each one and a tiny amount of sea salt. The recipe says to cook them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. Checking the conversion chart (because I learn from my mistakes) that’s about 230C, which is hotter than I’d go even to cook frozen oven roasties in a fan oven, so I decided to go my own way again on this one. Most ready meals (trays of roasties etc.) need cooking at between 190C – 200C in a fan oven, so I decided to set the oven to 190C and check after 20 minutes. I was right to go for the lower temperature: my reticence to go too hot was because I know from experience that if fat gets on the top-mounted elements of the little oven it smokes and makes the house smell, which isn’t pleasant, although it doesn’t affect the food. I don’t usually roast things with added oil in there for that reason, but it was fine. The smell about 3 minutes before the timer signalled the end of cooking, told me that 200C was slightly too hot so another time I’ll just maintain it at 190C until it’s done.
My ‘little’ oven is actually a combined fan oven/microwave/grill that sits on the wall. It’s far cheaper to program it to an exact temperature and time than it is to get the gas oven to temperature and cook the same thing. For that reason, I tend to use it on a daily basis and keep the main oven for days when I’m batch cooking. (I was lucky enough to get mine from my lovely home insurance after my then thirteen year-old daughter microwaved a pizza on a metal rack for 15 minutes and filled the kitchen with acrid smoke. She likes it when I tell people about that, but she did learn from her mistake and hasn’t done it since.) Protip: these often come up in places like Lidl or the large supermarkets and they don’t always have microwaves built in so can be bought for about £30. Just search for mini oven or tabletop oven and you’ll find lots in a range of prices for all budgets.
Another 20 minutes later (for the final 6 of which I increased the temperature to 200C) and they were done to crispy perfection. Not the flashest food, but easy and a good way to use up the small potatoes you seem to get a lot of in the bags of cheap ones. If I’d had a different variety of potato, I might have been able to get them a bit crisper and fluffier but these were very tasty: a nice combination of the skin from an oven-baked potato, combined with the lovely fluffy mash you get in a roast potato, with crispy edges. Not something I’d usually bother to cook for myself in terms of how long it took (an hour, all in) but it did require minimal attention while it cooked and I could see this recipe being replicable on a campfire. As the recipe says, you can stick these in the fridge after the smashing stage, so it’s easy enough to do half of it in advance. Since boiled potato freezes well, I don’t see why you couldn’t quickly cool the smashed spuds, put them on a tray in the freezer and then transfer to a container or bag when frozen, so they don’t clump together and are easy to retrieve as you need them. I don’t know whether freezing would affect the skin upon roasting so I’ll have to give that a try and see how I get on.
Provided you keep an eye on the potatoes I can’t see that you could easily mess them up. The pig’s cheeks with leek recipe at the top of the page is also well worth trying. Each cheek costs about 60p and you can buy them (they’re from free-ranging pigs, too) from the fresh meat counter in Waitrose, or they will order them in if you ask. Don’t be deterred by the name, they’re just a little-known cut of meat which Nigel Slater tells me usually goes to make pork mince. I’m definitely going to try his recipe as well, just as soon as I’ve ordered some in.
Update: Well, as is so often the way with these things, today I ended up in Waitrose with my dad, since I’m doing roast chicken, all the trimmings and two desserts for 9 people on Sunday for family birthdays. Once I had assured the student on the butcher’s counter that pig’s cheeks really were a thing and they honestly did sell them, I asked her to check the fridges. They often have a couple on display but if you’re buying any number you want them the way they arrive in store: vacuum packed in 500g bags. I got a kilo for £4.49, and there will be about a dozen all in. Now I’ll go and check that recipe and order anything I need so that I can make it properly. I don’t always wing it.