Friday morning and up well before 06h00 to prepare and cook Pig’s Cheeks so we have special dinner when our boys and a school friend come home tonight – and we return from a very cold East Sussex. Follow the thread and all this will fit together. (Getting up early to cook pig’s cheeks was all true and I’d thank a reader not to send this to Pseud’s Corner).
The Pig Cheeks – fresh and plump off a good sized head are cooked as follows. Onions in quarters and quartered again are sautéed in duck fat with garlic, carrots and pancetta. The cheeks are floured and browned separately. They then go with the vegetables into a big old Le Creuset – quarters of small turnip (navets) are added, as is a sprig of dried wild origano, then a bottle of Verdicchio and much the same volume of clear fresh chicken stock – up to the boil and immediately drop the flame and place into the oven at 160°C for an hour or thereabouts so as to gently braise under a double greaseproof paper cartouche and heavy lid.
This is an inexpensive dish – the 15 cheeks and Verdicchio together gave change from £10 – the rest was in the ‘fridge.
Out of the oven and onto the top to sit and cool. I love it when old Le Creuset’s deepen in colour when hot from the oven.
Cook and partner head for the train to Sussex to rendezvous with others for a dear friend’s village funeral. This was Katie Stewart, the food & cookery writer who passed away suddenly on the morning of January 13. The funeral was appropriately and deliberately held on Burn’s Night for a lady so proud of her Scottish roots.
There I stop because I have a celebratory piece on Katie’s life I’m yet to write. I’d planned when we last spoke for an informal interview over lunch together in London this Spring for my Food Heroes series. Now I have to write from memories – from those of others who knew and worked with Katie, as well as my own thoughts and reflections.
Back by early evening to No 19, a table laid and re-heated Pig’s Cheeks at centre stage We care greatly for the sense of the French way of serving something sharp and pickled with braised and long cooked meats – eg Cornichons with a Pot au Feu or Boeuf Gros Sel. Closer to home, pickled red cabbage was traditionally served in Lancashire with their Hot Pot, Cottage and Shepherd’s Pies.
I am the man who has taken Pickled Walnuts to Malmèdy, Paris, Étrètat and, most recently, Genoa. I was the 8/9 year old who would help his Welsh Grandma pickle green walnuts and then pretend I was a serious smoker at school as my fingers would be yellow’d as if from nicotine for days afterwards from pricking the fruit.
The choice for the braise of cheeks (les joues de porc) was easy. Fiddlehead Ferns being saved for a special occasion – you know ‘special occasion’? It’s all so often the occasion that never comes or is considered fine enough for the best porcelain and glassware – I grew up with this nonsense and decided to cut through and make most meals ‘special occasions’ – much like my interview with Katie that is never now to happen.
Last night’s supper was a meal Katie would almost certainly have loved – a meal where the cook transforms simple ingredients into something really special. This is Blue Collar Gastronomy. At table we talked about Katie and more. These pickled Fiddleheads had been a present from a good friend, she being one of the writer friends we’d been with earlier. She brought them back for us in her luggage from a farmers’ market away in Maine where she was visiting family.
The Fiddleheads are the top of the fern taken in the Spring as the plant comes back alive from over-wintering. Pesticide spraying has greatly reduced their availability in the US, explained our friend.
So it all fitted to make a special occasion last evening - the cheeks, the friendships, the family and the pickled fiddleheads. And so to sleep replete.