Pork cheeks used to be an affordable and inexpensive cut of meat but during the last eight to 10 years, they have been popularised by many top chefs and today they are a fashionable ingredient.

Cheeks are particularly flavourful, but they are not readily available and need to be ordered from a good butcher. Raw pork cheeks are fibrous and marbled but when they are cooked very slowly at a low temperature for a long time, the meat becomes tender and moist with minimum effort and it can even be cut easily with a fork. Cooking cheeks in the same way as pork fillet or loin will result in dry and stringy meat.

You can marinade the pork cheeks for a minimum of two hours or overnight and although this does not tenderise the cheeks, it adds flavour to the prepared dish. Slow cooking helps to break down the connective tissue in the pork cheeks as the collagen is converted to gelatine, resulting in meat that is juicy and succulent.

Amatriciana with guanciale

You will need:
100g guanciale
120g braised and pre-cooked pork cheeks
50g fresh sausage made from pork cheeks*
500g fresh tomatoes
A glass of wine
1 no-additive stock cube mixed with 100ml water
1 tbsp tomato paste
A bay leaf
A pinch of dried chili flakes
Salt and pepper
A pinch of stevia
150g pecorino
500g pasta of your choice

Wash the tomatoes and chop into small cubes leaving the skin on. Keep aside.

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Drain the cooked pasta in a colander and save some pasta water to add to the sauce if it is too dry.

In the meantime, cut a thick slice of guanciale and then chop it up into cubes.

Heat the pan with no oil and then fry the guanciale. Break up the cooked pork cheeks by pulling it apart with a fork. When the guanciale is cooked, add the sausage meat and stir. When it browns, add the pulled pork cheeks.

Add the chopped fresh tomatoes, then the wine and turn the heat down. Allow to cook for 5 minutes then add the stock, bayleaf and chili flakes. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the tomatoes start to soften up. Add the tomato paste and if necessary add some pasta water to bring it to the right consistency. Do not let it dry up. The sauce will start to thicken. Season with salt and pepper and add a pinch of stevia to balance the acidity.

Add the sauce to the pasta and mix gently. If the sauce is too dry, keep adding the pasta water, a spoonful at a time. Serve in individual plates and top with freshly grated pecorino.

Authentic amatriciana only contains five ingredients which are the pasta, tomatoes, guanciale and pecorino. It contains no onions or garlic. The addition of chopped braised pork cheeks in this sauce and a small amount of pork cheek sausage which you can order from a specialist butcher enhances the consistency and flavour of this simple yet amazing sauce.

Use gluten-free pasta for a gluten-free recipe. This recipe is lactose-free, dairy-free and nut-free.

Seared and slow roasted pork cheek

You will need:
4 pork cheeks
½ onion
¼ tsp grated lemon zest
2 cloves garlic
1 glass sherry
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp honey
½ tsp fresh grated ginger
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 cups stock made with a natural stock cube
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Make the marinade by grating the garlic and placing it in a bowl. Add the honey, soy sauce, sherry, lemon zest.  Finely chop the onion and add it to the bowl.

Place the pork cheeks in the marinade and cover the bowl. Refrigerate for at least an hour before cooking but preferably overnight.

Heat the olive oil in a pan and sear the pork cheeks on very high heat until both sides are browned. Remove from the pan. Lower the heat and add the marinade and the stock. Place the pork cheeks in the liquid, add the bay leaf and simmer on low heat for half an hour. Preheat the oven to 160°C.  Transfer the pork cheeks to an oven proof dish lined with foil as the consistency tends to become sticky. Seal the dish with tin foil. Cook in the oven slowly for 3 hours. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Serve with rice or quinoa.

Braised pork cheeks in ragu sauce

You will need:
4 pork cheeks
2 large carrots
1 large courgette
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
150ml wine
400g canned chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp fresh herbs
1 all natural stock cube
100g guanciale
1/8 tsp fresh turmeric
A pinch of stevia
salt and pepper to season
1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 150°C.

Peel the onion, courgette and carrots. Dice the vegetables and keep aside. Peel and mince the garlic. Chop the fresh herbs and grate the fresh turmeric. Cut the guanciale into small cubes.

Heat the olive oil in large pot over high heat. Add the pork cheeks and brown the surface on both sides to seal the meat. Remove from the pan and leave aside.

In the same pot add the chopped guanciale. Cook for a few minutes on low heat, then add the garlic and the onions. Stir and then add the carrots and courgette and stir again. Lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the wine, tinned tomatoes, turmeric and fresh herbs. Stir, then season with salt and pepper and add a pinch of stevia. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the browned pork cheeks and coat with the sauce. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Turn off the heat, season with salt and pepper and cover the pot. Place it in the oven. Allow the pork to cook slowly in the oven for 3 hours. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve the pork cheeks with spaghetti or mashed potato.

Lea’s Good Food Everyday airs in English on Smash TV every Friday. You can follow Lea’s blog on www.goodfoodeveryday.wordpress.com and find more of her recipes on www.timesofmalta.com

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