Winter can sometimes feel like the least generous season for cooks, a barren and lean time of year as we wait patiently for spring to arrive with all its rich bounty and colourful, sprightly ingredients to entice us back into the kitchen. It is, however, the perfect time to indulge in old fashioned, heart-warming dishes designed to keep out the cold and revive flagging spirits and jaded palates during gloomy winter’s days.
Stewing and braising are the basics of good home cooking. Rich comfort food with robust flavours in the shape of pot roasts, casseroles, hot pots and stews, cooked slowly to create memorable dishes with big flavours that are also kind on the purse strings. One of my all time favourites is braised oxtail.
As a kid, my grandmother would often cook oxtail stew and I still have fond memories of sitting around her small dinner table enjoying all those incredibly, intense flavours. I totally understand that with its bony, somewhat ungraceful looks and fatty protruding discs of marrow that oxtails can turn off many home cooks before they even get a second look. But that is a real shame because there’s beautiful meat lurking there somewhere and although it’s similar to short ribs it’s even silkier, tender and more delicious when slowly cooked with just a little patience and love.
With its high ratio of bone to beef, oxtails apparent weakness is actually its towering strength. It’s a guarantee of gelatinous, tender meat coupled with a deep, flavoursome stock to keep out the chill on a winter’s night.
There is a myth that slow cooking is a lot of bother and takes too much time. The reality is that braising underrated, cheaper cuts of meat can be quick and easy to produce, leaving you time to get on with other things while the meat is cooking and tempting you the fabulous aromas that float around the kitchen during the cooking process. Slowly simmering food is off course one of the most ancient forms of cooking. In prehistoric times, meat was boiled in troughs and hot stones were added at regular intervals to keep the water simmering. In the Bronze Age, the arrival of the first cooking pots revolutionised primitive meals, giving the cook more scope to use other ingredients to flavour meat and stocks. Luckily today, we are blessed with far more Ingredients to choose from, but a hearty soup or robust stew makes just as good a meal now as it did then.
BRAISED PIGS’ CHEEKS WITH BLACK OLIVES AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
At our restaurant, we love to slow-cook delicious, tender pork cheeks until they practically melt in your mouth. They are consistently popular with our guests, especially during the winter months when there is a little chill in the air.
12 pigs’ cheeks, trimmed
100ml/3½fl oz/scant ½ cup olive oil
100g/3½oz/¾ cup plain (all-purpose) flour
2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
1l/35fl oz/4¼ cups beef stock (bouillon)
125g/4½oz sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
20 black olives, pitted
10 basil leaves, torn
mashed potatoes or boiled rice, to serve
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the marinade:
500ml/17fl oz/2 cups red wine
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 carrots, chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig rosemary
Place the pigs’ cheeks in a large bowl and add all the ingredients for the marinade. Mix until the meat is coated, then cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, drain the meat (reserving the marinade) and pat dry with paper towels.
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan and brown the pigs’ cheeks on all sides. Stir in the flour and tomato purée (paste), then add the reserved marinade and pour over the beef stock (bouillon). Cover with a lid and simmer very gently for 3 hours. Use a ladle to remove any fat and impurities that rise to the surface during the cooking.
When ready to serve, add the sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and basil leaves. Season to taste and serve with mashed potatoes or boiled rice.
Marc Fosh – Michelin Star Chef