Cheek to Cheek

One of the best things about moving to coastal Suffolk (and working with a curious, conscientious fish supplier) is the real variety of seafood on offer. Up to last year I’d barely cooked more than mackerel, bass and bream, with the seasonal additions of mussels or sardines; now we regularly use sand soles, gurnard, cod and monkfish cheeks, octopus and clams, thick slices of dogfish or turbot, our own salted hake and ling. Not, of course, that these are all from round these parts – cephalapods might come from Cornwall, salmon from Scotland, while the vast shoals of herring which sustained Lowestoft and Yarmouth have moved on to other waters – but the interest which people have in seafood, and the extent to which it has formed part of the local cuisine, is always evident; there is, for example, a biennial herring festival in Halesworth – a small inland town on a trickle of a river.

People, as I think I’ve mentioned before, make a lot of fuss about cooking fish. The angst of a crispy skin & juicy flesh! Rick Stein, with his hot pokers and his face, only helps to obscure the point, which is that all you have to do to cook fish is cook it – until it’s cooked. Fish skin, like potatoes and totally unlike the muscle of land animals, has the capacity to be taken gently from cold to brown without suffering for it. Do that to a steak and you will have a weeping grey mass – you will be a weeping grey mass; do it to a neatly-trimmed fillet of good, fresh sea bream and you will have a perfectly cooked piece of fish which only needs a brief rest on its cut side before proceeding to the plate, with the added bonus that you can, in the intervening time, see exactly what is happening to that flaked white muscle. I’m repeating myself, however.

Browning seafood without that nice, protective skin, is to be fair, a slightly more difficult proposition – but that’s only to say it’s slightly more difficult than shooting sleepy sea urchins in a wide-topped bucket. In the case, say, of scallops or of cod cheeks, you should put on a frying pan, wide enough to take the seafood in a single layer with about a centimetre in between each piece, and leave it to get extremely hot – slightly hotter than you think is sensible. Make sure each cheeky little nugget is nice and dry. Add some oil, add some coarse sea salt, add the (for the sake of argument) cod cheeks, and then leave them where they are; leave them until they are pretty much cooked through, which you can tell by the pearlescent sheen and beads of moisture which appear on top of the cheeks. Flip each cheek, one by one, then take off the heat and add a spoon of butter. When it stops sizzling, they’re done. See! That was easy. Serve with a salsa verde AND some aioli, if you’re feeling frivolous. Very cold white wine, good bread and butter – dinner.

Tongue & Cheek

In the rather macho world of nose-to-tail eating, there is, I think, some confusion as to what is being propounded – a confusion which can easily put off interested newcomers. Offal is never going to become big business – even when you get past the idea that you are eating a specific, named organ with specific functions, there is still that taste to contend with, that weird, ferric tang, as well as the texture, a dense sponginess that makes it quite hard to cook, responding to heat differently than muscle fibre. I love offal, but I can see why people don’t – and some vaguely ethical idea about eating ‘the whole beast’ is not going to convince them otherwise. It’s no less ethical to feed the weird bits to dogs.

At the other end of the ‘variety meat’ spectrum, though, you have perfectly meaty cuts of meat which we, as a culture, have simply fallen out of the habit of using, cuts which maybe take a little more time or effort to prepare but which are, if anything, more delicious than their more familiar neighbours. It wasn’t that long ago that pork belly fell into this category – look at the first Nose To Tail Eating, published in ’99, and you can find good old St Fergus preaching its virtues as if for the first time – and now it is everywhere, the go-to pork cut for gastropub and restaurant alike. Brisket, thanks largely to the American barbecue craze, is making similar headway, and we are getting more used to ‘difficult’ steak cuts (bavette, flat-iron, onglet) that require more careful cooking than the bleeding/shrivelled dichotomy of old. I think the slightly dubious ‘ethical’ aspect of nose-to-tail has more weight here – you don’t have a responsibility to eat things you hate, but it is irresponsible to ignore cuts of meat that are cheaper, tastier and often healthier, simply because you don’t know what to do with them. With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions.

OX TONGUE, BREAD, GREEN SAUCE

While in Sicily, I saw, but never got the chance to eat at, a restaurant called Casa Del Brodo, which specialised in tortellini cooked in a rich meat broth (brodo). Presumably to supply adequate quantities of this broth, they also seemed to specialise in simply boiled meat dishes, generally beef or veal, and generally served with green sauce. Having been denied this pleasure, I ordered a brined ox tongue from the butcher when I got back. To cook the tongue, simply poach it with a few stock vegetables until very tender – it’ll take about 3 and a half hours – and then peel it as soon as it’s cool enough to handle. Then do as I did, and follow Fergus Henderson’s excellent recipe, which can be found here. A tongue is still obviously a tongue when you acquire it, and might induce some squeamishness, but the meat is firm, tender, lean and delicious, like a perfection of corned beef. We also ate the broth, with some macaroni and a few veg cooked in it, as a starter. A meat based meal that was clean and simple.

BRAISED OX CHEEK WITH SHERRY & ORANGE

This is quite different, a ridiculously rich and beefy concoction. It requires a couple of days planning, for the brining.

STEP 1

1 fat ox cheek

75g sea salt

50g caster sugar

a few cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 clove of garlic

Put all the ingredients except the cheek in a pan with 500ml of water, bring to a boil (making sure your sugar and salt are dissolved) then cool completely. Put the cheek in a Tupperware box or similar, pour over the cold brine, cover – you might need to weigh the cheek down so he’s covered completely – and stick in the fridge. Leave for 3 days or so, turning once or twice.

STEP 2

2 onions, finely sliced

1 celery stick, finely diced

1 carrot, finely diced

2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

1 orange, juice and a couple of strips of zest

1 cinnamon stick

a little bundle of thyme

a few bay leaves

250 ml of sherry – something sticky and dark, not leftover Bristol Cream

a splash of sherry vinegar

Put the oven on low – gas mark 1-and-a-halfish, about 150 Celsius, whatever that is in Fahrenheit. Sweat the veg with a little oil in a casserole until they are really soft, which will take a while. Remove your cheek from its holding tank, rinse and dry, then brown in a frying pan over a fairly fierce heat. Put the cheek to one side, deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar, and pour the juices in with the veg. Assuming they are now soft and golden, tuck in the zest, herbs and cinnamon (tied in a little bundle if you can be bothered), then pour in the orange juice and sherry. Reduce until the liquid is pretty syrupy, then sit the cheek on the onions and pour over enough water to nearly cover (see Fergus Henderson’s alligator-in-the-swamp principle). It shouldn’t need any seasoning, thanks to its briny days. Bring up to a simmer again, whack on the lid and put in the oven. Leave for about 6 hours. Take it out and poke with a spoon. If you can poke through it, it’s ready.

STEP 3

This is entirely up to you. You could cut the whole cheek into a few happy chunks, sit them on some mashed potato and serve with greens; you could do the same with pools of cheesy polenta and some bitter raw leaves, lurking with anchovies. I shredded it up, left it overnight, and did this –

CASARECCE WITH OX CHEEK RAGU & TALEGGIO

for 2

half your ragu

200g casarecce

75g taleggio, diced

flatleaf parsley, chopped

a knob of butter

a splash of extra virgin olive oil

reheat the ragu with a splash of water in a small pan. In another, bigger pan, cook the pasta in only lightly salted boiling water. Have everything else ready to go, as well as some arrangement for catching the pasta water, so you can work quickly. When the pasta is just cooked, drain, then put back in the pan. Let it steam for a second, then add the cheese, the butter, and the oil; stir, melt, add the hot ragu and a couple of tablespoons of your pasta water (I told you!), stir, add the parsley and some pepper, tip onto hot plates (I should have mentioned that) and serve with a little salad of broad beans, rocket and capers, dressed with vinaigrette and lemon zest, which hopefully someone else will have prepared while you were messing around with pasta.