There are many undervalued cuts of meat that deserve more attention, not least because they can be cost-effective and versatile. Emma Allen explores options that, with a bit of thought and the right cooking method, will sit well on any menu
Premium meat cuts, such as sirloin or lamb cutlets, have long been associated with a quality food offering, but in a growing number of fine-dining restaurants you're just as likely to see pigs' trotters or lamb shank among the menu choices.
It's a sign that, these days, less fashionable or more unusual cuts of meat are starting to get the attention they deserve. Often simply requiring longer, slower cooking times than more expensive varieties, secondary cuts such as brisket, blade or belly can be rich in flavour and versatile and can make a cost-effective option on a menu.
Pork belly is one example of a cheaper cut that's won favour with chefs and diners alike, says Tony Goodger, food service trade manager at the British Pig Executive. "Once considered a ‘Cinderella' cut, belly pork has been steadily gaining in popularity," he says. "It can be cooked in a whole range of different ways: grilled, barbecued or roasted, plus it's tasty and excellent value for money."
At the recently opened Tom's Kitchen in London, head chef Ollie Couillaud's menu features classic comfort-food dishes using cheaper cuts suitable for braising and roasting. A popular seller is a main of pork belly, using the Middle White breed, served simply with caramelised apple and mashed potato. For best results, Couillaud recommends roasting the belly overnight. "It takes about eight hours on a very low heat, around 60°C, but the meat stays fantastically moist because it's so fatty," he enthuses. "You also get a fantastic flavour, and if you give the belly a blast of around 300°C for about 5-6 minutes, then turn it right down low for the rest, you get the bonus of extra-crispy crackling."
For Jake Platt, head chef at the Albion pub and dining rooms in Bristol, using less fashionable cuts such as pork cheek is a cost-efficient way to create interesting flavours on the menu. "We'll get five portions of chaps from one cheek, so it's very economical. There's also a sense that you're not wasting the animal, by using as much of it as possible."
The trick, he says, is to brine the meat first. "We brine all our pork, even pork belly, in a big brining pot, as it gives a lovely hammy texture and a fantastic flavour," explains Platt. "The cheeks take around eight hours to cook, and then it's just a question of cooking them down with a good vegetable stock, wine and spices, removing the skin and rolling in clingfilm to cool." Pan-frying, he says, gives the meat extra flavour. "It's all kept quite simple. We serve the Bath chaps as a starter, with either onion purée, a poached duck egg or crab meat and a crab bisque."
Platt buys already-split pig heads for about £2 each and, as well as the cheek, he uses the meat around the head - "extremely succulent and a lot leaner than you'd expect" - mixed with capers and hard-boiled eggs and herbs, to make pork burgers. These are then served as a hearty brunch dish, accompanied by deep-fried crispy pigs' ears that he simply dusts in seasoned flour before frying.
He points out that preparing and cooking cuts such as cheek or knuckle can take time. "The results are worthwhile, but it can be a lot of effort and you do need chefs who know what they're doing," he says. Making sure front of house sells these sorts of dishes in the right way is also important: "If you go out there and announce we're serving pig's head served with fried ears, nobody's going to go for it."
For that reason, it's well worth emphasising provenance to customers, says Hugh Judd, food service project manager for the English Beef and Lamb Executive. "It's important to be able to reassure customers on the traceability and provenance of meat when offering more unusual dishes like oxtail, shin or mutton," he explains.
While some cuts, like brisket, or tougher parts such as neck or clod might require extra preparation and careful treatment, some chefs think they can actually work out to be a time-saver in a busy kitchen. "It just takes a bit of organisation," explains Louis Solley, head chef at Hilliard, a gastro-café in London's Square Mile that serves mainly braised dishes, stews and slow-roasts. "The main advantage is you don't have to worry about cooking to order or getting it just right, because you've already done the work and the meat's cooked. They'll also happily sit for one or two hours, too, and this can intensify the flavour," he adds.
Other meat cuts favoured by Solley include rabbit legs, braised in stock, and oxtail - "totally underrated but perfect for rich stews" - which he cooks slowly for 4-5 hours in stock and red wine.
Terrines, made with ham hock or pigs' knuckles, are made by simmering them gently for seven hours. Solley uses the stock to make the jelly, and sets them with lots of chopped parsley and tiny diced carrot pieces, or for a "very simple, unpretentious dish" he simply shreds the meat and mixes it with Puy lentils.
Chicken dishes are also kept simple, either braising the legs in lemon oil and herbs or braising in quarters with flageolet beans and Gironde mushrooms. "You can get fantastic flavour out of chicken, and it doesn't take as long to cook, maybe only an hour or so. But the meat can get tough if it sits for too long," he says.
Solley, like Platt, also thinks the cheeks of a beast are woefully underrated. "In France they're very popular and cheeks are the traditional cut to use in stews and daubes, but even though it's now getting much easier to buy them, they're hardly used in the UK," he says. He recommends using veal cheek, simmered for about two hours. "The meat's unbelievably tender. As it's quite rich, a little goes a long way, especially if you're serving them with a thick jus and something like pommes dauphinois, so they work out to be wonderfully cheap, too."
Combining value-added cuts with premium cuts - serving scallops with black pudding, for example - is becoming increasingly popular and is another way to keep costs relatively low. "The trick is to serve customers a small portion of the premium cut along with a mini-portion of a dish which makes use of a cheaper cut - like a beef fillet with an oxtail or chuck dish, or a lamb canon with navarin of lamb or mini-shepherd's pie," says Judd. "The contrast of flavours and textures in these ‘rich man, poor man' dishes complement each other perfectly and look fantastic when plated up."
Another combination he likes is venison and pork. "I always use very lean venison and then I'll put something fatty with it, like pig's tail or belly. The two textures really play off each other and as a whole dish it works perfectly," he says. "Hindquarters of the animal can be salted and hung for venison ‘Parma ham', or neck of venison is also very good braised, served in a light jus with bay leaves and juniper."
At the Michelin-starred Olive Branch pub in Rutland, chef-owner Sean Hope buys whole animals and does his own butchery on site, which allows him to use as much of each animal as possible.
A whole Herdwick lamb, for example, costs him £120, and Hope uses the belly to make rillette terrine, with shallot, pine nuts, rosemary and garlic, served with tzatziki as a light starter. He says: "We get around 40 portions of that from a lamb, and then you can use the other cuts, like legs, for Sunday lunch, or shoulders for braising."
From his Middle White pigs, Hope even makes his own pork scratchings. "They're so easy to make and you're getting all that fantastic flavour just under the skin. All you have to do is score the skin with a razor blade and bake for 90 minutes on about 180Â°C. The punters can't get enough of them."
Hope has recently introduced weekly food tastings for staff so they can try out dishes for themselves - a move that has brought real benefit, he says. "It's brought the kitchen and front-of-house teams closer together. I want front of house to be proud of the food we serve, and trying out these foods for themselves helps get past any preconceived ideas and, in turn, inspire our customers."
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