Paprika pork with clams

Among British home cooks there is, I think, an increasing understanding of the different meat cuts, and how we should cook them. This is in part due to a trend over recent years of promoting “low and slow” cooking — for pulled pork, brisket and so on.

We’re now accustomed to being told that hard-working meats, full of intramuscular fat, sinew and knotted protein, should be cooked gently over a long period of time to ensure they fall apart at the touch of a fork, oozing juices and gelatine at the same time. Think, in this instance, of pork butt, neck, hock and belly; beef shin and flank; lamb shoulder and breast.

By contrast, lazy (and lean) cuts should be cooked as quick as possible, with high heat to char the edges whilst the tender insides remain almost raw. Loin, fillets, and “best end” are the prime bits that need only a brief introduction to a heat source.

As with all seemingly simple solutions, however, the more you look into the detail, the more you realise that the simple solution is inevitably inadequate; here, there are many cuts of meats that can be cooked both ways.

Featherblade steak, for example, is the cut used for a daube of beef, and should be gently stewed or braised for best results … unless of course it’s cut thin and cooked rare, or even chopped into a raw tartare.

Pork collar is another case in point. This is something butchers can ‘seam’ whole from the base of a pig’s neck. It may be the hardest working muscle on a pig — which of course spend their life, neck down, snuffling around the ground or trough for food. As such the (tough) muscle protein is intensely coloured and flavoured, and it’s rippled with rivers of fat. So, ordinarily, collar is normally something used for stews, minced or roasted whole, very slowly. Yet, cut thick across the grain, and given the right treatment, pork collar can make rib-eye quality steaks too. Cooked relatively quickly to the equivalent of medium-rare (so that the middle is still rouge, but the fat has rendered) they’re tender, luscious, and so full of flavour.

They can only be treated like steaks, though, if the sinewy, tough protein has been broken down before hand. Marinades can work (the proteinase in pineapple and papaya juices are particular effective), but I’m a fan of salt — a brine helps to break down the protein in advance, and makes that faster cook possible. It also provides an opportunity to subtly push seasoning and aromatics into the meat.

I used the brining technique for recent recipe attached to my latest Borough Market ‘Spice Series’ piece: paprika pork with clams. This is my interpretation of a Portuguese dish: “Carne de porco à Alentejana” — pork meat, Alentejan style. I ate the classic version last year in an excellent restaurant in Évora, one of the key cities in the Alentejo region, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

There, a plate of what looked like over-stewed pork came swimming in a thin, garlicky, intensely red sauce, with plump clams and the odd piece of wilted parsley strewn over. The sauce was extraordinarily moreish (thanks to the clams, a peppery and paprika heavy paste and a load of local white wine), but the pork was most memorable of all. This was Alentejan black pig — the same breed used over the nearby border for Iberico ham — and though it looked over-cooked was extraordinarily succulent and melting, with an intensely savoury flavour. It was remarkable.

Many of the elements exist in my version — the sweetness of paprika and red pepper, garlic, thyme, lemon, white wine and the wonderful clam juice. But focussing on a brined pork collar steak, cooked as if it was a ribeye from a cow is a different approach to that of the stew-like chunks of black pig in the original.

Once the pork has been brined, it’s easy, quick and very effeective. I also think it’s a great example of how paprika can act as a key flavouring in a dish — somehow sitting both on the front of the tongue, and in the background behind the pork, clams and wine too.

Sides can be simple because the flavours are bold and the sauce intense. I’d serve this with some plain, boiled waxy potatoes (like the Cyprus variety), and sautéed kale, cavolo nero, spinach or chard. Or you could go totally basic, and just have some doughy bread on hand to mop up the juices.

Paprika brined pork collar with clams

10-12 hours brine; 10-15 minutes to cook

Serves 2-4 (depending how hungry and how many sides)

For the brine

  • 300g water
  • 15g sea salt
  • 15g light brown sugar
  • 1 heaped teaspoon sweet paprika
  • The peel of one lemon
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 2 x 200-250g pork collar steaks (about 2-3cm thick)

For when it comes to cook the pork

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 15g butter

And for the sauce

  • 1 Romano pepper, finely diced
  • 1 large clove garlic, finely sliced
  • 400-500g Palourde clams
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 200ml Portuguese white wine
  • 15 sprigs parsley
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Freshly ground black pepper

First make a brine solution by dissolving the sugar, salt and paprika into 300g of warm water (there’s no need for it to boil, though you may need to stir). Allow that to cool completely.

Put the pork steaks into a ziplock bag or a tupperware container that snuggly fits them. Pour the brine into the bag / over the pork, and add the lemon peel and thyme and seal the bag or container. Place in the fridge for 10-12 hours.

When the time is up, remove pour the brine away and discard the thyme and lemon. Place the pork steaks on a plate uncovered in the fridge to dry out a bit. 2-8 hours is fine, depending on your timings.

Purge the clams by placing in a bowl of cold water for fifteen minutes. Remove the clams, and pour the water and any grit away.

Cut 4cm or so from the end of each parsley stalk and chop very finely (leaving the main part and leaf intact). Dice the pepper and slice the garlic. You’re now ready to cook!

Place a heavy-bottomed frying pan (ideally one that will fit a lid from one of your saucepans) on the hob and turn it to medium-high. Add the vegetable oil and allow it to heat for 30 seconds before placing the (fridge cold) steaks in the pan. Cook for two minutes without turning, then flip them over and cook for two minutes more. Turn again and add the butter, which should immediately froth. Cook the steaks for a further 45-60 seconds on each side, then remove and rest them on a warm plate for five minutes whilst you cook the clams. The pork should have a lovely brown crust on the outside, and will be about the equivalent of medium done in the middle — which if you buy good meat from one of the Market’s butchers is absolutely perfect.

For the clams, add the pepper, chopped parsley stalks and garlic to the still hot but now empty pork pan (don’t clean out any of the juices). Cook and soften over a medium-high heat for 30 seconds, then add the clams and shuffle the pan. After another thirty seconds, pour in the white wine, add the paprika, shuffle the pan again as the alcohol begins to cook off. Place a lid over the top. Cook at a medium heat for 2-3 minutes; the clams are done when they’re fully open. Remove from the heat, take off the lid and add the lemon juice, parsley sprigs and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Give the clams and red juices a good stir and allow the parsley to wilt.

Cut the pork steaks into thick slices and divide between your bowls or plates that’ll hold plenty of liquid (two if you’re majoring on the meat, three to four if you’re adding sides). Spoon the clams, parsley and lots of juices over the top.