One of the toughest cuts of beef, the shin is also one of the most rewarding. There's no euphemism to the name: this is the foreleg of the animal and because it's one of the most worked parts, it's filled with connective tissue. This means that you can't skimp on the cooking time but when you go down the long-cooked route, you'll find the meat holds its shape and rewards with incredible richness of texture. Beef or veal shin is most often sold as osso buco. Buy it to order from your butcher if you can - the osso buco in supermarkets is usually sliced far thinner than is ideal. A classical osso buco alla Milanese - veal shin braised with carrot, onion, celery, white wine and bay and traditionally served with a saffron risotto - is best made with slices at least an inch thick. For a great braise or curry, on the other hand, ask your butcher to take a large piece of shin and slice it along the bone lengthways to expose the marrow, then again across the bone into two-inch pieces. Cooking on the bone like this will result in a much richer, fuller flavour, with the marrow melting into the sauce.
One of the great under-rated cuts, liver just needs a little love. Whether it's from calf, duck, chicken or pig, liver usually benefits from a good soaking overnight in milk before cooking to extract blood and bile and combat any bitterness. It's not essential, but the end product will definitely be improved with this little extra effort. The most important thing, though, is not to overcook it, lest it turn mealy. Livers large and small have veins running through them, and the larger veal, calf and (less common) pig livers should have these removed before cooking because they're tough and chewy. The easiest way to remove them is to cut them out, or pull them out with tweezers. Veal and calf livers should also have the skin removed because it will tighten and shrink during cooking. Simply peel the fine skin from the flesh with your fingers beforehand. The best way to cook veal or calf livers is to slice them into thin steaks, dust them in a little seasoned flour and pan-fry them in butter until golden and no more than medium-rare. A creamy Paris mash and some melting caramelised onions never go astray here, and bacon, fried crisp, is another classic dance partner. Duck and chicken livers require less preparation and are less daunting for most beginners. Simply trim them of their connecting sinew and gall bladder (the yellow and green bits) and they're ready to go. Pâtés and parfaits are favourite preparations here, but simply frying a small handful of poultry livers in a hot pan until cooked rare is also an unbeatable way to eat them. Deglaze the pan with a healthy splash of balsamic or aged red wine vinegar, verjuice or sherry and serve the livers with toasted brioche, figs and watercress or other bitter greens for an exceptional quick meal.
Once something you'd have to buy frozen or from your butcher, fresh oxtail is now a common sight in supermarkets. Simply put, they're cattle tails (traditionally from an ox, a castrated bull, hence the name) and are usually sold cut in sections about five to eight centimetres thick. Sometimes the pieces from the tip can be a bit too small to bother with, but on the whole the flavour packed into a tail is complex and dense. You could cut a whole tail yourself and cleave your way through each joint to get your pieces, but it's best to get the butcher to do this for you. There's not a lot of meat on each section of bone, so you'll need about four to six pieces per person for a main course. The fat around the outside of the tail is a little too rich for most people and can be trimmed, steadily skimmed off during cooking, or removed after chilling. A few pieces of oxtail thrown in the pot can impart incredible stickiness and body to other braises. If you're making a classic oxtail broth, soak the pieces in cold water for a few hours first to draw out the blood.
HANGER & SKIRT STEAK
The hanger steak, also known as onglet, is a cut of beef from the end of the diaphragm near the kidneys. It's so named because it hangs from this section of the animal, right next to the outer skirt steak. The skirt steak, which gets its name from the pleats of fibrous muscle that resemble the pleats of a skirt, is slightly tougher but both have wonderful flavour. Because of their relative leanness, it's a good idea to serve these cuts of beef a little bloody. Grill them over hot coals until rare, seasoned only with a little salt and pepper, or serve them South American-style with chimichurri. To tenderise the meat beforehand, marinate the steaks overnight in red wine. If blood's not your thing, they also work wonders slow-cooked in pies or minced for pasta sauces.
Yes, that cheek. The cut refers to the facial muscle of the animal and only the beef or pork varieties are sold for cooking (though should you be presented with a whole sheep's head, the cheek meat is not to be missed). It's a very lean but also very sinewy cut of meat (the sinews must be renoved before cooking) and is most often used for braising or slow cooking. Pork cheeks, also known as chaps, make up one part of the classic preparation known as Bath chaps, in which pork cheeks are brined for a few days (while still attached to a boned-out head), simmered in water, cooled, then served with pickles, mustard and buttered bread. Be warned: it may be difficult to find a butcher who'll supply you with cheeks and you'll need to order them ahead. If beef cheeks aren't available, beef brisket cut into pieces of a similar weight makes a good substitute.
This is one secondary cut that's up there with belly in our book. Maiale e latte is a recipe that springs to mind with this cut: the neck is cooked slowly in a bath of milk until the milk separates and integrates with the fat to create a curdled cheesy sauce. Pork neck, simply roasted, also pairs well with sage and apples or pears or fennel. Make sure there's enough fat covering it to keep it nice and moist. The neck is usually sold boneless, so it should be rolled and tied before cooking to ensure that it keeps its shape.
Here's another cut which offers plenty of bang for your buck. It's a tough cut with a lot of connective tissue and you'll find it appears in butcher shops cut a few different ways. Lamb neck chops, usually from the scrag or the best-end of the neck, are common and you can also get the neck boned from the middle, cut and tied, and ready to go. To make a magnificent ragù, cook a whole lamb neck in red wine with herbs and lamb stock, then break the meat up into chunks and serve with pasta or a bed of lentils. The chops are ideal for stewing and adding to shepherd's pie or stobhach Gaelach, the potato-based Irish stew. They're also the perfect base for a classic Lancashire hotpot.
PORK HAND & HOCK
The hock and the slightly alarmingly named hand are joined on the lower front legs of the pig. Both are available from butchers uncured ("green") but they're usually sold corned or pickled. On its own, hock is very useful for flavouring soups and braised pulses, while the hand is wonderful roasted. Cured, they both need to be cooked in stock or other liquid. There's nothing more gelatinously sticky than a cooked pig's trotter but the hock and hand, in that order, come pretty close. These cuts have a vast amount of skin and bone, so plenty of natural gelatine is extracted when they're cooked, leaving diners with a lip-smacking experience.
BEEF SHORT RIBS
The term short (or spare) ribs refers to the ribs from the forequarter flank of the rib cage, and the intercostal muscle that lies between them. The meatiest of the rib cuts, they're an excellent cut if you like cooking meat on the bone. A slow braise is ideal so that the meat can tenderise and separate from the rib. Afterwards, the ribs should be cooked quickly on a grill or crisped in a pan. Bourbon-barbecue short ribs are a fine example of good party food. Messy and finger-lickin' good, the ribs are braised in a bourbon-punched barbecue sauce, and then grilled until they're almost black and sticky. Marucha, a term used in asado cooking (Argentinian barbecuing), refers to wood-fired short ribs. In this case, instead of having an initial slow cook, the ribs are marinated overnight in a vinegary solution to tenderise the meat and then barbecued for an equally delicious result.
The flank is another cut of beef used in asado cooking - rolled and stuffed, it's known as matambre. In layman's terms, the flank is pretty much just the belly of the animal, sitting underneath the sirloin and near the ribs, although there's no bone involved with this cut. It's a flat piece with good marbling that, when cooked on a wood fire, needs little else done to it: you can cook it rolled, stuffed or simply grilled as steaks or in one larger piece.
You can buy silverside in its raw form, but you're probably better off buying it already corned, when it's labelled as corned silverside. The name of the beef cut derives from its shimmery quality, but it's actually a cut from the back end of the animal on the top of the leg, just below the rump. The cut is divided in two varieties, the outside and the flat-side, but silverside is usually sold from the outside cut. Uncorned silverside can be roasted, but it needs to be cooked with the fat-side up and must be basted regularly because its lack of internal fat means it can dry out quite easily. The best way to cook silverside is to buy it already corned (or pickle it yourself) and then simply poach it slowly over a couple of hours and serve it with carrots, potatoes and mustard sauce.
Cut from the chest of the animal, brisket has a good fat covering and is often sold with a few ribs and connecting costal cartilages attached. It's especially popular slow-cooked in the Asian and Jewish traditions, and Chinese or kosher butchers are great sources. Pot roast it, or consider an awesome salt beef or pastrami. When salting or curing beef yourself, skip the saltpetre demanded by some recipes. A preservative used in commercial curing, its function is purely to maintain the pink colour of the meat. Use regular salt and you may end up with a grey/brown cast to the meat, but the flavour won't be compromised.
How could we not include the lamb shank in a list of good-value cuts? Shank is the section of meat and bone that sits above the knee joint and below the leg. Lamb legs can be bought from the butcher with the shank attached, but because of the shank's popularity, many butchers usually have the cut on hand. There are various ways you can cook shanks and the slow forms of cooking work best: in soups, casseroles and wet roasts to name a few. The shank has a strong flavour so you can successfully mix it with strong aromatics and herbs, and it's versatile enough for heavily spiced food including curries and tagines. Allow two shanks per serve, even though many recipes call for one, because you can never have too much of a good thing.