Beef Cheeks

I love to eat out. It is a simple pleasure. It does not have to be done every day or even every week but whenever it is done, it should always be a time of satisfaction and pleasure and not simply an excuse to stuff my face. I like to have something that I could not prepare at home either because it is too difficult technically or because I had never heard or even thought of that particular dish before.  The worse thing is when I get a meal that is inferior to what I could prepare myself at home. I wrote previously about a simple potato dish  – a potato terrains – that I had recently in a small restaurant on the river and how I attempted to recreate it at home. Certainly not technically difficult – just something I had never thought of before.

Similarly, when I first came to Australia, I had never eaten octopus (never having been to Greece in my previous wanderings) until I was introduced to it in a small basement restaurant (sadly no longer there) near where I lived at the time. The beauty of it at the time – the early 1990’s – was that octopus was as cheap as chips. Main stream restaurants hadn’t cottoned on to it as a gourmet lure and I could buy a kilo of fresh octopus for less that five dollars. Jump to todays’ prices and it will be more likely fifty dollars plus a kilo.

So when I came across slow braised beef cheeks served with grilled broccolini, peas on royal blue mash and red wine jus in a local pub recently, I ordered it impulsively, not 100% sure what beef cheeks were but imagining some type of a stew.

Instead, it was a meltingly tender slab of beef served on mashed spuds, with greens and gravy. Absolutely gorgeous. Rich and thick and flavoursome the beef was moist and succulent. What more could I say? This weekend I determined to replicate a cut of meat I had never heard of, having previously shied away from things like pigs trotters, chicken feet, ox heart, lung and brain.

What was amazing was the price – the local butcher had an entire area of a shelf display of neatly presented beef cheeks and yes, he assured me, yes, that is exactly what they are, the cow’s cheeks – that’s why they come in pairs, one from each side.  And, as the cow basically spends its life chewing, the muscles in the cheeks are quite well developed and that is why slow, gentle cooking is demanded.

Right, thinks I. This will do nicely. Getting a few more culinary tips from the butcher – always a good source about how to cook meat – I picked up a few more items and went home to prepare Beef Cheeks a lá traditional!

I give the cheeks a good rinse in running water and then patted them dry with a paper towel and snipped off any unnecessary fatty or gristley bits before dropping them into a large snap-lock bag with flour, seasoned with salt and pepper.

Seal the bag and I gave it a good shake coat the meat. I shook off excess flour and transferred the beef to a plate. Next, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large non-stick pan over a medium high heat and brown the two floured cheeks on each side for approximately 3 minutes before removing to a plate again.

I generously deglazed the pan with the red wine and poured the liquid into a casserole dish.

Another splash of oil in the pan before adding the chopped onion, garlic, carrots, reconstituted mushrooms, bay leaves and Swiss chard stalks to the pan, stir cooking for a few minutes until golden before adding a cup of beef stock, one Tbs. of sugar, two Tbs. of tomato paste and a handful of thyme leaves I had left over from something else.

I simmered everything gently and then poured some of the onion and carrot mixture into the casserole dish with the scrapings from the deglazed pan. The two beef cheeks lay snugly on top and I covered them with the remaining onion and carrot mixture.

Bang on a lid and I jammed the casserole dish into a preheated oven at about 160 degrees and cooked for two hours or so before ‘turning the cheeks; and giving them another two hours. After 4 hours the cheeks should be tender enough for a fork to pull the meat apart. If not, continue to cook for another hour. The cooking time will depend, of course, on the size of the cheeks and the breed of cattle.

Once done to your liking, Remove the beef cheeks for the cooking liquid, then set aside and keep warm.

Someone mentioned to me a few Wednesday ago that I should not eat meat that particular day. A quick look at the calendar confirmed that it was Ash Wednesday, the traditional start to the Lenten period before Easter, something I have completely ignored for years. As a child I always had to ‘give up’ something for Lent, perhaps sugar in my tea or jam on my bread or biscuits, lollies and cake, that sort of thing. Later on in life it was something like abstaining from alcohol or stopping smoking or similar nonsense to that. Needless to say, that was all in my youth and I have not given Lent or abstaining from anything  any notice whatsoever for the last couple of dozen years. Anyway, as I say, someone mentioned it to me and on the spur of the moment I decided, voluntarily, to give up drinking red and white wine and all spirits – gin, tequila, vodka, Bacardi, whiskey, Bundaberg rum – until Easter Sunday.

Unfortunately, that put me in a bit of a quandary that weekend as I bought more beef cheeks to slow cook but unlike the recipe above I was unable to use any red wine due to my new abstemious phase.

Rooting around in the cupboards, I came across garlic and ginger, soy sauce, star anise, cardamon pods, cinnamon quills and an old bottle of Chinese cooking wine (not made from grapes, so it fell outside the proscribed items). Right, thinks I, I’ll have a go at an Asian style approach to slow cooked beef cheeks.

As before, I washed the cheeks thoroughly and then snipped off any redundant fatty bits. I shaved strips off a knob of ginger the size of my thumb as well as long peels from a large orange with a potato peeler and then squeezed the juice into a bowl with the minced garlic, added ½ cup of soy sauce, ¼ cup of the Chinese Cooking wine (Shan Xing), a couple of star anise, 3 small cinnamon quills, the cardamom pods and 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce and gave everything a good stir before dumping the beef cheeks in and mixing everything around.

I covered the lot with cling film and left it in the fridge to marinate over night.

The next day, I turned on the slow cooker, heated a pan with a splash of olive oil and quickly browned the drained beef cheeks for 3 or 4 minutes per side before tossing them into the slow cooked with the rest of the marinade and a cup  of water.

For good measure, at the last moment I threw in a handful of small dried chillies and set the slow cooker to do its magic. Obviously, the chillies are optional but I like a bit of fire with the beef. I actually gave them 4 hours before fishing the cheeks, almost falling apart, out and reducing the cooking sauce down in a small pot over a high heat.

Serve with a potato  mash, rice or cous-cous. Tonight couscous with chopped green beans and tomatoes. Gorgeous.