Beef cheeks: An aromatic casserole of great comfort

Ah yes, the vogue for cheap cuts of meat is still current, with many top and ‘celebrity’ chefs featuring cheaper cuts and offal in dishes. Somewhat ironically, this has increased demand for cheap cuts like ox/beef cheeks and hence prices of such cuts have risen.  In fact, most of the big four supermarkets now regularly stock beef cheeks at the butchery counter.

This is indicative of the power of the media-savvy chefs (of which there are many) to highlight cuts of meat that have been forgotten and largely consigned to history. Some of these chefs may have lost their integrity along the way (mentioning no names, well, OK, maybe one – Marco Pierre White flogging Knorr ‘stock’. Shameful), but if promotion by influential chefs results in exposing a few more diners and cooks to these ingredients and encourages use of cheaper or more unusual cuts, that’s no bad thing. Diversification of diet is good.

I don’t recall eating beef cheeks before the current vogue but I have now eaten them three times this year.  The first time was at La Garrigue’s Edinburgh New Town restaurant.  I have eaten in La Garrigue a few times (mainly at their original Jeffrey Street place) and I love the rustic Languedoc food they serve. It is hearty and honest. I also return because of the consistent good service.  Beef cheeks were one course served during a ‘Taste of Languedoc’ evening, slow cooked in a Provençal sauce of red wine, tomatoes and olives. Tender and delicious.

The very next night, we visited The Man Named Sous’s sister and by some bizarre coincidence, beefs cheeks were the main course! Spot the foodie. So, I go from never having knowingly eaten beef cheeks to consuming same two days in a row.  I caveat this with ‘never knowingly’ because I have eaten some pretty unidentifiable meat-based meals abroad, the contents of which were lost in translation (although I vividly remember our French-Portuguese neighbour serving up ‘colhões’ – her description, not mine…).

Beef cheeks second time around were however, quite a different flavour experience from the first. The recipe in question was from Richard Cornish and Frank Camorra ‘s Movida Rustica cookbook.  This called for the best part of a bottle of Pedro Ximenez sherry and an equal quantity of red wine – and half a day in an Aga. I must admit, I was impressed with la Garrigue’s take on cheeks, but the second experience was superior (and I don’t think it was anything to do with the quantities of wine consumed in conjunction!).

Of course, obtaining beef cheeks on North Uist is almost impossible. There is no butcher on North Uist or Benbecula and to seek out these cuts would likely involve considerable enquiry and strategic planning akin to The Battle of Britain.  Although it pains me, I admit to taking the easier option and acquired the cheeks from a quality butcher while on a trip to the mainland.

Beef cheeks: two prepared and ready for marinating

Last weekend, the weather was pretty minging and any work outdoors was written off.  What better excuse to spend the day indulging in slow-cooking the beef cheeks? The dish is all about comfort.  I served the beef cheeks with celeriac puree, pastis-braised fennel, carrots with cumin and orange and baby baked potatoes.  I haven’t included the carrot recipe below but it simply oven-roasted carrot slices with a coating of rapeseed oil, a splash of orange juice and a big pinch of roasted cumin seeds, cooked for 25 minutes at 180oC. Potatoes were the wonderful Red King Edward, superb as mini-bakers.

The presentation of this dish is perhaps a bit uncouth, but flavours hit the spot. So, here is my take on beef cheeks et al.

Aromatic beef cheeks with celeriac puree, braised fennel with pastis and seasonal vegetables 

The beef cheeks were cut in half and marinated overnight.  The casserole recipe couldn’t be simpler and requires very little attention during cooking. The beef is so tender after 4 hours that it is hard to lift out of the pot without it falling apart.

Ingredients

Marinade for beef cheeks:

Beef cheeks, about 750 g = 2, feeds 4 people

200 ml red wine

2 tblsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1 spring of thyme

2 bay leaves

1 star anise

zest and juice of an orange

a few grinds of pepper

For the beef cheek casserole:

2 tblsp olive oil

500 ml red wine

1 tblsp tomato puree

750 ml beef stock

salt and pepper

Method – Aromatic beef cheek casserole

Set oven to 170oC

Beef cheeks should be ready for cooking after being marinated overnight. Put the olive oil in an overproof heavy-based casserole dish (Le Creuset are ideal).  Remove the beef cheeks from the marinade, brushing off any veg and pat dry with kitchen towel. On a medium to high heat, sear the cheeks on all sides in the oil until browned.  Remove with a slotted spoon, turn heat to medium.

Strain the veg, herbs and spices from the marinade, reserving the liquid and place marinated veg into the pan, cook until soft but not browned.  Place the beef cheeks back in the pot, add the reserved marinade liquid, the beef stock (I used game stock as I had no beef stock), 500 ml of red wine, tomato puree, salt and pepper.

Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, stick in the oven and leave for about 4 hours until the beef is almost falling apart.

Do check after about 2 hours to make sure that there is enough liquid in the casserole and add a bit of water if it is drying out.  The beef cheeks should remain immersed throughout cooking. They will happily sit on a low heat in the oven while you prepare the rest of the side dishes.

Celeriac puree

Unfortunately, I haven’t successfully grown this faux root so far.  It needs a long time in the ground and I need more growing space first in order to let it luxuriate in the soil long enough to get bigger than the size of a golf ball. The root description is really a misnomer because it is a bulbous hypocotyl, the area of a plant between its stem and roots. The true roots of celeriac are the surface ‘hairs’ that give it a distinctively untidy appearance. Don’t be put of by its looks, it is one of our most delightful root veg.

Ingredients

1 celeriac’root’

500ml chicken stock

100 ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

Remove the outer surface of the celeriac and cut remainder into cubes about 1cm. Place in a pan with the stock and simmer until tender (about 20-30 minutes).  The stock will reduce down significantly. Add the double cream and simmer for a further 5 minutes.  If it is very liquidy, strain off the excess.  Whizz with a hand blender or in a liquidiser until very smooth and pass through a sieve to get the puree extra smooth.  Check and adjust seasoning, keep warm.

Braised fennel with pastis

The mild aniseed flavour of the fennel is boosted with a splash of pastis and  complements the subtle background flavour of star anise in the casserole.

Ingredients

1-2 fennel bulbs, sliced

30g butter

200 ml chicken stock

1 tsp sugar

1 tblsp pastis (e.g. Pernod, Ricard)

Zest of half an orange

salt and pepper

Method

Slice the bulbs, ensuring you do so along the root (usually the longer axis) so that the slices hold together.  Slices should be about 5mm thick.

Melt the butter in a frying pan on a medium heat and place the slices in as the butter, sprinkle over the sugar to assist in caramelising the slices.

Cook for a few minutes each side until coloured.  Don’t overcrowd the pan, do this stage in batches if need be. They will need to be in a single layer to colour.

Once all slices are coloured, return all to the pan and add the pastis and orange zest.  Let the alcohol cook off for a minute or two then add the stock and season.

Simmer gently for about 10 minutes until tender and serve.

Plating up

I served each half beef cheek on the celeriac puree with lots of casserole gravy and the veg.  I didn’t bother to strain the gravy before serving as it is after all a rustic casserole.  The gravy was thick, rich and intense thanks to protracted slow cooking and should not require reduction or thickening agents.

Aromatic beef cheek casserole with celeriac puree, braised fennel with pastis and seasonal vegetables. Comfort food for a wintery Sunday.