I have a philosophy about new foods:
I've eaten a lot of meat over the years, but never before have I heard of beef cheeks. I've had all kinds of strange cuts, offal, and "mystery meats", but never beef cheek, so when we saw it on sale for $1.98/lb we jumped on it and bought a giant pack.
It was basically a pile of some of the most well marbled meat I've ever seen. I figured with all of the ruminating a cow does it might be kind of lean, but I was kind of surprised. The pork fanatic in me was expecting something more fatty. While there was a lot of fat, there was also a good amount of meat. I trimmed off some of the meat before I went to work.
For this I made use of my cast iron dutch oven. I need to use this more often. It doesn't quite have the wonderful seasoning that my smaller cast iron frying pan does but it's getting there. If you're not a fan of cast iron, find yourself a used well-seasoned pan (good luck finding one) or borrow one from someone. It's not the perfect tool for all things, but then again I wouldn't bring a knife to a spatula show. (If you want some wonderful tips on seasoning, check out this post: Chemistry of Cast-Iron Seasoning.)
I'll be braising the beef cheeks. The basic idea of braising is slow cooking in liquid to break down connective tissue, giving you a tender end product (think "low and slow with liquid").
- 4 beef cheeks
- diced tomatoes
- cocoa powder
- diced tomatoes (either canned or by hand, do not drain)
- onions, celery, bell pepper
- salt and pepper
First, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Put some oil in the dutch oven over a medium-high flame and brown the cheeks on all sides. Take your time with this. We're not trying to "seal in moisture": we want to get as many brown bits as we can in that pan. Let each side go for a minute or two, and don't worry if they stick a little bit to the bottom of the pan.
Pull them out and set them on a plate for now. Add in about 1/2 cup each of onions, celery, bell pepper, or whatever other vegetables you might to put in here (except potatoes). These will cook for hours, so don't worry about dicing hard vegetables like carrots small. Cook until until the onions start to brown a little bit.
Next, pour about a cup or two of red wine in the pan and using a spatula or wooden spoon make sure to scrape up any bits that might be sticking to the pan. Add in 1/2 teaspoon of cocoa powder, mix well, then put your beef cheeks into the pot, arranging them so they're not stacked on top of each other.
Pour in your can of diced (or fresh) tomatoes with the juice and bring to a boil. Give a little taste and if it seems like it needs some salt now is a good time to add it. If you're using fresh tomatoes you might need to add a little water or stock.
Put the lid on the pot then move it to the preheated oven. Let it go for about two hours. The liquid will have reduced down a bit, forming a nice, thick sauce, and the meat will be extremely tender. At this temperature for that long of a period of time the fat and connective tissue will have nearly completely broken down.
The texture I can only describe as being like butter. I think this could easily be removed from the thick sauce, piled into a ramekin, refrigerated, and used like meat butter. The cocoa added a very subtle flavor -- if at all possible, it made it taste even more savory than it would have been without it. After it cooled we stuffed it into a container, and with the strength of Hercules were able to spoon it out a day or more later. Reheated it was amazing.
I believe this would work well with any well marbled meat. Anything, even a pork shoulder, would probably do well cooked like this. Some day soon we'll see about a pork shoulder cooked a similar way using a slow cooker, but for now go and find yourself some beef cheek and try something new! (And then try it again if you like it, and once again to make sure!)