A few months ago, at the urging of my sister, I signed up for Crowd Cow, an online delivery service that connects cattle farmers to consumers. The company’s promise to offer only beef sustainably raised, all or partially grass-fed, and humanely slaughtered appealed to me. I periodically receive an email from them to let me know that a particular cattle farm in my region has cuts of meat for sale. First come, first served. If customers pay attention to the flavor of what they eat, they can develop preferences for one farm or another. So far, I’ve developed a fondness for beef from Hutterian Farms in Reardan, Washington, but I’m very curious to try the Oregon-produced Wagyu cuts I ordered that will be delivered this week. Just recently Crowd Cow has expanded its offerings to chicken and pork. As for cost, I don’t mind that it’s more a bit more expensive than what Taylor’s Market charges, because Crowd Cow’s required minimum $75 order goes a long way with me and I’m in a position to pay more for my principles.
I’m down to the last of the beef in my freezer: 4 beef cheeks. Since I’ve never before cooked this cut, I’ve decided to prepare them as simply as possible in order to make four different meals from them. I followed the basic recipe that the northern California chef, Daniel Patterson, offers through NYT Cooking. When the cheeks were fork-tender but held their shape, I set aside one with about a quarter of the liquid and aromatics and stored the other three in freezable containers. I look forward to figuring out how to use those extras. At the moment, I’m considering adding Dijon mustard and new potatoes to one, tomato and polenta to another, and spring vegetables to the third.
But I kept the first portion much simpler. Patterson’s recipe calls for:
- 4 beef cheeks
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, sliced
- 1 stalk young garlic, thinly sliced (or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced)
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- A handful of thyme sprigs
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 T butter
Patterson calls for a 180 F oven. My miserable oven doesn’t calibrate that finely, so I started off at 200 F.
The day before I braised the cheeks, I put the four of them in a rectangular pyrex dish, salted them, and placed the dish in the refrigerator. I brought them to room temperature about two hours before I seared them. I poured about 1/4 cup of olive oil in my biggest cast iron skillet and set the flame to medium-high. To brown well, the cheeks needed room. That took about 5-6 mins. Once browned, I transferred them to a plate and added the onion, the young garlic, and carrots (which I diced instead of sliced) to the pan. After about 5 mins of sautée, I returned the cheeks to the pan, adding rosemary and thyme sprigs tied up in cheesecloth and then pouring the combined stocks into the pan. I put the lid on my Le Creuset braiser. Into the cool oven it went.
Here’s where I diverged a bit from Patterson. Four hours later, I looked inside the braiser. No bubbling at all. The meat looked like it was barely cooking, but my oven is so bad that I wasn’t sure it was cooking at all. So, I took the pan out of the oven. On my stovetop, I brought the liquid in the pan to a simmer and then returned it to the now 250 oven. And then I left it for 6 hours, turning the cheeks over in the broth twice.
Ten hours later, the meat was fork-tender and the stock slightly reduced. Once the cheeks had cooled, I divided them up with the braising liquid. Three were destined for the freezer. I kept one for that evening’s dinner.
Right away, I put a pot of salted water on to boil. I crumbled the cheek meat into flakes with my fingers. There was too much meat for one dish, so I apportioned out the remainder among the three extra cheeks cooling prior to freezing. While the water was coming to a boil, I warmed the crumbled cheek meat in braising liquid. The fresh fettucine dove into the boiling water and I added a tablespoon of butter to the cheek meat. Within 3 minutes, the pasta was done, in the warmed pasta bowl, with the cheek meat and broth poured over it. The taste and texture of the cheeks reminded me of uncured brisket or even a well-cooked pot roast with better flavor. In the picture, the amount you see on the pasta (only 3.5 ounces despite appearances) was a little more than half a cheek.
The result was a very tasty, stew-like meal. Beef cheeks turn out to be a good braising cut that delivers flavor reminiscent of uncorned brisket, but without the usual fat. It’s a relatively lean cut, despite what looks like marbling in the photo at the top. Crowd Cow trimmed the cheeks of the fat that is usually found on them.
Now I have to figure out what to do with the other three. Now I’m thinking, definitely croquettes.