Stretching: Beef Cheeks Four Ways

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.

 

 

 

Texas Barbecue Civil Rights Heritage Tour Day 6: Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas

At the back of my mind, my goal to explore Texas and southern barbecue has always felt a little like a farewell tour. It’s not that I planned to gorge on meat to make myself sick of it. Instead, I wanted one last tryst before meat and I decide to end our love affair. The health reasons are obvious; the ethical ones are entering my blood stream like a slow-acting virus. I don’t think I’ll become a constant vegetarian or vegan, but I have been eating less and less of it to the point where I may naturally stop at some point. Why not end on a high note? is the way I look at my predicament.

Today, I hit a short, sweet high note at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. It began as an ordeal. I arrived there at 10:45, 15 mins before it opened, and found this.

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I got in line and half an hour later it looked like this:

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While I stood in line, I debated whether it was worth it. I grew more conflicted when Franklin employees came by with tubs of drinks to sell. How long a wait? I asked. Three hours, one of them said. Really?

According to my pedometer, I walked 5 miles to get there (I took a detour to visit a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the shore of Lady Bird Lake). Did I come so far to give up now?

103 degrees at noon.

I did not leave.  I stayed. It took exactly two and a half hours to progress to the door and step inside.

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It took another half hour to move from the door to the counter where I ordered. As I stood on line, I watched people eat mounds of meat. It was a little repellent.

I waited three hours and ate my order in fifteen minutes.

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A party of three were chowing down on the mound o’meat on the left. My order (below) looked positively monastic next to theirs. I could not finish the one link, the 1/4 lb pulled pork, the one turkey slice, and the 1/2 pint of slaw. Very good, but not worth the three-hour wait. However, I wolfed down the brisket. The sweet, crusty fat on the fork-tender brisket was infused with the smoke of white oak. That chunk of beef had one of the best, most memorable (I’ll never forget a roast pigeon breast in Avignon in 2008) flavors I’ve ever tasted. This, I realized, was Ur-Barbecue. Now I can hang up my samurai sword.

Actually, not yet.

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Beef-Sauced Hot Lettuce Salad

from Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, p. 67.

My resolve to go meatless during the week crashed into this recipe like tank into a brick wall. Oh, this recipe hit the spot. The crunch of the lettuce, the sweet and sour of the black vinegar-soy sauce, and the zing of the garlic-ginger-sesame oil notes combined beautifully. It’s a great recipe to throw together at the last moment for yourself. All you have to do is figure out your preferred ratio of lettuce to meat sauce. I urge you to consider 1/4 pound of the ground meat (half the amount that Alford and Duguid call for) with a bowlful of lettuce and the full proportion of sauce ingredients. You’ll find your own balance.

This book just gets better and better.

Here is the complete unadjusted recipe with my suggested adjustments…

Serves 4

About 4 packed cups coarsely torn romaine lettuce

Shadowcook: I used a combination of lettuces. As the authors note, “If you use romaine lettuce, the salad will have good crunch as well as some wilted softer leaves when you first serve it. We love the contrast. If you prefer a softer texture, either let the salad stand for 5 minutes before serving it, to give the greens more time to soften in the warm dressing, or use leaf lettuced instead of romaine.” Or, like I said, use a combination and get it to the table while it’s still very warm.

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 pound (1 packed cup) ground beef

Shadowcook: I used 1/3 pound ground pork. Next time I’ll use a little less. And I’ll have to try it with beef, but I have a feeling I’m going to prefer the pork.

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon soy sauce, or to taste

1 tablespoon Jinjiang (black rice) vinegar, or to taste

Shadowcook: You can find this at any Asian market.

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1/2 teaspoon roasted sesame oil

 

Place the lettuce in a wide salad bowl or serving dish and set aside.

Place a wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Toss in the garlic and stir-fry for 10 seconds, then add the ginger. Stir-fry over medium-high to medium heat until slightly softened and starting to turn color. Add the meat and use your spatula to break it up so there are no lumps at all, then add the salt and stir-fry until most of the meat has changed color. Add the soy sauce and vinegar and stir to blend. Add the warm water and stir.

(The dressing can be prepared ahead to this point and set aside for up to 20 minutes. When you are ready to proceed, bring to a boil.)

While the dressing mixture is coming to a boil, place the cornstarch in a small cup or bowl and stir in the cold water to make a smooth paste. Once the liquid is bubbling in the pan, give the cornstarch mixture a final stir, add to the pan, and stir for about 1 minutes: the liquid will thicken and become smoother. Taste for salt, and add a little salt or soy sauce if you wish. Add the sesame oil and stir once, then pour onto the lettuce. Immediately toss the salad to expose all the greens to the hot dressing. Serve immediately.