Weird Crap I Cook: Beef Cheeks

Over the past seven months, I have gone pretty cheek crazy.  It all started with the cheek meat from the hogs head barbacoa, which was incredibly rich, tender, and delicious.  Since returning to Philly, I’ve had my favorite appetizer at Monks, the beer braised veal cheeks, a few times and a great beef cheeks entree at Noble in center city.  But the one thing I haven’t been able to pull off was purchasing and cooking them for myself.

I’ve called Tim’s grass fed beef guy, 10+ butcher shops in Boston and NJ, and researched online.  Nothing.  So, basically, I attend graduate school, consider myself smarter than you, yet never thought to contact any of the 20 butcher shops in the famous Italian Market one mile from my apartment.  When I finally did contact them it was the day before I was leaving Philly for two weeks and only one butcher shop, Los Amigos Meat Market, could help me.

Ever seen a kid get a Power Wheels for Christmas and take it for that first joyous spin around the backyard or living room?  Thats how I looked for the entire two hours that I drove to Tim’s house with 8 lbs of beef cheeks and 3 lbs of pork cheeks.  I think I called seven people, including Kristi, to tell them about what I purchased.  No one actually cared.

Two days later, Tim broke out his brand new Food Saver (Kristi and I give great presents) and we broke the beef cheeks up into four, 2 lb packages for freezing.  Here are mine (we divided evenly):

Food Saver is the best gift for anybody you know who loves to cook. When Tim first got his working he repackaged everything in his freezer, which I thought was weird... until I tested out the one I got for Christmas and repackaged the 10 lbs of venison, 3 lbs of short rib, 2 lbs of duck breast, and 1 lb of ground goat in my freezer. Its really fun

We froze the packages for later use: mine for a new years eve meal in Boston, Tim’s TBD.

After thawing for a couple days, and about 24 hours before they would be served, I pulled the cheeks out for trimming.  To dispel any questions/concerns, the cheeks have no skin attached, they are just the muscle from the jaw area of the cow.  They can look a little gross in their raw form.

Kristi watched me trim these after a wine-heavy dinner party at the Emyonarty's. She was 50% interested in the process, 50% interested in me not losing a finger due to poor motor skills

Underneath all of that hardened fat, silverskin, and connective tissue there are some incredibly nice looking pieces of meat.  You just need to carefully trim for an hour and hope you don’t cut yourself.

I wish I had butchering skills but I don't. Otherwise that jagged surface on the right side wouldn't be there

I have never purchase raw Kobe or Wagyu beef, but from what I’ve seen on TV and in the store, beef cheeks seem to have a similar level of marbled fat.

This picture may gross out half the readers of this blog, but to me it looks delicious

My goal was to braise the meat slow enough that the fat melted away without overcooking the outside of the meat.  In the Le Creuset I sauteed carrots, onion, celery, and garlic on the stovetop before adding a bottle of red wine, a quart of beef stock, 8-10 thyme branches, and two bay leaves.

Went with a merlot. Odd choice, but it was available and I thought the fruityness and sugars would give the meat the touch of sweetness I was hoping for

While the braising liquid reduced a little, I prepped the beef cheeks by adding a little salt to the outside of the meat.

Still a little funky looking despite the trimming. Some pieces moreso than others

The meat fit in nicely with decent spacing between each piece

Once the cheeks were added to the liquid, the lid went on and the pot headed into a 200 degree oven for the next 13 hours.  During that time I slept for nine hours, had some breakfast, and picked up a few extra supplies at the supermarket.

At noon I removed the pot from the oven, took the lid off and let the pot sit for 4-5 hours so that the fat could be skimmed off easily.  The liquid reduced less than I had expected.

Smelled like beef stew

While the cheeks settled, I started prepping a brisket to be braised.  I used a slightly different approach than the cheeks for prepping the meat and rubbed the brisket with salt, pepper, and light brown sugar.

Nice lookin' piece of meat

I browned the brisket, removed it from the pot, added carrots, onions, celery, and garlic and then removed those once they cooked for a bit.  Deglazed the bottom of the pot with red wine, reduced it by half, added thyme, a bay leaf, and a quart of beef stock.  The brisket was then added back in with the vegetables.

Unlike the cheeks, this prep was extremely easy and quick. Almost no trimming required and only had to cook for a few hours

The lid went on the pot and it headed into the oven for three hours at 300 degrees.  Which gave the new years revelers, including Marshall, Kim and Mooju who drove up for the weekend, a chance to walk down to James Gate in JP for a few pints and a warm fire.

Once we got back, I scrubbed about 6 pounds of yukon gold potatoes and peeled two large sweet potatoes.  All were cut up for easy boiling.

I love skins on mashed potatoes and don't like mashed sweet potatoes, but the combination sounded like a great compliment for the meat. I am a pretty complicated person

The potatoes all went into a pot of boiling water along with some crushed garlic cloves.  While those boiled I got the mushroom mixture that would top the dish started.  They began with chopped shallots carmelizing in olive oil before adding about a half pound of cubed portabellas, a pound of sliced shitake mushrooms, salt and pepper.

Looks like way too much for the pan but they cook down quick

While the mushroom mixture cooked, the cheeks went back into the oven, after skimming the fat, uncovered at 350 degrees.

Once the mushrooms reduced a bit, I added a pour of red wine, some thyme leaves and turned up the heat on the pan.

This is basically how I make my mushroom bruschetta also

Once the potatoes were mashed and the pony keg of Switchback (brought down from Burlington, VT) was tapped, we were ready to start eating.  The final lineup:

The mushrooms. Used to make this mixture with onions and garlic, but switching to shallots cut out a step

The mashed potatoes. The sweet potatoes add a nice color and touch of sweetness

The brisket. It overcooked a little bit but was still very tender and flavorful when sliced

...Aaaannnnd the cheeks. They looked exactly how I wanted them to. I was nervous they would completely fall apart and leave me with stew

Here’s the final plating: a base of the potatoes, a cheek (or a few slices of brisket for those that preferred it), a spoonful of the mushrooms, and a little of the braising liquid over the top.

I know I don't make pretty plates of food, but this serving method worked best for getting a little bit of everything in each bite

Bushy ran out of bowls. Also, I'm not sure why thought a second image was necessary

The cheeks were so tender that the meat fell apart when you touched your fork to it.  Because so much fat had cooked out, the meat had very little density and was light tasting despite being quite rich.  The flavors complimented each other well and I was happy to see people picking at the remaining brisket and cheeks until everything was gone (except the potatoes, made WAY too much of those).  I do wish I had salt/pepper/browned the cheeks in advance but, all in all, pretty dece.

Every time I visit Boston I start thinking about all of the cooking gear we have in storage and the stuff I want to make when I get back.  But, thats just nerd talk, I will thoroughly enjoy my last few months of business college and get back to the more elaborate cooking when the time comes.  Also, Kristi will be 8 months pregnant by that point soooooo its unlikely she’ll be too excited for the duck and lamb sausage or the Jamaican goat skewers I’ve been planning.

Anyhoo, without an awesome kitchen I am back to looking for different bloggin’ ideas.  Next week will be a new one, currently in progress and not that enjoyable (for me).