If I was to pick two things that get me excited in the kitchen at the moment it would be cheeks and Waitrose’s “Forgotten Cuts” range of slightly leftfield meat. My recent experiments with pigs cheeks as sausage rolls, piggy Wellingtons and covered in a bourbon and mustard glaze were a thrilling success. So I thought I’d graduate on to ox cheeks.
Ox cheeks are pretty hard to get hold of. Because of BSE they were banned along with other meat from around the head and cuts on the bone. And since then it has been consistently difficult to find them. After a quick trawl of eGullet the picture became clearer. Restaurants and butchers find it hard “to get head” because the head is not allowed to leave the abattoir owing to the rules that are designed to protect the public from being exposed to the brainy bits that are linked to BSE/CJD. And even if butchers do manage “to get head” they have to have a vet present whilst they do what they do.
Despite all this you can buy expensive ox cheeks from the likes of Donald Russell, but it’s much more convenient and cheaper to pick some up from Waitrose where two hefty cheeks will set you back a meagre 4 or 5 quid.
The beauty of ox cheeks doesn’t lie in the eye of the beholder. They are ugly brutes which have spent their working life grinding their way through grass. The meat is dense. To slice through a cheek makes even the sharpest knife feel a bit James Blunt. Through the centre of the cheek runs a seam of fat and connective tissue. Like the band of gold that sits below Johannesburg, this is the where the true joy of ox cheeks lies. When cooked slowly this seam, as if by alchemy, turns to a gelatinous, unctuous, savoury elixir that will turbo charge the dish you are cooking.
With my ox cheeks in the freezer I pondered what to cook. It seemed too obvious just to cook a daube or use them as the base to a pie. Ox cheek biltong almost made the cut. As did a Chinese hot pot strewn with chillies and spiked with garlic and soy. And then I remembered reading about cheeks and ribs in Bill Buford’s Heat and was inspired to cook ox cheek ravioli in the spirit of Mario Batali. I didn’t follow a recipe at the time but was quite chuffed when I found a version afterwards on the New York Times website that wasn’t a million miles away. The recipe below is my own.
Ingredients – to feed 4
2 large ox cheeks
Half a bottle of red wine
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 celery stalk
5 rashers of smoked bacon – or lardon
3 bay leaves
Loads of thyme
2 glasses of cognac
50 grams of plain flour
200ml of chicken stock
500 grams of chestnut mushrooms
400 grams of vine tomatoes
200 grams of tipo 00 flour
Splash of water
Start the braise the night before you want to eat. Cut your cheeks into quarters and coat in seasoned flour. Heat a large pan and brown the meat in oil in batches. When the outside of the meat has caramelised throw in some cognac and watch out for your eyebrows. Then place the cheeks in your slow cooker – or if you are unfortunate enough not to have one then just lob them in a large casserole. Then fry the bacon until the fat has rendered and then add a finely chopped onion. Turn down the heat and sweat. Then add your garlic. After a few minutes add this to the slow cooker. Chop your celery and add it to the pot. Then add 3 bay leaves and loads of thyme.
You then need to add the liquid elements which you want to only just cover the meat. The quantities above are a guide so feel free to adjust them to what you feel looks right. Grind some pepper, put the lid on, set your slow cooker to low and then go to sleep. If you are being sensible you’ll use a timer that will turn the cooker off after 5 hours. It’s a much better idea than setting your alarm for 4am!
In the morning separate the meat from the liquid and store both in the fridge whilst you go to work. When you return from the office you need to start by taking a deep breath and get all your kit out in order to reduce the sauce, make the pasta fresca and finish the meat in the oven. This is where the fun starts.
Your first task is to strain the liquid. I was amazed when I removed the container from the fridge. The liquid had set so solidly that it was able to support the weight of a spoon! Heat it first to turn it into a liquid and then pass it through a colander to remove the bacon, celery and onions and then force it though a fine sieve. Then reduce this liquid whilst you make your pasta. It will turn into the most syrupy, glossy sauce you can possibly imagine.
Then, layer the bottom of a cast iron pan with the solids that you have removed from the liquid. Then refry your cheeks in oil and butter until they take on a deep brown colour. Then place them in the cast iron pan. Fry the mushrooms in the pan that has just been graced by the cheeks, add a touch more cognac and then add them on top of the cheeks. Cover in foil and place in the oven to heat through along with the tomatoes in a separate pan which have been coated in olive oil and salt.
Now it’s time to make your pasta. It’s quite simple. Sieve 200 grams of pasta flour and add two large eggs and a pinch of salt. Knead this until it forms a non sticky dough. This will take about 15 minutes of sweat and wrist pain.
Wrap in clingfilm and let it rest in the fridge for up to an hour. Then sprinkle a large, clean work area in flour and roll out your pasta into thin sheets. Normally I’d use my pasta maker but I didn’t have it to hand. Without the machine it was seriously hard work. Cowie and I took it in turns to pulverise the pasta into ravioli thickness. Once it becomes around 1mm thick (or more accurately thin) trim the edges and hang up to dry for 10 minutes. Then cut into neat squares.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and then add the pasta. It will cook in around 2 minutes. So make sure you’ve got your sauce reduced, the meat resting and the roasted tomatoes to hand. Ensure your guests are seated with a large glass of Italian red wine.
Add a square of pasta to the bottom of the bowl. Then a layer of ox cheek and some sauce. Then another layer of pasta. Then a spoonful of glossy sauce. And then a few tomatoes on top. Then a liberal sprinkling of parmesan and a turn or two of black pepper. Then serve.
The pasta was perfect. But the star was undoubtedly the quiveringly tender cheeks which almost shouted with flavour and swooned under the glossy sheen of the deep, dark sauce. The tomatoes added a burst of sweetness and the three year old parmesan from La Fromagerie added a grainy, creamy salinity and umami punch. It’s always hard to comment on a dish you’ve invented and made yourself… but it was awesome.
The open ravioli technique worked brilliantly, behaving a bit like lasagne, or a pasta sandwich! But next time I’d like to make tortelli or ravioli properly having been inspired by Gastro1. They just look a bit fiddly and have a tendency to leak water. But I will do my best to conquer them.
Louis from Spilt Wine suggests drinking 2007 Mus ‘T’ red from Domaine de la Graveirette with this dish.
Dos Hermanos has got a great recipe for Beef Rendang that would work brilliantly with ox cheeks
The British Larder has a great post about a dish from Sat Bains featuring ox cheeks and oysters
New York Times with Mario Batali on ox cheeks
Waitrose "Forgotten Cuts" forum
eGullet on ox cheeks