I'm not sure why ox cheeks aren't sold as beef cheeks. Perhaps it's just traditional, a throw back to pre-tractor times when oxen were used for pulling ploughs before being fattened up for eating, a time when offally cuts like heart, cheek, and tail also happened to be a more popular choice for the table.
Coming across ox heart on a menu these days isn't as eyebrow raising as it used to be, which says something about the influence of St John restaurant, our love of retro cooking and interest in forgotten cuts. Still, cheeks, tail and heart haven't quite reached the mainstream yet, although it is great to see Waitrose stocking cheeks of both ox and pig varieties. Last week, they had them on offer at £4.99 a kilo, which is an absolute steal for such a superb cut of meat. Long may they stay at that price, and away from the gastropub menus that will drive up demand and price, as they did the formerly cheap and humble lamb shank. If you come across them, then buy them by the truckload and stick them in the freezer. If your freezer isn't big enough, buy a new freezer. If your house isn't big enough for another freezer, buy a new house. They really are that good.
To me, a large cheek is the king of braising cuts. Unfortunately most packaged supermarket braising or casserole steak is diced small and is cut from the chuck which has a tendency to dry out when slow cooked, whereas cheek, shin or blade have enough collagen running through them to not only keep the meat moist, but add a lovely viscous quality to the braising liquid as the collagen turns to gelatine during the cooking process. I seek them out not only for western braises like the Flemish Carbonnade de Boeuf or a Provencal Daube but also for Thai red curries, Malaysian Rendangs and even Mexican Chillies.
To some people, the idea of eating cheeks is off-putting. I don't know why. Perhaps they over-think it and conjure up visions of flabby, fatty goo with a strange wobbly consistency. Interestingly, to my six year old child who is free of such preconceptions, they are simply the tastiest part of a cow. Rich, meaty and packed with flavour.
Give me cheeks over fillet steak any day, in fact give me Braised Ox Cheeks with Blue Cheese and Horseradish Remoulade for Sunday lunch and I will be a very happy man. The braising liquid makes the most sublime sauce and plenty of it too. You can even increase the quantity of braising liquid so that you have left overs for accompanying other dishes. Reduce it down to a glace and stir a spoonful through your bolognaise sauce. With the cheeks, just remember that they need long slow cooking - the cheek is a hard working muscle, what with all that time spent chewing the cud.
Three things that go well with beef : celeriac, blue cheese, and horseradish. Combine them all in this new take on a traditional remoulade and you'll have a lovely bit of texture to go with the meltingly soft meat. Add some unctuous truffled mash, rich with butter and cream, some roasted carrot, blanched peas and braised fennel to accompany and for a Sunday lunch, don't forget some Yorkshire puds to finish off the dish.
BRAISED OX CHEEKS
2 tbsp olive oil
2 ox cheeks, trimmed
200ml red wine
1.5l beef or chicken stock
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
½ leek, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp tomato purée
½ star anise
Salt and pepper
Cornflour to thicken
Heat oven to 140°C fan
Cut the ox cheeks into quarters.
In a large not stick frying pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil until smoking hot. Just before cooking, season the meat well with salt and then add to the pan. You should hear a lovely sizzle. Leave the cheeks in the pan for about 1 minute before turning. You are aiming to get a nice caramelised colour on all sides of the meat. When all meat is coloured, transfer to a casserole. Deglaze the pan with a bit of water and scrape up any meaty residues from the bottom of the pan.
Add a splash more oil to the pan then add the vegetables with the star anise and cook until caramelised.
Add the tomato puree and cook for another 30- 45 seconds. Transfer to the casserole along with the meat.
Deglaze the pan with the port and reduce to a glaze. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Pour over the meat and vegetables.
Add the chicken stock, bay and thyme to the casserole. Place a lid on and cook in oven for 3 hours or until the meat is tender.
Allow everything to cool in the pan.
Once cool, lift out the meat with a slotted spoon and keep warm on a plate or refrigerate if using later. Strain the braising liquid through a sieve. If required straight away, boil to reduce and intensify the flavour then thicken with cornflour until sauce consistency.
If possible, make this at least a day before serving. Pour the strained braising liquid into a narrow jug and chill in the fridge. The liquid will set solid and sediment will rise to the top which can be easily scooped off, leaving an almost consommé like sauce underneath which you can reduce to a seriously professional looking jus. The cheeks can be easily rewarmed in the microwave before plating.
CELERIAC, BLUE CHEESE AND HORSERADISH REMOULADE
¼ small celeriac, peeled and julienned
20g soft blue cheese, broken into small pieces (I use Bleu d’Auvergne or Gorgonzola)
1 tbsp horseradish cream
1 tbsp mayonnaise
Salt and pepper
Blanch the celeriac in boiling water for 1 minute. Run under cold running water to cool, then drain. Squeeze out as much water as you can and place on kitchen paper to absorb the remaining water.
Combine the celeriac with the other ingredients.
Taste and adjust with more cheese or horseradish if required.