Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ox cheeks

They may come from opposite ends of the beast but oxtail and ox cheeks do the same job.  Not for the ox, obviously, but for the cook.  For a start they are both classed as offal.  Why?  They’re cuts of meat if you ask me, and damn fine cuts of meat at that.  Not that I’m complaining, it means they’re cheap.  I got my ox cheeks off the butchery counter at Waitrose where they appear occasionally labelled as a “forgotten cut” – a promotional campaign that I have to admit works for me, and has me popping in to my nearest Waitrose whenever I’m in the area, just to see what they might have.  I like to think that, like oxtail over the past couple of years, ox cheeks might actually get remembered and become more commonly available.  I just hope that in doing so they don’t become more expensive.

Dense meat, tasty bands of fat
In fact, even if they do become a little more expensive on account of becoming more popular then I would take that hit.  It would after all be no more than an inevitable consequence of what, in the greater scheme of things, would be a good thing.  Oxcheek and oxtail after all are a very nearly perfect encapsulation of the whole Fergus Henderson/St John concept of ‘nose to tail eating’, a concept that is about rather more than just culinary fashion.  Yes, at St John it is very much about how really, really good those odd bits of the animal we choose to call offal, or just forget about entirely, can actually taste, but there is a bigger picture too, a picture composed of several different but interlinking elements – a bigger mosaic if you like.   

Firstly there are questions of ethics, both the duty of respect owed to an animal we have killed for food, to waste as little of it’s carcass as possible, to make the best use of it that its death was least in vain, and the duty of care owed to an animal being raised for food, which leads us, hopefully to a move away from intensive farming and therefore, inevitably, to fewer animals being slaughtered.  Secondly, economics, particularly in the current climate, with the obvious benefits to your pocket of making the most of what we have, and to your palate of making great food out of cheap cuts.  Thirdly, and perhaps most profoundly, there’s the issue of the environmental cost of raising animals for meat – for me, the one awkwardly convincing argument for vegetarianism.  All three of these arguments lead us to one compelling conclusion, particularly in the face of a rapidly expanding world population and global climate change: we have to make more use of fewer animals.  I’m just skimming the surface here, obviously, this is just a blog, after all.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall covers the subject in much more depth, and with both passion and clarity of thought, in his Meat book.

Four ox cheeks, cut into BIG chunks

Enough ethics, then, on to cooking.  As I say, oxtail and ox cheek do the same job for the cook, by which, principally, I mean that they stew beautifully, long and slow, with a depth of flavour that is pure essence of beef, and enough fat – good fat – to turn a dense velvety gravy into springy jelly when cooled.  Making a stew that is reason enough in itself to embrace autumn, look forward to the coming winter and forget any lingering regret for the passing of summer.

Big chunks, seasoned flour, paprika
chunky onion, celery, carrot and garlic
The technique and ingredients for my ox cheek stew were so close to those for my oxtail stew that I’ll just refer you to my earlier post for details.  With oxtail though, remember that a lot of the weight of the meat is bone, so with ox cheek you could reduce the proportion of meat, by weight, to other ingredients by up to as much as half, and you’d have a good, classic beef stew.  Or you could do what I did and keep the proportions about the same, cut the ox cheeks into really big chunks (2-3 inch cubes, rather than the more usual 1-1.5 inch dice) for a super rich, dense dish of braised ox cheeks and veg in gravy.  Or, in other words, a classic beef stew with extra beef.

Other variations over the oxtail recipe were chopping the celery into 1-1.5 inch lengths rather than slicing it, to better match the proportions of the meat, I guess, and making the liquid half and half beef stock and red wine.  I also fried up some mushrooms (just ordinary chesnut ones this time, I’m afraid) and added those for the last half hour in the pot.  The main variation in flavour was a healthy whack of liquoricey tones.  I ground up a good pinch of fennel seeds and aniseed and added them to the seasoning for the flour instead of the English mustard as in the previous post, and threw a whole star anise into the pot too along with the bay leaf.  I know a lot of people are not fans of liquorice, and if you are one of those you may be sceptical, but believe me, and not just me, star anise really works as a seasoning for pretty much any meat, and particularly in any kind of slow cooked dish.

Four big ox cheeks made two good meals for the two of us, with at least one more stored in the freezer for a rainy, or maybe snowy day.  I did the usual trick of serving up the stew one night as it comes out of the pot with mashed potato and pickled red cabbage, and a salad on the side; then with a couple of chunks of meat shredded in a few ladles of the gravy to make a sauce for gnocchi.  Again with a salad on the side.  Both salads were variations on a theme, suitable for matching up to the big beefy flavours of the stew.  Baby leaf spinach, sliced fennel and celery leaves mixed with capers and red onion on one night, black olives and red pepper the next, with a good, punchy, mustardy dressing.

1 comment:

  1. Posting the salad stuff there reminds me: I saw Jamie Oliver on TV yesterday, on his 30 Minute Meals show, talking about always making sure you taste test your salad dressing, and he made the point that what you are looking for when tasting is that there should be "just a little bit too much salt, and a little bit too much vinegar." Absolutely Jamie. So many recipes you come across have the oil to vinegar ratio tilted way too far in favour of the oil, for fear of offending anyone. And then they add sugar! Personally, I'd say an oil/vinegar ratio of 2/1's a good starting point, plenty of salt, pepper and mustard. No sugar. Ever. It's a salad. Not a dessert...