Monday 7 November 2016

Under pressure... beef cheeks in brown beer

Half a cheek each will suffice, sounds like the most scant and uncomfortable seating instructions. Not something you'd want in a restaurant. (Although, Wagamama comes close; their benches seemingly designed more for the svelte diner, all angular like a folding chair,  rather than your robust sofa of a Welshman slurping down the udon.) Thankfully, the cheeks under scrutiny here are the masseter muscles of the cow, usually known as beef or ox cheek. In any ruminant these muscles are used constantly to move the jaw and so like their cousins in the cheap seats: ribs, shins, skirts, blades and briskets, they require low, slow cooking to deliver a tender texture with a great flavour.

Beef cheeks in beer is a dish I've been skirting around for months, if not years. I'm not sure why so hesitant. Maybe just the fact that cheeks are not a supermarket meat but then, neither are most of the other joints I cook. They sure aren't lookers either - members of my family recoiled - but what they lack in raw aesthetics they more than make up for on the plate.

And why beer? Well, it sounds so British doesn't it? Beef in beer with boiled carrots and cabbage. The French and Belgians would call this a carbonnade of course. 

While researching recipes I remembered that I needed a new pressure cooker. My last one lost its safety valve. It was a nasty cheap thing anyway; aluminium. If I used it to brown veg or meat everything would stick to the base. You don't need a pressure cooker to do this dish but the differences in cooking times are striking. As a low oven casserole: 6 hours; in the pressure cooker: 45 minutes. Yeah. That's quite a saving of time and energy. Also, with pressure cooking the meat is at 120°C rather than the usual braise temp blipping around 100°C. This means your get more Maillard reaction - basically more beefy, umami tastules. AND any tough bits are more easily transformed into loverly, slippery things.

Oh, just look at him.
So I bought a new pressure cooker. It was, of course, MUCH more expensive than the last one, but if I've learned one thing these past few years it's 'buy cheap, buy twice'. You will not regret the extra few quid on your deathbed, unless you die of penury. It's Swiss. Just writing that gives me a shiver. It has a titanium base, which naturally makes one feel very special. How special? An aluminium base would just roll over and snore at the end of the evening, taking most of the meagre duvet with it. A titanium base would pad around their Miele kitchen, making you some green tea in a porcelain cup while arranging a car home.

I cooked the meat both ways and the pressure cooked cheeks were the hands down winners. They even evoked a 'wow' from wife and teenager. If you have a teenager, you'll know how rarely this happens. The texture is different to any other cut I've tried. There is no stringiness or granularity; this is all super supple, moist meat. It's almost, but not quite, heading for paté. It's that soft.

Beef cheeks in beer

Allow one cheek between two people. You need to start the day before eating.

A little extra time invested early on pays big dividends. Firstly make sure your cheeks are well trimmed. Some of that white membrane is very tough. Remove it. It's like skinning a fish. Now salt generously and leave for an hour or two. The salt will be drawn into the flesh making it much more tasty.

Once cleaned and salted, you need to sear the meat. Remember that colour = flavour. We want a dark crust. Many recipes tell you to do this after the marinade but I can't see why. It will be much harder to burn a crust on wet meat. To sear well, you need as much heat as you can muster. This means a big burner/hob and heavy pan combo. I used my Lodge cast iron, left on the heat for ten minutes. When I put the cheeks in, the surface fat atomises and catches alight. That's hot! Do only a few at a time. If you overcrowd the pan it will cool down.

Now to marinate the cheeks in beer for at least six hours, or traditionally, overnight. So this brings us to the choice of beer. It will make a difference: an IPA, bitter, wheat beer, dark ale, porter or stout. I tried a few and settled on a London Porter. It doesn't have the iron tang of stout but it is rich and dark with chocolate and malty overtones. Immerse the beef cheeks in the beer - a bottle or two; cover with cling film and refrigerate until needed. You might want to warn the family. It does look horrific. 

Once marinated, remove the beef and bring the beer to the boil in either your covered casserole dish or pressure cooker adding an equal volume of beef stock along with a good sprig of fresh thyme, some cloves of garlic (one per person), flattened but not cut, some chopped onion and mushrooms (cook these off in a frying pan for a few minutes for extra flavour) and a few whole carrots to be eaten later; allow two per person. Cooking time is 45 mins at full pressure or six oven hours at 130°C. Once cooked remove the meat and carrots from the heat until ready to serve. The cooking liquor should now be boiled to dramatically reduce its volume, maybe to a third. You're looking for that lovely demi-glace quality: thick and glossy like molasses. Actually you can add some molasses towards the end to sweeten a little, along with some more fresh thyme (maybe). But don't season just yet.

While the meat is cooking you might want to boil up some small white onions as a garnish. Slice in half, peel and gently boil until tender, around 30 minutes. They can be served like little petals around the beef. Brown them off in a hot buttery pan first until the edges turn golden then peel apart the layers. Season well with salt and pepper.

About 30 minutes before eating time heat up your beery gravy. Grind some black pepper over the meat and add to the casserole/pressure cooker. Turn them several times in the reducing juices. Cut the carrot into chunks and add this too. Reduce the gravy to a syrup. Now taste and season with salt and pepper. This should be a delicious gravy. Strain it before serving if you're feeling fussy.

I'm going to serve these with the onion petals, maybe on some black cabbage, blanched and then tossed in hot butter and nutmeg. I often see this next to mashed potato but that's too much pap for me. Instead perhaps some Yorkshire puddings or roast potatoes that deliver both a crisp bite and something to mop up the gravy.


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  2. you can get cheeks at waitrose in what they used to call the forgotten cuts section

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