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Cheeky Beef

Lizzie Munro
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

Food trend followers may have noticed joues de boeuf—a traditional fare of French bistros—appearing on menus across the country. What mightn’t be as obvious to at-home chefs is that this tasty meat treat is a modestly priced cut called beef cheek that is simple to prepare at home—especially in cooler weather when smoking slow and low outdoors is inconvenient.

The surprisingly easy technique is braising. It requires very little hands-on time and renders a meal that makes you seem like a gourmet. You sear the meat to caramelize it, building flavor before it’s covered in stock or wine and simmered for hours.

Beef cheeks—exactly what they claim to be—are admittedly not a supermarket staple, but a good butcher can order them or may even have some frozen. (I’ve bought from New York City’s O. Ottomanelli & Sons.) Unprepared, the heavily worked chewing muscles that line the jowls make an extremely tough cut that’s often flecked with gristly connective tissue. With the proper treatment, however, it reveals fine texture and intricate marbling. The tough bits of tissue melt away in a heady mixture of wine, vegetables and aromatics, and the meat takes on a beefy richness that’s all its own. On your plate, you can cut it with a spoon.

Buy about two pounds of cheeks and trim away any glaringly large strips of fat. Cut the remainder into large chunks about the size of a fist and season heavily with salt and pepper. Add about a quarter of a pound of thick-cut bacon to a heavy-duty, ovenproof pan—such as a Dutch oven—with a tight fitting lid. Cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp and set aside to drain. Add the beef cheeks to the pan and raise the heat to high, turning them occasionally until they’re heavily browned all over.

Remove the pan from the heat and add in a sliced yellow onion, shallots or leeks and a bunch or two of baby carrots. A few sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary or a bay leaf are welcomed additions. Return the bacon to the pan and pour in a bottle of dry red wine. Put the lid on the pan and transfer it to a 325-degree oven. Allow the beef cheeks to cook, covered, for four to five hours, until very tender but not falling apart. Skim off any excess surface fat, and serve the beef cheeks with roasted or mashed potatoes and some good crusty bread to soak up the rich, savory braising liquid.

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