Ox or beef cheeks are quite a tough cut, they are the heavy duty muscles cows use for chewing. Their high content of connective tissue makes them a prime candidate for slow braising. Clasically, ox cheeks are braised in red wine or port, this recipe uses sweet red vermouth instead.
The seasoning is minimal. In a classic wine braise you might add bay leaves and a sprig of thyme or rosemary. But only salt and pepper are used here in order not to interfere with the vermouth which is a concotion of many different herbs and spices.
Because of their connective tissue ox cheeks are not everbody’s favourite. If you dislike this, this dish might put you off. Or it might just convert you. The dish needs time and a bit of logistics in the final part of preparation. Make sure you can heat four vessels at the same time on your stovetop.
Please don’t be stingy with the vermouth. The cheap standard Martini or Cinzano vermouths are just not rich enough. We want the thick oily richness of Carpano, Cocchi or similar top shelf vermouths.
I used (yielding 3 servings):
- 2 British ox cheeks, total weight 900 g
- 1 medium size carrot
- 1 parsnip of the same size as the carrot
- ca. 200 ml Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
- 750 g floury potatoes
- 50 grams of the best unsalted butter you can find
- 150 ml light cream (milk or whipping cream work too, if you prefer)
- 1 thick leek, ca. 300 g
- Some lard for searing and sauteeing (clarified butter or vegetable oil with a high smoke point works just as well)
- Ground black pepper
- Balsamic vinegar and chilli powder (optional)
Preheat the oven to 120 degrees. Rinse the cheeks and pat dry. If they come skin-on, remove the skin with a sharp knife. Also remove loose bits of meat or connective tissue so the cheeks look nicely shaped, but try to cut off as little as possible. Don’t discard the trimmings, they will be used in the braise to make the sauce richer. Finely dice the carrot and the parsnip.
On high heat, heat up some fat in your braising vessel (I swear by cast iron) so the bottom is just covered. Sear the cheeks from both sides for a few minutes so they get a nicely browned surface. Depending on the size of your vessel you may need to do this one by one. Set the cheeks aside and sear the trimmings now. Possibly you need to add a little more fat. Once the trimmings are browned as well, remove them and add the vegetables. Stir for about a minute and then turn down the heat and cover the vessel so the meat residue from searing will be softened. After a another two minutes or so open the lid again and add a splash of vermouth to deglaze. Stir constantly until all residues have dissolved and the vermouth has largely evaporated.
Now turn off the heat on the stovetop. Spread the vegetables evenly in the vessel and put the trimmings on top. Then put the cheeks on top of the trimmings and pour the rest of the vermouth into the vessel, avoiding to hit the meat. Cover and place in the oven.
Side note: I am an advocate of low liquid level braising because then you have a larger surface for flavourful Maillard browning. I have seen recipes using a full bottle of wine or even more. But if the meat is all covered in liquid, you can hardly call it brasing anymore. It rather becomes a stew. If the lid of your vessel is reasonably tight, you won’t lose much liquid and the steam building up inside will prevent the meat from drying out while still allowing browing. Additionally the vegetables provide liquid as well. You should periodically check evaporation so you can top up a little if needed.
After 3 1/2 hours in the oven, remove the meat and strain the sauce into a saucpan. Also remove a few spoonfuls of the vegetables and set aside. Put the meat back into the braising vessel, close the lid and put it back into the oven. Lower the oven temperature to 80 degrees. The oven now acts as compartment to keep anything warm that may be finished earlier than needed. Set up the potatoes in a pot of salter water and bring to a boil.
Depending on the amount of sauce you have, reduce it to about half on high heat. If necessary you can top up with beef or veal stock before reducing but don’t use vermouth. When the sauce has reduced, add the cooked vegetables and blitz with an immersion blender. If needed, add salt carefully. The sauce will be quite sweet from the vermouth and will have a slightly bitter edge. To counter this you can add some balsamic vinegar. Also a little chili powder can add a bit of depth, but the sauce is not supposed to be spicy hot. I found the bitterness a bit too strong, so I also added a splash of cream which worked quite well. Let simmer on lowest heat until serving.
While the potatoes are boiling, slowly brown the butter a small saucepan on lowest possible heat until it has a hazelnut colour. Also bring the cream slowly to a boil and let it simmer. When the brown butter is ready, put it into the oven to keep warm and liquid.
Remove the outer layer from the leek and cut off the top so you are left with the stem. Cut into quarters lengthwise and then slice into 3 mm strips. This can be done shortly before the sauce and the potatoes are prepared to avoid logistics problems. Sauté the leeks for a few minutes in the same type of fat you used for searing the ox cheeks. You can use a skillet, but if you are fortunate enough to own a proper steel wok and a gas stove, this will work even better. Only sauté on medium heat until the leeks are just done. They should not become mushy nor browned. Again, put them onto plate or into a small dish and keep warm in the oven.
The potatoes should be nice and soft on the inside by now. Drain them into a colander, peel them while still hot (yes, we are tough cooks) and return them to the pot. Mash them with a potato masher. Turn on the stove to lowest heat and work the mashed potatoes with a wooden spoon for a few minutes to release some vapour. Then work in the brown butter and afterwards carefully add the hot cream until your desired thickness is obtained. I made it rather firm in order to avoid a mess on the plate when the sauce is added. Now mix in the leeks and season with salt and nutmeg to taste.
Cut the ox cheeks into slices. Serve next to the mashed potatoes on a plate and partly cover with sauce. You may want to add a little salt on the sliced meat. If you have done everything right, the meat will melt in your mouth.
Recommended drink: The vermouth you used for cooking as an aperitif, a robust but fruity red wine like pinot noir or merlot with the dish.