The generation of cooks before me bemoan the price of lamb shanks. Lamb shanks were once a really cheap cut, they say, but chefs made them trendy and demand and costs went up and, oh no, now they are just so expensive. And I nod, because I didn’t discover them in the days when they were cheap as chips, so their change in fortunes doesn’t really affect me.
But ox cheeks? That’s a different matter. For the last few years, I’ve become more and more single-minded about ox cheeks being the best cut of beef for braising and, simply put, no other stewing cut will do. So imagine my distress when I noticed that ox cheek is now £7.49 a kilo at Waitrose – yes, the price is creeping up. It’s no surprise really, given ox cheek’s popularity on restaurant and pub menus, but there’s still a part of me selfishly wishing that more shoppers would carry on dismissing it as some odd or offal-ly cut.
And yes, I do realise there are those who’ve been cooking ox cheek for years and years and years; I’m still a Johnny-come-lately in their eyes!
I don’t help my case in hoping the enthusiasm for ox cheek will die down again – when I bought the ox cheeks for this recipe, another customer came to the meat counter while the butcher was carefully cubing it for me (far faster with his sharp knives and experience than I am at home); I ended up telling the waiting customer how wonderful a braising cut ox cheek is and, when she expressed more interest, we chatted about potential recipes. Now I’m torn between hoping she’ll go ahead and discover for herself just how good it is and wanting her to dismiss it as the ravings of a talk-to-strangers crazy lady. Hey, I’m a contradictory creature, what can I tell you?
A couple of weeks ago, when we made baked chorizo, cod and potato, I mentioned foul weather being the inspiration for hearty dishes. As we move into March it’s still pretty cold, though the rain has been punctuated by some gloriously sunny days. I’m still craving comfort food.
We made this simple Chinese-Style Braised Ox Cheek for visiting friends and it was utterly delicious. We followed this BBC Good Food recipe almost exactly, but added button mushrooms; mushrooms work so well with Chinese flavours plus they’re a favourite of mine in any meat stew. One of the things that drew me to this recipe was its recommendation of ox cheeks as a perfect cut for the dish.
Please note, this dish makes no claims to be authentically Chinese – the technique of flouring and browning the meat is a firmly European method of stew-making, as far as I’m aware. However the Chinese five-spice, anise, garlic, ginger and soy sauce create a distinctly Chinese flavour profile that is very satisfying!
Chinese-Style Braised Ox Cheek
3-4 tablespoons cooking oil
6 garlic cloves, crushed (or equivalent good quality garlic puree)
Large thumb-size piece fresh root ginger, peeled and shredded (or equivalent good quality ginger puree)
1 bunch spring onions, cut into 4 cm lengths
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced (or equivalent good quality chilli puree)
1.5 kg ox cheek, cubed (or other braising beef)
2 tablespoons plain flour, well seasoned
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 star anise
2 teaspoons muscovado sugar (or any sugar you have in stock)
3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine (or dry sherry)
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
500ml beef stock (from cube or melt pot)
200-300 grams small button mushrooms, washed
Note: ox cheek is the common name for this cut of beef, but it’s also sold as beef cheek in some shops.
Note: I was introduced to Gourmet Garden’s herbs and spices last year. These are pureed and packed into tubes, genuinely do taste just like using fresh, and last for 90 days in the fridge after they’ve been opened. We’ve really loved using them in our cooking and I’m really pleased they’re now available in some of the major supermarkets.
- Heat two tablespoons of cooking oil in a large casserole and fry the garlic, ginger, spring onions and chilli for a few minutes until soft. Tip into a bowl and set aside.
- Toss the beef in seasoned flour, add more cooking oil to the pan and brown the meat in batches, adding more oil as and when needed. Don’t try and brown too much meat in one batch as this causes it to steam. It took us 4 to 5 minutes to brown each batch. Put the browned beef into a large bowl or plate and set aside.
- Add the five-spice powder and star anise into the pan, add back the spring onion mix and fry together for a minute. Add the sugar and all the browned beef. Turn the heat to high, add the Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry and mix vigorously, scraping any meaty bits at the bottom of the pan into the liquid.
- Preheat the oven to 150 C.
- Pour in the soy sauce and stock, bring to a simmer, place the lid onto the casserole and transfer to the oven. Cook for 2.5 to 3 hours, stirring after the first hour.
- An hour before the end of the cooking time, add the button mushrooms and stir them in.
- If the stew has a lot of liquid, remove the lid half an hour before the end of the cooking time, to allow it to reduce a little.
- When the cooking time is up, the beef should be very very soft. Taste, season if necessary and serve.
We followed the original recipe’s serving suggestion of pak choi (which we stir fried with a little garlic and sesame oil) and basmati rice.
As we were cooking for four, we had some leftovers. These were delicious the next day, re-heated, the beef shredded into small pieces and served mixed into big bowls of pasta!
Does winter weather make you long for hearty stews too? If so, what’s your favourite recipe and which cuts of meat do you like to use?