Cheek is a wonderful cut of meat from any animal. Just think about the amount of exercise your cheeks get on a daily basis. All of that chewing and talking means that our cheeks hardly have a break all day. It's the same with animals*. Cod cheeks are wonderful, pork cheeks are succulent but the daddy of them all are ox cheeks.
Even when cows aren't eating they're still chewing the cud. The amount of work that those cheeks go through is mind boggling and all of that work means the meat is full of flavour, but also full of tough fibres and sinew that require slow cooking to break them down. The last time we had ox cheek we went for a traditional beef and ale stew but tonight I fancied something a bit different, so I raided the fridge for inspiration.
The usual suspects were there but tucked at the bottom of the salad crisper was a piece of ginger. That was when I decided to try a Chinese inspired stew. Onions, garlic, red chilli and the ginger softened in vegetable oil, formed the base of the stew. The browned ox cheek was added along with light and dark soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sweetened vinegar sauce, five spice, szechuan peppercorns and some stock. The stew was then left to simmer on a low heat for three hours.
The finished stew was superb. The liquid had reduced down into a sticky sauce, thickened by the natural collagen from the cheeks. The sweetness from the vinegar sauce balanced the saltiness of the soy, and the heat from the chili, szechuan peppercorns and ginger grew with every bite, without ever becoming overpowering.
The thing with cheeks is you only get two of them on any animal. To my mind this should make them an expensive rarity, but as with most of the slow cook cuts they're relatively cheap. We found our ox cheeks at Oakwood Farmers Market and we'll be looking for them again.
*Apart from the talking of course.