A Bit of Thanksgiving Corrective
Before the standard roast turkey, stuffing, and gravy overtook Thanksgiving dinner like some monocultural virus decimating all other species and preparations, New Englanders enjoyed a healthy diversity of meat, game, and poultry on their annual festive board. Describing a typical New England Thanksgiving of the time, the December 23, 1801 issue of the Hampshire Gazette enthusiastically details steaming joints of roast beef, platters of mutton, tender chicken pies, and succulent geese alongside the reasonably-sized and well-dressed turkey to be found on the typical regional table. Alas, the modern turkey is not only an invasive weed of a bird driving out the many pretty Thanksiving offerings of the past, it is also untidy and overgrown, usually a titan of 18 to 22 pounds that takes visceral strength and uncanny arm movements to wrestle into the oven. Ah, for the eight or nine or even ten pound dainty fowl of yore. And in case we haven’t made our anti-turkey case sufficiently strong, be it remembered that the big bird is, after all, yet more poultry in a contemporary culinary world more awash in the stuff than the Jersey shore currently is in storm detritus. So if you, like us, find in these few weeks after Thanksgiving that you’d like a break from the early 21st century’s relentless feathered regimen, now might be just the time to stew up some beef cheeks. Yup, beef cheeks. Don’t let the name of the cut put you off—we’re talking cheeks, yes, but not of the posterior kind. And if eating head parts isn’t something you’ve done before, this is a perfect way to start—the cut is small and the preparation uncomplicated. Trimmed and cooked long and slowly in Guinness stout and a couple of glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon until the meat falls apart under a fork’s gentle prodding, beef cheeks have a deep, rich savor all their own. Serve them over toasted French bread, ladle on a bit of their own spiced gravy, light the candles, and be prepared to be blissfully transported.
It’s no surprise given their exquisite taste that braised beef cheeks have become trendy in snobbish food circles. But that doesn’t stop them from being a perfect late autumn dish for those of us who mostly learn of metropolitan fads only decades after the fact. The recipe for them given by Hannah Woolley in The Queen-like Closet is also a perfect example of how inspired a simple seventeenth-century dish can be.
4 pounds beef cheeks, about 3 pounds after fat and silverskin are trimmed
1 bunch parsley
4 sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 small handful thyme, about 5-6 stalks
12 ounces Guinness stout
2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
Thick slices of good-quality bread, preferably French bread, 2 per person
“some whole Spice”
1 stick cinnamon
10 whole cloves
10 allspice berries
1 teaspoon sea salt
3-inch square of cheesecloth
Our Version of Hannah Woolley’s “To Bake a Bulloks Cheek to Be Eaten Hot”
First we preheated oven to 325° F. We got out our meat, spices, salt, wine, stout, herbs, cheesecloth, twine, and toothpicks. Next we trimmed the beef cheeks. This took some time as they were covered with a thick layer of gnarly fat that snuck into crevices of the meat and was difficult to extract, as well with as a good bit of filmy membrane, aka silverskin.
Take your time with this step, don’t get discouraged at all the trimmings, and you’ll get a nice looking piece of meat at the end; hurry, become overzealous, or just plain sloppy and you’ll get cheek mincemeat. When we were done, we weighed the cleaned meat and the trimmings and discovered that we’d lost about a pound (maybe a bit more even) in all. This of course makes the cut more expensive than the price we paid per pound, but it’s what the cheeks needed and we ended up with some right good meat.
We removed the leaves from the thyme sprigs and the needles from the rosemary stalks by holding a single herb stalk in one hand and running two pinched fingers of the other hand down the length of the stalk in the opposite direction from the way the leaves grow. The thyme is a small leaf and needs no further chopping. We bundled the rosemary needles together and chopped them small. Then we made a mound of the parsley, sage leaves, rosemary, and thyme, mixed them together and chopped roughly. This would become our stuffing of parsley and sweet herbs, as Hannah Woolley instructs.
There is a natural flap of meat at one end of each beef cheek that makes a nice cavity in which to insert the herbs. We did this, then rolled the meat and secured each piece with two toothpicks. We placed our stuffed cheeks in the enameled dutch oven. The quantity we had just covered the bottom of the pot in one layer.
We then made up our sachet of spices, putting 1 stick cinammon, 10 whole cloves, and 10 allspice berries into a square of cheesecloth and tying it up with cotton twine. We added the teaspoon of sea salt to the pot. We like to undersalt our food (just a taste preference). You could add another teaspoon or two of salt, depending on taste.
In went the two cups of Cabernet, 12 ounces of Guinness stout (another rich stout would do just as well), and the spice sachet.
To retain moisture while the dish cooked slowly in the oven, we placed a piece of waxed paper over the mixture,and then added the dutch oven cover.
Now it was ready for oven braising. We left it alone for three hours, until curiosity got the better of us. When we tested the beef, it was still tough and we were worried. But we popped it back into the oven and in another hour, all was very well indeed. Our braised beef was tender, our gravy rich and deep and fragrant with spices. We removed and discarded the sachet. As the beef was cooling, we lightly toasted the French bread rounds.
It was time to serve. Atop each piece of French bread, we placed one beef cheek and then spooned on enough gravy just to soak the bread. We served two cheeks per person. We had made brussels sprouts and mashed sweet potatoes for accompaniment.
With a glass of Cabernet and a bit of good company, this came pretty close to a perfect, and perfectly simple, meal.
Hannah Woolley's original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 232.