The first time I went to France I was cooked a delicious, meaty stew in a thick, dark gravy, similar to a beef bourguignon. It was delicious, but as I almost reached my last spoonful, I was informed by the cook that the meat was pigs trotters.
Dieu merci (thank god) I found out after, as I’m not sure I could have eaten it if I was told before the meal. This experience gave me the nerve to try all sorts of new (and slightly scary) things, including snails and foie gras – délicieux!
In the 1600s, meat was a rare commodity for many French peasants, and was usually only eaten on special occasions. City people had much better access to meat, but could often only afford the cheap offcuts that required a lot of cooking. These days, some of these offcuts have made their way back into some of the fanciest restaurants.
If you have the time to both cook and prepare it (or are lucky enough to own a slow-cooker), using cheaper cuts of meat can be both cost effective and delicious. Look out for cuts like cheek, osso bucco (shins) and ox tail.
Searing your meat before putting it in the oven (or slow cooker) gives it a deeper flavour and caramelised texture on the outside.
Some tips for searing your casserole meat:
- Make sure your pan is hot and has a thin coating of oil.
- Don’t overcrowd the pan – cook the meat in batches if necessary.
- Leave it alone! Give it a couple of minutes on each side, but don’t constantly play with it (this is one I struggle with!)
On my quest to discover new cuts of meat, I stumbled across beef cheek at the butcher recently. As I mentioned in the last post, I really enjoyed eating beef cheek in France, and set out to recreate a version of the dish I had eaten at Le Fumoir in Paris. Despite a surge in popularity recently, I discovered that beef cheek was about the same price as buying any other cheap casserole meat such as chuck steak.
When trimming your beef cheek, you’ll need to make sure you have a very sharp knife, as the raw cheek is very tough. In fact, I discovered just how blunt my knife had become when trimming the cheeks. I recently bought a good quality knife sharpener, and can’t recommend having one more.
Cooking stews like the one below is great for winter, and adding mandarin or orange puts a twist on more traditional recipes. They do take a good 3-4 hours (the longer the better), so pour yourself un verre du vin (glass of wine), crank up the heater and have a relaxing afternoon as your meat slowly braises.
Joues de boeuf aux mandarines:
Cooking time: Approximately 45 minutes + 3-4 hours in the oven (or more if you can wait!)
-2 Beef Cheeks
-4 Cloves garlic, crushed
-1 Brown onion, roughly diced
-2 Carrots, roughly diced
-3 Sticks celery, roughly diced
-Rind of one mandarin or orange
-2 Tbs plain flour
-Salt and pepper
-2 Cups full-bodied red wine (like a Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon)
-1 Cup beef stock
-4 Bay leaves
-6 Sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 1/2 tsp of dried)
Preheat oven to 120 degrees celsius.
Trim the excess fat and gristle off the cheeks. This is hard work, but you don’t need to be too fussy as most of it will melt off as it braises (making for a delicious sauce).
Cut your cheeks in half and put them in a large zip-lock bag with the flour and some salt and pepper. Shake the bag around until the meat is coated in flour.
In your casserole pot, fry the meat in a little oil for a couple of minutes on each side until it has browned. It’s best to cook the meat in batches so you don’t overcrowd the pan.
Put the meat aside and deglaze your dish with a little red wine, scraping any burnt meat off the bottom of the pan (again, this will make your sauce better). Coat the pan with oil again and fry your onion and garlic, followed by carrot and celery until it has started to soften.
Re-introduce your meat and add the wine, beef stock, mandarin rind, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to the boil. Once boiling, put the lid on your pot and put it into the oven.
After 3-4 hours or once the meat falls apart when you gently scrape it with a spoon, take the meat out of the braising liquid and set aside (you can put it in a dish, cover it with foil and put it back in the oven if you’re worried it will cool. Turn the oven off first – there should be enough residual heat).
Using a stick blender, blend your sauce until there are no lumps. On a low heat, reduce the sauce until it reaches your desired thickness. If the sauce is a little too zesty, balance it out with about a tablespoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt.
Pour the sauce over the meat and serve with mashed potato, polenta or crusty bread.