Food for Thought
An Offal Story
Cow cheeks and barbacoa
People spend more money on organic meat than on conventional meat for a range of health, environmental and ethical reasons. At my local store, however, none of the meat for sale is organic except the dog food. Unfortunately for my dog, I've been eating most of it myself.
It's Francis' fault. She works at the store's deli counter and is a passionate dog lover who believes that dogs, being natural hunters and carnivores, do best on a diet of raw meat. Since Francis also believes in the value of organic food (even if the store's management doesn't), she drives around the state to organic farms in order to make bulk purchases of frozen blocks of various cheap animal parts, like chicken backs and cow intestines. At the store, Francis has a little freezer set up near the checkout aisle in which she stocks her organic dog food. It’s at such low prices she's probably not making a penny.
One day I noticed some beef bones in Francis' freezer. They had a good amount of meat attached and were labeled organic. I bought them, baked ’em till the meat was nice and brown, and made soup.
On my next visit it was chicken backs, which are what's left after all the breasts, thighs, wings and legs have been removed. A chicken back is mostly fat and bone, but there’s usually a bit of meat attached (Francis says uncooked chicken bones, which are less brittle than cooked bones, are OK for dogs to eat). I removed the fat and gave it to the dog, apologized for eating the rest of her food, and proceeded to make a tasty pot of chicken back soup.
Standing in line at the store a few days later, I noticed a 3-pound bag of frozen beef cheeks in Francis' freezer. At $1.67 per pound, it was some of the cheapest organic beef I'd ever bought, with no shred of fat or bone. The frozen cheeks were sliced into cubic rectangles about the size of chalkboard erasers.
Southwesterners are familiar with barbacoa as a popular taco filling. Barbacoa is Spanish for beef cheeks that have been braised, baked, steamed or boiled to tenderness. This is no easy feat, as the cheeks are perhaps the toughest cut of meat on the cow thanks to the exercise those muscles get from all the chewing cows do. In addition to the dense, fine-grained muscle fiber, beef cheeks are also crisscrossed with gristly connective tissue.
Standing in line at the store, I noticed a 3-pound bag of frozen beef cheeks. At $1.67 per pound, it was some of the cheapest organic beef I'd ever bought, with no shred of fat or bone.
This gristle renders undercooked cheeks virtually inedible to those without cheek muscles as strong as a cow's. But when sufficiently cooked, the connective tissue melts into a creamy substance that, in terms of flavor and mouth feel, is nearly indistinguishable from fat.
Back in the day, the entire cow head was baked in a pit lined with mesquite coals. After hours of pit-cooking, the cheeks, tongue, brain and other bits of flesh were stripped from the skull and eaten. This practice, already on the wane, was buried for good when the threat of Mad Cow Disease turned anything in the vicinity of a cow's brain into a potential biohazard.
To prepare barbacoa for tacos, many cooks simply sprinkle the cheeks with salt, wrap them in aluminum foil and bake them for 5 to 6 hours at 300 degrees until the gristle melts. When the foil is opened, the cook is rewarded with meat that's crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The meat is teased apart with forks or fingers and served in tortillas with cilantro, avocado, raw onion and a squeeze of lime.
I've been playing around with a recipe that applies the principle of boeuf bourguignon—aka beef braised in burgundy—to cow cheeks. Boeuf bourguignon is an immensely involved recipe (Julia Child's version includes 45 steps), but the French classic can be approximated as easily as putting meat in a pot with red wine and baking with the lid on until tender.
Start by placing the desired quantity of beef cheek, salted, in a pan under the broiler, turning often until browned on all sides. Put the browned meat in a Dutch oven and cover with a 50-50 mix of red wine and stock, five bay leaves, a leaf or two of sage, and a cup of brewed coffee for every pound of meat (if you wish). Braise in the oven with the lid on until tender (4 to 6 hours at 300 degrees). Check the fluid level often, adding wine as necessary to keep the meat at least half-covered. When the cheeks finally become tender, taste and adjust seasoning with salt, if necessary. Carrots, potatoes, whole red chile pods (with seeds removed) and whole cloves of garlic may all be added at this point and are fabulous additions to the joues de boeuf.
When the veggies are done, keep cooking until the liquid concentrates to your desired thickness—remember, it will thicken as it cools. Whatever you do, for the love of dog food, don't let the liquid completely evaporate.
The softened meat absorbs a sweet fruitiness from the wine. Bites combined with a wine-soaked clove of garlic are heavenly. There will likely be chewy veins of gristle in the meat that haven't completely broken down, and these can be set aside or given to the dog, who may be quite hungry if you ate her dinner.
It's not like I'm trying to save a buck by wolfing down dog food. I have a freezer full of meat from deer, elk and a grass-fed cow named Wendell. It's just that many so-called "off-cuts" of meat such as beef cheeks are so delicious I couldn't care less if they strike some as Depression-era food or dog food. Steak snobs are welcome to their opinions—lack of demand is why I can buy organic beef cheeks for $1.69 a pound. On the other hand, if more people would eat these parts, we could get away with raising fewer animals for slaughter. And if it came to that, I'd happily pay more for this delicacy.