Today, cooking is often filled with one-upmanship. Better – or more unusual – spicings. Less common, more technical or just plain cooler preparation methods. Exotic ingredients. Recipes that read like a novel.
Know what I mean?
And that’s. . .OK! I love seeing all the different things brilliant, creative chefs come up with to transform simple ingredients into astonishing dishes.
But sometimes, just cooking a great ingredient simply, with a lot of respect and maybe even a little love, is all you need to do to create an amazing dish. So it was with my beef cheeks.
I had about 2 lbs. of beautiful beef cheek – a bit of ultra lean muscle from a grass fed organically raised cow. Beef cheeks are a pretty unusual cut for your average American supermarket, so I didn’t try to get them there. I found them at our local Farmers’ Market, straight from a happy, grass-fed mostly-organic cow. You can also find them – or order them – at most butcher shops.
When confronted by an unusual ingredient or a cut that’s not often used, chefs often succumb to the urge to tart things up a bit. With beef cheeks, you can marinate them. Dry rub and refrigerate them overnight in plastic wrap. Or without plastic wrap. Create an exotic sauce with multiple dried peppers that’s also a marinade. Cook them sous vide with a ton of spices and aromatics. Sear them, slice them, poach them – the methods are endless.
All these things – don’t get me wrong – are good and some of them are very good indeed. When great chefs get creative, they can fashion extraordinary dishes from simple ingredients.
But I wanted to go for a simple preparation method as well. Something that wasn’t fussy, but that was as good as anything you could get by fussing.
Here’s what I came up with – a method that blends utter simplicity and foolproof cookery with a few reasonable seasonings for a rich, totally delicious dish that will disappear so fast it’ll make your head spin. Read on for recipe and a bonus recipe too. Here at Calorie Factory, we aim to please!
Beef Cheek Tacos (Tacos con carne mejillas) – with Bonus Recipe
Trimming the cheeks, cutting them into several pieces, rubbing them with a few simple seasonings and cooking the living hell out of them is the secret to succulent beef that is so filled with flavor you’ll be eating it by itself before you can even pop it onto the taco. Read on.
Tip: You will be cooking the cheeks for 5+ hours, so you may want to start ahead. This is a great dish to prepare around breakfast time, then everything will be ready – without doing anything much – in the afternoon, you can put it away and serve it quickly for dinner! Or. . .just eat it. Because you’ll want to.
For four or five large tacos (burrito-sized) or a bunch (technically: 8-10) of smaller tacos:
- ~2 lb. fresh beef cheeks. You can often get these from small vendors at Farmers Markets or at your local meat store. Get organic if possible, but get fresh fresh fresh! Fresh frozen is also good.
- 1 T. fine sea salt
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced and crushed
- A few slices of red onion
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- (optional) pinch or two cayenne
- Drizzle of fresh lime juice
Preheat your oven to 300 Fahrenheit (150 C)
Trim the cheeks. That means use a sharp knife to carefully remove any connective tissue – the “silvery” and very tough tissue that is on the outside in places. You do not have to remove the fat unless there’s just a huge blob of it, in which case you can trim it back a bit. Fat, remember, is good!
Cut the cheeks into 3-4 pieces, each about the size of your hand or a little larger
Rub the cheeks with all the other ingredients, drizzle with the lime juice (really about a teaspoon for each piece at the very most, just dampen them!), then wrap them in a piece of tinfoil.
Wrap the resulting package tightly in another piece of tinfoil for a tight seal. Put the packages in a baking dish or a metal pan (in case they drip) and pop into the oven where you will leave them for about 5-1/2 hours.
Remove the cheeks from the oven and let them cool a bit so you can handle them. Unwrap them and chop them into small bits (see image above). That’s it. Taste one. Or two. Or. . .hey, wait a second!! Other people will want some of that, don’t eat it all!!
Serve on tacos with your choice of accompaniments in the taco – we like very finely shredded green cabbage, cilantro sprigs, quick pickled onions (see Bonus Recipe below), avocado, (optional but good) little bit of fresh tomato, chopped (only if you can get a decent tomato!), and fresh lime juice.
Bonus Recipe – Quick Pickled Onions
While it’s simple and very good to toss a few shreds of onion (red or white) on your Beef Cheek Taco, with a tiny bit of effort, you can have something that’s even better – some think it’s a lot better. That would be Quick Pickled Onions. Here’s how:
- 1/2 large white (or red) onion, sliced thin (mostly semicircular slices)
- 1 T. of any (or all) of the following: juniper berries, yellow mustard seed, whole coriander seeds, bay leaf, broken into bits – or 1-1/2 T. of your favorite pickling spices mix (often available in the bulk foods section of your local market). If you’re using multiple pickling spices, measure them out so you end up with about 2 T. at the most.
- 1-1/2 C. white vinegar
- 2-3 T. sugar
Tip: If you toss a few slices of beet in with the onions, it will give them a gorgeous pink / red color – of course, for this dish, it may not be necessary, you’ll find they get eaten so fast, people won’t care much about the color of the onions, but just in case – me, I like food that looks great as well as tastes great!
Put the vinegar and all the other ingredients in a medium sized non-reactive pot (enamel or stainless steel) and bring to a fast simmer. Add the sliced onions, stir up a bit to distribute the spices, simmer for 3 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 15-20 minutes. You’re done. Remove the onions from the spicy brine, drain them, and add them to your tacos. If you can make these the day before, do it! They totally improve in the fridge (where you’ll store them covered in the brine) overnight.