Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ox Cheek Ragu and Braised Artichokes

Today I found myself in Sanagan's Meat Locker.


What started out as a detached observational curiosity has now become a bit silly. Okay, I admit I'm smitten with their piles of meat. According to their website, Laura Calder is a noted customer.  I shop at the same butcher as Laura Calder? Cool. Anyway, I find myself looking in their meat-filled window daily. I've also started doing the math and realizing that I have been eating their meat almost exclusively for the last couple of weeks. Okay, lame fanboy rant - done.

Anyway, I went in today and picked up an ox cheek. I've been meaning to braise one of these since I read a great nineteenth-century recipe from Mrs. Beeton. However, what I opted to do tonight was a bit different - I made a pasta sauce. I'm going to call it a ragu, which is essentially a meat-based pasta sauce. I was extremely pleased with the results and will definitely re-visit this recipe. I accompanied this with some braised artichokes. Although it was only a Tuesday night, I kind of gave myself a tall order with all this stuff. Anyway, here's the run down of what I did. First of all the cheek:

An ox cheek or beef cheek must be the hardest working muscle on the animal. Cow's spend the majority of their waking hours chewing. Chewing, chewing, and chewing. Their cheek muscle is what is powering all this chewing. This muscle is fibrous and completely veined with tough connective tissue. It has a cap of fat which I cut off. Anyway, after cleaning it up a bit,  I sliced it into largish chunks and seared it in in batches in a well-oiled skillet. Then I sweated down some onions and a single diced eggplant. I put the browned meat, the onions and eggplant into my pressure cooker. Then I deglazed the pan with some red wine and that went into the pressure cooker as well. This was followed by a tin of quality tomatoes, a few bay leaves and a few branches of fresh oregano. I seasoned the works a little bit, and on went the lid. Then I turned the fire on and let the pressure cooker do it's spitty-hissing thing for 35 minutes.

Whilst the ox cheek braised, I started sorting out the artichokes. These vegetables require a lot of fiddly cleaning. In fact, I'm not going to go into great detail on how to clean an artichoke, because I don't feel like writing that much, so watch Jacques Pepin do it here. (if you're curious, his last cut is the one I did which retains the stem). Cleaning an artichoke can be a very rewarding and meditative activity once you get the hang of it. I've done it plenty of times, so it's like therapy to me - not work at all, although you'll have a very full food-waste bin by the end of it.

Beautiful artichokes in their natural state

After I have cleaned them  they are braising happily in a fragrant broth
Anyway, once they're all cleaned up, make sure you have a lot of lemon on standby as they can oxidize very quickly and turn a yucky colour. Keep them in a bowl of water with lemon wedges floating in it. When I was ready to cook, I dried them off, lightly seasoned them, and put them cut side down in a skillet with a bit of hot oil. I let them brown slightly then poured in enough water to cover. To the water I added a generous pinch of salt, a bunch of lemon wedges, some fresh thyme and bay leaf. I let them gently simmer away for a good half hour.  Whilst this was happening , I sweated a big whack of button mushrooms in some hot oil and then  I got some fettuccine going in another pot of boiling water - around the same time the ox cheeks were finishing up.

Release the steam valve in the pressure cooker, and once ready, open it up. You'll find a beautiful ragu waiting for you. I have to say, this is one situation for which I feel the pressure cooker is actually superior to a slow natural braise. The ox cheek was tender like butter and amazingly flavourful (arguably the best part of the entire cow), however the tomatoes were still vibrant red and very bright and sweet tasting. I find slow natural braises tend to darken tomatoes and remove the bright acid taste - not the case here. This pressure cooker approach was perfect. Anyway, I shredded the meat and gave everything a good mix. I tossed in the mushrooms and a good bunch of fresh chopped parsley. I poured the ragu generously over the fettuccine with the braised artichokes as a garnish. A trickle of really good olive oil and some dried chilies didn't hurt. I wish I had a picture of the final product, but things were running a bit late and the incessant bawling of the my hungry kids necessitated a premature end to the photo session.

Trust me, I wish  you could only see how awesome it was....

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