Despite it being around a decade ago, I clearly remember the first time I ever had beef cheeks, they were so good and really left an impression! Jane and I were staying in the Blue Mountains and spoiled ourselves with a dinner at Tre Sorelle, one of two restaurants at Lilianfels (although the resort remains, the restaurant has changed). When cooked well, cheeks are a concentrated meat hit: tender and moist with an intense, rich flavour. The chefs at Tre Sorrelle knew what they were doing and I’ve had a bit of a cheek “problem” ever since — it’s one of those things I can’t resist ordering!
History has a funny way of repeating itself. Last week Jane and I returned to Lilianfels for the first time in all these years, this time actually staying a night (with dinner at Darleys — incredible!). And just a couple of days later, while poking around the butcher’s stall at the markets, lo and behold I found a lone packet of beef cheeks. Despite my aforementioned addiction, I had never myself cooked cheeks, so I seized my chance. First time around it seemed best to follow a pro, and who better than Australia’s queen of hearty cooking Maggie Beer and her Slow-Braised Beef Cheeks in Barossa Shiraz recipe.
Due to my inexperience I kept to the recipe where I could. The main difference was scaling: although I had only a quarter of the meat (only 500g), I used more like half of the rest of the recipe to ensure there was enough liquid for braising. Even with this adjustment I had barely enough liquid to cover the cheeks. Due to a lack of oranges and vino cotto, I substituted lemon and reduced balsamic vinegar (neither quite the same but both with similar qualities). As a final (unintentional) change, I marinated the cheeks for an extra day, purely because I forgot I was going out on the night I was intending to cook them! (Whoops.)
I suspected and indeed found the tricky aspect of this recipe to be the cooking time. The recipe specifies a time of anything from 3-6 hours to achieve meat-melting nirvana, depending on the cheeks. Add to this the seemingly impossible instruction to remove the lid for the final 2 hours of cooking — not so easy when you’ve got a 3 hour window! Anyhow, I guessed at 4-4.5 hours and uncovered accordingly. At the 4.5 hour mark I suspected the cheeks could still go a little longer, but the natives (read: Jane) were getting cranky so I had to make do. As it turned out they were nearly there — not tough at all and starting to melt — but could have used another half hour or so. I recommend allowing for a full 6 hours because it’s easier to warm on demand than fend off a hungry spouse ;).
As for flavour, it was everything I had hoped for. The cheeks were powerfully beefy, and the reduced sauce an equally-powerful and delicious accompaniment. My only tip on the sauce front is to keep a close eye on it when reducing. When it begins to thicken it will rapidly turn sticky (good!), and if you’re not careful it may burn (bad!). As I was doing this at full wife-fearing speed I just caught mine in time! I served the cheeks with parsnip mash and lemon-dressed greens which made for a nicely-rounded meal.