Hello everyone and Happy Holidays!  I hope everyone is staying safe.  In my family, I am the Christmas dinner cook.  Every year, I mix it up and try something different.  One year I did a maple chipotle BBQ pulled pork dinner (that recipe is forthcoming in the next few months).  Another year I did Indian food and made lamb biryani with saag and panner and fresh-made naan. I made baked stuffed manicotti, which I will NEVER do again.  This recipe, though, is one of my favorites that I have made.  Although, full confession, I made it with short ribs on Christmas instead of beef cheeks.  I mad the cheeks version for myself and my neighbors, though.  The cooking method is exactly the same regardless of the cut of meat. I would also say I might like this better with cheeks rather than short ribs.  

Fair warning: this is not a recipe for someone who has no patience.  This is a long cooking recipe that has a few steps and can be a bit labor-intensive.  Believe me, though, it’s 100% worth it.  Also, do not be afraid of different cuts of meat.  I absolutely LOVE cheek meat, be it beef or pork.  It’s fantastic and with the right amount of love, it is better than most other cuts of meat.  I got mine from a fantastic local farm, Simmons Farm in Middletown RI.  Support your local farmers!

Now, let’s get to cooking, shall we?  

Ingredients:

Braised Beed Cheeks:

2ish lbs beef cheeks

2 cups red wine

4-5 cups low sodium beef broth 

2 onions, halved

3 celery stalks, roughly chopped

4 carrots, roughly chopped

1 bunch fresh thyme

1 bunch fresh rosemary

1 bay leaf

1 bulb garlic, sliced in half

2 Tbsp grapeseed oil

Butcher’s twine

Salt & pepper to taste

Cheesy polenta:

1 cup polenta (coarse ground cornmeal)

½ – 1 cup grated cheddar cheese, depending on your love of cheese

4 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock

1-2 Tbsp unsalted butter

Salt & pepper to taste

Let’s start with the beef cheeks because they are going to take the longest.  First thing’s first.  Take your rosemary and thyme and tie them together with butcher’s twine.  The fancy word for this is bouquet garni.  So, yeah, there’s that.  Now, put a large Dutch oven on medium-high/high heat and put in the grapeseed oil.  You don’t want to use olive oil because this is high heat cooking and that will burn and ruin everything. Then you’ll have a smoke alarm going off and maybe sprinklers come on.  Bad times all around.  Now salt and pepper the meat aggressively.  I mean, put more than you think it needs.  It’ll be ok.  Sear the cheeks in the Dutch oven for about 4-5 minutes on each side or until you have a nice golden brown crust on each side.  Remove cheeks and set aside.  Add the onion, carrots, and celery with the bay leaf and cook for a few minutes to get some color on them.  Throw in the red wine and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get all those yummy bits up.  Let that cook for just a couple of minutes then add the beef cheeks, herbs, garlic, and then the beef stock. Only add enough stock to cover about ½ to ¾ of the way.   Let that come up to a boil then drop the temperature to medium-low and cover to simmer.  For 4 hours.  Yes, 4 hours.  I told you it’s going to take patience.  Go take a nap or something. 

Ok, with this meal, timing is everything.  DO NOT start the polenta too early. It’s only going to take 45 or so minutes to complete.  This is where multitasking is going to come in handy.  When the 4 hours is done, remove the beef cheeks and shred the meat with a couple of forks.  Remove the garlic, herbs, and bay leaf and throw them away.  Now here’s where it gets fun.  At the same time, get that low sodium chicken or veggie stock boiling in a large pot.  Take the veggies from the cheek pot and throw them in a blender with about ½ to ¾ of the liquid from the pan.  Please do not overfill your blender.  Now, blend that until absolutely pulverized and pureed. Get yourself a sieve and strain that puree as much as possible into the remaining liquid left in the Dutch oven where you braised the cheeks.  Like, really push down into it and extract as much of that liquid as you can, leaving only the pulp leftover.  Don’t use your hand though, that’d hurt a lot.  Add the shredded beef cheeks back to the mixture and let it simmer cover for another, 45 minutes.

Meanwhile in the Batcave, slowly pour your polenta into the boiling chicken or veggie stock while constantly whisking.  Whisk that until it is fully incorporated and there are no lumps. Lumpy polenta is sad polenta.  Reduce the heat and simmer.  Keep whisking while it’s simmering for about 5 minutes.  Cover and cook for 30 minutes, whisking every 5 minutes or so.  At some point, it will be too thick to whisk.  I suggest switching to the trusty wooden spoon to finish the job.  Also, during each 5-minute interval, I’d suggest grating your cheese if you haven’t.  Here’s a tip.  Throw the cheese in the freezer about 20 minutes before you’re going to grate it.  It makes it much easier to grate.  

After the 30 minutes are up, turn off the heat.  Throw the butter in and let it melt into the polenta.  Add the cheese and stir that in until it is fully melted.  Make sure to taste it for seasoning, you may need to add salt and pepper.  Let sit for 5 minutes to thicken. Do not let it thicken too much, though.  If it sits for too long it gets stiff and loses its creaminess. 

Before we finish, let’s talk about what else you can do with this polenta.  If you want to serve it all creamy, make sure to serve it shortly after cooking it.  However, if you want to get a bit funky and want to spend even more time cooking, make the polenta a day ahead. Take the polenta and pour it into an oiled baking sheet.  Spread with a rubber spatula to make it even and in a rectangular form.  Cover with plastic and chill in the refrigerator overnight.    Cut that into circles, triangles, squares, whatever shape you want.  Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter.  Cook each shape you cut for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until crispy and golden brown.  Boom, you just made polenta cakes! You could make a ridiculous eggs benedict with the polenta cake, slow-roasted pork belly, and poached egg.   Ok, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Now go ahead and serve yourself a nice helping of polenta covered in the braised beef cheek and sauce.  Top with a nice garnish of parsley if you have it.  When I made this (albeit with short ribs), I served it with my favorite Brussel sprout recipe which I may give out at some point, but I think we’ve done enough for today. I hope everyone has a safe and Happy Holidays.  Thanks for reading,  I hope you enjoy. See you in 2021!!

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Jay Flanders

Jay Flanders is a native of Newport and avid cook. While he studied at the University of Rhode Island, he also attended the College of Food Network via his television set where he learned the basics of cooking. Also being an all-too-avid eater at restaurants, he really began to learn what ingredients went together, cooking techniques and other tips and tricks in the kitchen. He used that knowledge to teach himself how to cook and how to start making his own recipes. Now, he’s here to give you his tips, tricks and sometimes uniquely tasty spins on recipes and to show you that great cooking can be done is the tiniest of kitchens like his.