Braised Beef Cheeks for Joan

Ben and I have clogged our phones with photographs of Joan eating. Our baby girl is completely serious when it comes to food, and each day we are joyfully entertained as she learns to feed herself. We decided to go the Baby Led Weaning route, which to us meant that after Joan turned 6 months and showed signs of developmentally being able to manage food, we started providing an array of textures and flavours (in the hope that she will be an adventurous eater later on) and let Joan feed herself. And she's really taken to this whole eating and self-feeding business. We eat our meals as a family and don't force her to eat when she doesn't want anything, rather we trust and respect her intuition (Joan is driven by instinct and is much smarter than us in this way). Though rarely will she refuse food, as our baby is sincerely obsessed with eating. When she likes something, she cannot get it in fast enough. "Finish what you've got in your mouth, Sweetie", is commonly uttered at our dining table. When something is not particularly delicious (plain porridge or rubbery scrambled eggs), Joan will stare at me for a long while, as though letting me know that I've done better and to please not serve this again. I take note.

Our baby likes flavour.

Porridge with banana and (pureed) blueberries, steamed carrots with peanut butter, roasted pumpkin with curry powder, wedges of farm-fresh canteloupe, yoghurt with quinoa, omelettes with garlic and beetroot, banana pancakes and meat...ohhhh, she adores meat. At the end of Summer, while we were revelling in farm-fresh sweet corn, I served Joan chicken and corn soup (homemade broth simmered with corn, blitzed until thick enough to eat, and topped with shredded chicken). Baby girl proceeded to ecstatically grab handful after handful, shoving it in her mouth before she'd even begun to chew. And when we moved her plate closer to help her to reach with ease, she cried, fearing we were taking her plate away. Joan also loooooves lamb, just like her mumma. Over Easter we went to our friends' house for dinner and Joan loved the slow-roasted lamb that was served (side note: that is my absolute favourite dish). She devours all she can out of the cuts we bought from Colin and Sally, including preservative-free sausages that were super tasty and intensely meat-flavoured (what a nice surprise to have sausages that taste like meat!), if not a little tough for her to eat without teeth (note: I removed the casing before giving them to Joan). Still, she will suck all the juice out of the sausages and other cuts she cannot chew and swallow and have a blast, sometimes gagging, happily and calmly so, along the way. We make sure to stay calm too and let Joan figure it out if she's gagging (the first few times were scary, but babies are so smart, they know what to do), however it usually only happens when learning how to manage a new texture (something hard like toast or those sausages) or if she takes too much at once. Regardless, I make sure Ben is home with me when introducing a possibly challenging food for Joan, just for my own peace of mind. Lastly, I'll note that we did a first aid course before bubs was born and refreshed ourselves of the information prior to her starting solids, and I definitely recommend all parents and grandparents do the same. But back to meat...yes, baby girl loves red meat, beef included. Before we bought that 1/2 lamb from Colin and Sally's I bought meat from our local shops that stocked delicious, 100% grass-fed beef. I found myself reaching for the beef cheeks and making this braised dish again and again, so I thought I would share the recipe with you. Joan goes nuts over slow-cooked beef cheek, whether simmered in broth like this recipe or a tomatoey ragu. It's a cut that positively melts into nothing, so she finds it very easy to gobble up. I usually thicken the broth/sauce with potato, extra carrots or sometimes quinoa, which helps her get all the cooking juice goodness. Joan will clean her plate whenever we serve this meal, Ben and I do too, though baby girl will also paint her eyelids in beef juice and inhale it through her nose with gusto. Yes, we've been using a mini nasal aspirator to extract food most days. It appears she just cannot get enough and I don't blame her, it is rather scrumptious.

I used beef cheek for a few reasons: 1) fond memories of beef cheek ragus that my mother has made (and a particularly delicious dish at Movida), 2) the cut is inexpensive and yields delicious results, melting in your mouth after only a few hours of cooking in the most delicious and wonderful way, and 3) our local shops sell it. You can get beef cheek from your butcher, though you may need to ask him to prepare them for you. And if you can't find beef cheek, you can use any stewing cut - chuck, topside, skirt... I have not tried this myself using this specific recipe, but from past experience I know that if you cook it low and slow, and with enough liquid, it'll surely be amazing. Oh, and I also insist you let the finished dish sit for a night in the fridge. I always always do that, as the flavour and texture improve significantly. From a food safety point of view, to avoid reheating the meat too many times, I will divide portions of the chilled dish into snaplock bags prior to reheating, freezing what we are not going to immediately eat and leaving what is assigned for dinner.

I'll mention now that I am being rather fussy with serving Joan only grass-fed and organic food for as long as I can. We purchase the most gorgeous, organically grown vegetables each week from Transition Farm, so that part is done and easy and awesome. It's also easy for us to access organic chickens and 100% grass-fed beef at our local shops, as well as humane, organic eggs and organic dairy, plus we have that glorious lamb. I do believe that from a health, humane and environmental point of view, it's nice to select organic animal produce. While this is easy for us to do it is more expensive, however this simply means we ration our portions more thoughtfully. And lastly, I get grains and nuts and oils online via the Source Bulk Foods (I am an ambassador and receive these at no cost, however I am incredibly impressed with the quality and would purchase their goods regardless). Rest assured, I am not going to be one of those parents who ONLY allow their child to eat organic food and never touch sugar and skip birthday parties for fear of lollies and soft drink. Certainly not. We all need fairy bread in our lives. But for the time being while I am the one preparing her meals and she has no reason to eat overly processed foods from a social/enjoyment perspective, I'm sticking to the organic rule. As much as I can, at least.

My mother and I had a text exchange as to whether this dish is a stew or a braise. A couple of google definition searches later we decided on "braise". And because it is Joan's recipe, so we are calling it "Braised Beef Cheeks for Joan". Anyone who loves the meal so much they snort it deserves to have it named after them. Perhaps some of your babies, partners, grandparents and friends will like it as much as Joan does. You might like to have a nasal aspirator handy, just in case.

Braised Beef Cheeks for Joan

STEP 1: It starts with homemade broth. I wrote about my broth a while ago but will do an update here.

You need a chicken. An organic, free-range chicken. Besides the reasons of humane animal consumption, the flavour of your broth will be precisely one million times better. It costs more but you're getting multiple meals out of this bird, so it's worth it. We put the chicken in a large pot and cover it with water. We then add whatever organic veg I have lying around - some chopped carrots, a couple of garlic cloves, maybe a quartered onion (though I tend to save the farm fresh onions for meals), celery tops, parsley stalks and then some fresh ginger, star anise and black peppercorns. I top up the pot with more water and then bring it to the boil on the stove. Once it's boiling I turn the heat down and put it on the lowest possible flame, pop the lid on (letting a teeny crack of air in if my lid doesn't have a hole) and let it simmer, covered, for 6+ hours. I'll remmove the chicken after 45 minutes or so, when it's cooked (cool it, then shred it and add the bones back to the broth. When the meat has cooled, I'll freeze the chicken in portions). When the broth done I may let it sit in the fridge overnight but often I just strain it and divide the broth into containers to freeze. 

You can use store-bought broth here, but I encourage you to make your own. I know that to those who don't make their own broth we seem like homesteading fruit loops, but honestly once you get into the habit of it it's a really nice thing to do. We make broth when one of us is feeling under the weather or if we have a craving for soup. We pop a pot on, make soup and freeze the leftovers. Rarely do we run out because we love this practice and do it once every couple of months. If you do use store-bought stock, make sure you go low-sodium for the bubbas.

STEP 2: Beef cheek time. I find this makes ~12 Joan-sized portions.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large brown onion, diced
2-3* large cloves garlic, crushed
~100g celery (~ 2 stalks)**, diced
~250g carrots (2 large), cut into 5cm logs and then halved lengthways
~600g beef cheek (around 2 cheeks)
3 cups homemade broth (see step 1)
400g organic tinned tomato (or 3 large juicy tomatoes)
a couple of sprigs each of fresh thyme and parsley

To serve: buttery mashed potato + peas for Ben and I, with a cube of boiled, pre-mashed potato added to Joan's portion (mashed in to make the juices thick and consumable).

* Depending on how garlicy you like it
** This is optional, and you may be sick of me talking about organic stuff, but organic celery actually tastes like food, not water, and is super special if you can find some.

1. Heat your stock in a saucepan then turn off the heat.
2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large dutch oven (or equivalent, closed casserole dish) over low heat. Add the onion and cook for ~5 minutes until soft and lovely. Add the celery and cook for another ~5 minutes until soft and lovely (less if it's not super hard and turgid celery). Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes until fragrant, before adding the carrot and cooking for a final minute, stirring to coat the carrot in the sticky veggie garlicy goodness.
3. Transfer the veggie mixture into a bowl and set aside. In the same pot, heat the final tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat then add the beef cheek, searing it for a couple of minutes and then flipping it to brown on the other side. Turn down the heat if it is browning too rapidly (you don't want the bottom of the pan to get too crusty, just enough). Add the veggie mixture back to the pot along with the stock, tomato and herbs. Bring to a gentle boil and then turn it down to the lowest possible flame on your stove. Cover and cook for 4 hours. I check on it a couple of times during this time period to make sure that it's not cooking too fiercely and that there's enough liquid, and I'll flip the beef over once or twice (you can make a cartouche if there's not enough liquid but ideally your beef is basically all covered in liquid).
4. Let the dish rest in the fridge overnight before dividing up chilled portions and freezing what you don't want to eat immediately. Serve with mashed potato and, if desired, a little salt to any portions not for your bubbas. If no babies are eating this dish, add some salt at the start when cooking the onion.

Heidi xo