Are we done talking about nose-to-tail cooking yet? Is everyone sick of being lectured to about eating all the parts of the animal? Then don’t consider this a lecture but just a statement of fact. The head of pretty much any mammal contains some of its most delicious meats.
Many people express reservations about eating the head of an animal, possibly for anthropomorphic reasons or just qualms about killing. Unlike a cut like the tenderloin or a boneless chicken breast, or even something a little more obviously connected to a living animal like a ham or short ribs, it’s hard to look at the head without an awareness that an animal was killed for food. Then there are the eyes and the brain, which are inevitable sources of comparison to our own brains, our own eyes. It’s not surprising the head is a little challenging.
An easier and more accessible way to approach the head is to use the tongue and the cheeks. Beef tongue looks sort of terrifying, but once you make your peace with what it is, which is just a great big floppy cow’s tongue, you’ll find it easy to work with. It’s a tough cut that takes long, low temperature cooking, which is inherently forgiving. It’s also just basically a muscle, so unlike the organ meats some people find literally too visceral to eat (mmm, glands), it has the familiarity of cuts more usually encountered. Cheeks are even easier to work with – the muscle is more like the kind you find in shank or short rib, tough and full of connective tissue that melts to gelatin after lots of long braising.
Tongue and cheek
Smoking the tongue not only imparts great flavor, but helps dry it out a little, which normally seems like a bad thing – who wants dry meat? But the muscle graining on tongue is dense and fine, and interspersed with large quantities of intramuscular fat and collagen. When you slice it warm, tongue can fall apart and seem sodden. To ameliorate this tendency, smoke it, chill it, and slice it thinly while still cold. Cold smoked tongue is great with mustard and pickles on rye. It’s also great draped over a hot risotto or grain porridge, where the heat of the porridge softens and melts the fat and gelatin in the thinly sliced meat. You can warm it slightly as well; just don’t overdo.
A final note about tongue: you must remove the skin. I once went to a wedding reception at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown that served a cold braised tongue appetizer. The tongue meat was delicious with soy and five spice flavors but I couldn’t get past the skin. Even when the tongue is sliced paper-thin, it’s still present in a thin ring, it’s not tender, and it’s gross. So remove it.
For the tongue:
one large beef tongue
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar (white or brown)
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp granulated garlic
6 bay leaves
Combine all the dry ingredients but the bay leaves. Rub evenly all over the tongue and place in a pan just large enough for the tongue, atop three bay leaves. Place the remaining bay leaves on top. Cover tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate. You will turn the tongue every other day for ten days. Note: if you have a blade tenderizer (the kind that looks like an upside-down bed of needles), you can make tiny cuts in the tongue skin before curing. In this case, cure for four days.
Transfer the tongue, with its seasoning and any accumulated liquid, to a pot with just enough cold water to cover. Cover and bring to a bare simmer (180F). Place in an 180F oven. Cook for 6-8 hours (depending on size) or until the tongue is tender and a knife inserted to the center meets no resistance beyond the skin. Cool in enough liquid to cover and then refrigerate (in the liquid) at least overnight.
Peel the tongue. This should not be difficult but requires the use of a sharp knife. The tongue’s skin should come off easily. Discard the skin.
Smoke at 200F for about two to three hours (depending on the size of the tongue). Cool and then wrap in clingfilm (and then foil) and chill completely.
Use in any way you see fit. Tongue is great in hot/warm dishes but should be sliced cold, very thinly, and then rethermed in the dish.
For the cheek:
Cheek cooking times vary widely depending on size and the extent of the connective tissue. It is best to budget at least twelve hours to cook the cheeks even though it will likely take far less time. You do not have to babysit the braise in the oven.
3 lb beef cheek, large and very tough sinews trimmed
unsalted butter or beef tallow
one medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
6 garlic cloves, whole
3 c dry red wine
4 c beef stock (chicken stock acceptable)
4 branches thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and black pepper
Salt the cheek on both sides. Place a heavy saucepot over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Brown the cheek well and set aside. Sweat the vegetables and garlic cloves in the residual fat and fond. Deglaze with red wine and reduce over medium low heat by 1/2. Add the beef stock and bring just to a simmer. Add the herbs and the browned cheek (and any juices). Cover with parchment and then the lid and place in the oven.
Cook for about 7 hours. The cheeks are done when the collagen has completely softened and the meat is fork-tender.
Remove the meat to a plate and strain the remaining liquid. Return the meat to the strained liquid and cool.
When ready to serve, bring the liquid to a simmer, uncovered, and reduce by 1/2 to 2/3 until proper glazing consistency is reached. Return the cheeks to the reduction, cover, and keep warm.
Per four plates:
two bunches spring onions (bulbed), washed and green section removed and reserved
compressed celery pickle
bitter greens (arugula, nasturtium, cress)
assorted herbs, edible flowers, etc
Slice the spring onion bulbs lengthwise and brown in butter.
Slice the ramp pickles lengthwise and the radishes 1/16″ thin lengthwise.
Serve the sliced tongue and braised cheek with the onion, radish, ramps, pickled celery, and garnish with herbs and flowers, the braising reduction, and a spoon of mustard. (The plating shown also includes ground chilmole.)
Coda: Other uses for tongue
Tongue is a pretty rich, densely-textured meat. Some people can eat huge quantities in a sitting (such as in a deli sandwich, with mustard and pickles), but not me. If you find yourself with 2+ pounds of smoked beef tongue and are unsure how to use it, consider these suggestions.
For a straightforward porridge recipe, see this earlier post. If you are using rye grain instead of farro, the cooking duration is basically the same. Other grains require more or less cooking time. I do not recommend cooking short grain rice sous vide. Garnish with pickled celery, red onion (or shallot), and Granny Smith apple, as well as herbs and buttered pumpernickel toast crumb.