It was the era of Europe on $10 a Day. Eurail Passes were introduced. The airlines were eagerly selling ½-price standby tickets to anyone under age 22. Travel on a shoestring. And all of us were off to see the world.
I took off for three months in Europe. No reservations. No itinerary. Just a flight there and a flight home. Arrive in a city. Walk to the Tourist Bureau and wait while they found you a place to stay: a cheap hotel or maybe a hostel.
In Paris we stayed in a small hotel in Montmartre, just steps from a red-light district. What could be more romantic or colorful? We had a private bathroom (way upscale from some of the places we found), but the door to the bathroom consisted of two red terrycloth towels hung on the door frame.
The proprietors of our hotel, Madame et Monsieur, were charming. He was a French ringer for Humphrey Bogart (and claimed he had been his stand-in in Casablanca – who was I to argue?) and she was lovely, petite and friendly. We became friends. I read her cards in my halting French one afternoon and she invited us to Sunday dinner. That was an honor.
Warning: If you are at all squeamish or uncomfortable about descriptions or photos of odd or unfamiliar food products, especially meat, this would be a good place for you to stop reading, Fellow FoodBeest.
We sat down to Sunday dinner in our hosts’ private kitchen and were served a plateful of something gray, shapeless, slimy and gelatinous in a vinaigrette sauce with capers. It was horrible, Fellow FoodBeest. Like nothing I had ever encountered before (or since). Tete de veau, Madame explained with a smile, gesturing her fingers to the sides of her head. Veal head. A real experience for a budding FoodBeest.
I recently discovered these not-so-tongue-in-cheek instructions for making tete de veau from wine authority Jancis Robinson:
Rip the face off of a baby cow. Remove the meat from the jaw and roll it up in the face. Tie it all up with string and place it is a large pot with water, a carrot, an onion, chopped garlic, bouquet garni, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. Simmer for two hours, then remove, drain and cut in slices. Place slices on warm plates then lightly moisten each spongy, tasteless mass with a special vinaigrette sauce.
Here it is, decades later and FoodBeests du jour are raving about – and making – and eating veal cheeks. Is that the same as tete de veau? Paulina Meat Market, one of this city’s most celebrated butcher shops, carries veal cheeks. I promised myself (and you) that I would try them. So on your behalf, Fellow FoodBeest, here goes.
I set off to Paulina Meat Market, where I knew I would find them. I bought my veal cheeks and asked the butcher if they carried tete de veau. “What is it,” he said. “I never heard of it.” Hopefully that is good news.
Here is a recipe for Braised Veal Cheeks that I adapted from Epicurious.com, which took it from Gourmet Magazine, which adapted it from Uno e Bino. To be fair and in full disclosure, the recipe was for BEEF cheeks, not the much more delicate veal cheeks. I am noting where I would recommend adapting the recipe to accommodate the latter.
I should have known better. Do as I say, not as I did.
What You Need to Make Veal Cheeks
This is a recipe for 2 people.
4 or 5 veal cheeks, trimmed of excess fat. [note: You may have to order these. I got them at a specialty butcher; other people have found them at Walmart. Go figure. And they weren’t slimy or weird looking: just simple, small, lean muscular triangles – all that cud-chewing I suppose]
2½ T extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ celery rib, finely chopped
½ t unsweetened cocoa powder [note: I would omit this next time. In its place I would use a little thyme, rosemary, chervil or tarragon.]
2 cups red wine [note: The recipe called for a dry Italian Lambrusco or Chianti. I used a French Cote de Rhone. Doing it again, I would use only a nice, dry white wine.]
1 (14-oz) can whole chopped tomatoes including the juice [note: this is much too acidic for the delicate veal. I would substitute 1½ cups of veal stock or ¾ cup each of chicken and beef stock]
½ lb. wild mushrooms [note I used shitakes, but chanterelles or morels would be lovely and even criminis would be nice.]
1½ t salt
1 t black pepper
How to Make Braised Veal Cheeks
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in an ovenproof 6-quart wide heavy Dutch oven over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. While oil is heating, pat veal cheeks dry and season with salt and pepper. Brown veal (don’t crowd them) on all sides, about 20 minutes total, and transfer with tongs to a bowl.
If there is any fat in the pot, pour it off and add the second tablespoon of olive oil and cook your mirepoix of onion, carrot, garlic, and celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325°F.
Add the cocoa powder (or preferably the herbs) into vegetable mixture, sauté briefly then add wine and scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to high and boil until liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Sauté mushrooms in the last of the olive oil in a separate pan and add them to the Dutch oven with the cheeks (and any juices), the canned chopped tomatoes [or stock] with juice, salt, and pepper.
Bring to a simmer, then braise, covered, in middle of oven until very tender, about 2 hours.
Like most braised meats, veal cheeks improve in flavor if you make them a day or two before you plan to eat them.
The sauce in this recipe is deep and rich, and IMO too overpowering for the delicate flavor and texture of the veal cheeks. Had this been Top Chef, I would have been told to Pack My Knives and Go. We served it over polenta, but couscous or orzo or noodles would do as well.
If it’s not your thing, that’s fine. It was worth a try (on your behalf, of course), but it’s likely that if veal cheeks show up on our table again (and they probably will, Mr. FB), it will be with the more delicate white wine and veal stock. And I promise to keep you posted, Fellow FoodBeest. At the same time, if you’re feeling adventurous, and you take a crack at this unfamiliar cut of meat, do let us know how it goes.
This is clearly not a recipe for everyone, Fellow FoodBeest. In the comment section below, let us know how adventurous you’ve been or want to be with your food. Ask your questions. Make your comments. We want to hear from you.