After the delicate elegance of the octopus carpaccio, the time in the evening had definitely come for something that bit more rich and hearty. Something unapologetic, both in its rich and meaty flavour as well as its undeniable efficiency in lining the stomach for the several bottles of wine to come: ox cheeks. Ox cheeks are made for slow cooking and are excellent value at around £7 a kilo (or just over two pounds for the imperially inclined amongst you). I picked mine up from the ever reliable and wonderful Moens of Clapham - a meat lover's paradise.
Beef olives were a 1970's bistro classic, but on flicking through the net I have read various claims of this dish's origins. Some say they are a French or an Italian export and others an old-fashioned Scottish staple dating as far back as the 1600s. Wherever they're from there's no doubting their credentials as delicious and hearty fare. Apparently you can use any cut of beef you like for these, as long as it's for slow cooking (fillet is not welcome here), which is why ox cheeks proved to be the perfect choice.
Ox cheeks are huge and are jam-packed with connective tissue, so as long as you don't let the sauce you cook them in boil dry, it would be almost impossible to overcook these babies. I thought it would be a fairly simple procedure to hammer the ox cheeks to thin them out enough to stuff and roll, but proved extremely reluctant to participate and barely budged a centimetre, despite at least half an hour of banging them repeatedly with a meat tenderiser. Instead, I decided to cut each cheek (which in this case was two to feed four) horizontally in half and then butterflied the halved cheeks again. As I sliced through the cheeks I had to remove quite a bit of the stringy connective tissue so I could flatten them effectively and then I gave them a final bashing with the meat hammer before they were ready for stuffing. Once stuffed, these meaty morsels were braised in all manner of befitting flavours for as many hours as I could find in the day. If you're serving this dish as a main course, a dollop of mash and some steamed greens are all you'll need as an accompaniment. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more full-bodied and meltingly tender way to eat these beefy beauties.
Ox cheek olives
Preheat your oven to 180°C (160°C fan)
2 ox cheeks
A generous few spoonfuls of Dijon mustard
String or cocktail sticks
for the stuffing
A couple of shallots or a small onion, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, crushed
4 rashers of smoked bacon, cut into small pieces
A punnet of chestnut mushrooms
A small bunch of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
150g of sausage meat
for the sauce
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 pint of fresh beef stock
1 bottle of red wine, something full bodied
A few sprigs of thyme
A couple of bay leaves
A few sprigs of rosemary
2 tbsp tomato purée
Salt and pepper
Firstly, make your stuffing by sautéing your onions, garlic, bacon and mushrooms together. Add the thyme and season. Leave to cook down until soft and golden, then leave to cool. While you're waiting for the onion mixture to cool, butterfly and bash your ox cheeks (as above). Spread some mustard over the surface of each ox cheek. Thoroughly mix your cold onion mixture with the sausage meat and place a ball of mixture in the middle of each ox cheek. Roll the ox cheeks up into a sausage shape and tie up with string or use cocktail sticks to secure the olives. Brown the olives in a large frying pan with a little oil and place inside an oven proof dish with a lid.
Make the sauce by sautéing the vegetables in the same frying pan in a little oil until soft. Season generously, add the tomato purée and stir until it is all well mixed. Pour over the stock, stir it round and pour over the ox cheek olives. Pour over the red wine and add the herbs, put the lid on and pop in the oven for at least three hours. Checking every now and then and turn over the ox cheek olives. When you're ready to serve, scoop out the ox cheek olives and place on a warm plate, discard the herbs and boil the sauce to reduce until nicely thick. Taste for seasoning and spoon a generous helping of sauce over each ox cheek olive before serving.