Five things I’ve learned in the past week:
1. “Bedrest” sounds infinitely more enjoyable and relaxing than it actually is
2. Even while hobbling like a pirate on a wooden leg it is possible to whip up a batch of heavenly ginger cookies (and nobody should consume more than 5 ginger cookies in one sitting….#sendhelp)
4. Daytime television is skull numbingly awful (did you know there are shows that exist like this and this that are meant to be entertainment?!)
5. James makes a mean brined roast chicken, and his kale salad game is on fleek
6. Rules for the game of pregnancy: HA! NO RULES AT ALL, you silly little first time mama!!!
Ok so that was six. I’ve learned a lot! I spent the weekend listening mostly to doctor’s orders, sitting quietly on the couch and trying not to move around unnecessarily if possible. As one can probably imagine doing this the week before taking a trip down to Santa Barbara for Christmas was not all that easy (with laundry, last minute errands, arranging a cat sitter, boring this boring that, etc etc), and I inevitably found myself on my
feet crutches probably a bit more than I should have been.
In addition to plain old life, there was a girls lunch date at Tamalpie I was dying to get out of the house for, a showing of Star Wars at a cute little theater in Fairfax, and a hair cut that simply had to happen (I was seriously channeling Chewie for a few days there). All good, quiet, non-stressful activities – however activities nonetheless.
I had kind of a rough night Friday, filled with tossing, turning, and Braxton-Hicks contractions that kept me up and prevented me from really ever sleeping at all. After a quick call to my OB’s office, I was instructed to chug two huge glasses of some good old H20, lay on my left side, and take a snooze. That seemed to do the trick, and the weekend progressed without incident. As I settled into my seat at the theater on Saturday night, I started to feel those darned contractions kick up again, but figured that they’d settle down shortly after the movie started. Unfortunately they did anything but, and I spent the entire movie being totally uncomfortable, nervous, and waiting for the ending credits to roll.
The force…was obviously not with me.
After the movie we drove straight over the Golden Gate and to the hospital, where the (amazing, sweet, and super helpful) triage nurses at CPMC confirmed that I was indeed experiencing real contractions that were coming on every 3 minutes, like clockwork. If this was six weeks or even a month from now that would be great news (yay baby, see you soon!), but given that we are still finishing up the tail end of our 32nd week this was not at all what we wanted to see just yet – lil chickadee still has some moving and shaking in the belly to do before she makes her big debut. I was given a shot to calm things down, and after being monitored for a couple of hours, we were able to slow (but not totally stop) the contractions, and we came home. The good news is that the baby checked out totally fine – and I doubt she had any idea that while everyone else was losing their marbles over seeing Han Solo on the silver screen this first time mom-to-be was clutching her stomach and having an internal freak out. But on the flip side we were told to be very careful with this; to closely monitor any events like these that could crop up again and signal (or kickstart) pre-term labor, and that I need to take things down another notch and take the idea of doing nothing at all a bit more seriously.
Who knows if this is related to the pain and inflammation in my sacroiliac joint; it could have stemmed from the stress of trying to walk on crutches on my body, or could be completely unrelated. We unfortunately had to cancel our Christmas plans to go down to Santa Barbara, and James had to cancel a weeklong trip to Tel-Aviv that he had booked with his Wharton classmates. The prospect of going into early labor or having strong contractions kick up while cruising down the 101 through the middle of nowhere in central CA sounds pretty unappealing to me, and any of these things happening while James would have been on the other side of the world sounds like an equally stressful situation that we figured we’d avoid.
Remember how I said pregnancy is an exercise in humility, compromise, and acceptance? This is exactly what I mean; I’ve got little to no control over so many aspects of exactly how these last weeks will play out, and I’ve got to just accept that what I can control is my ability to listen to my body, rest my painful hip, and do everything I can to keep this little girl in her cozy (excuse me — cramped!) little womb-space for at least another month. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
And finally all that pregnancy mumbo-jumbo brings me to this dish. This slow and steady dish; a plate full of meltingly-tender braised beef cheeks, savory mushrooms, a wintery vegetable purée, and a cool and rich roasted garlic cream. It is seriously cold-weather-cooking at it’s coziest, and is stick-to-your-ribs fare that is rustic and unrefined yet somehow special enough to serve up for any of the holidays that we have right on our horizon. If you haven’t had beef cheeks or think they sound a bit bizarre, take notice: if you like short ribs or pot roast, you will LOVE beef cheeks. They can be a bit hard to find at most standard grocery markets, but check in with a well-stocked butcher and I’ll bet he can special order some for you. I got mine from Prather Ranch Meat Company (at the Marin farmer’s market in San Rafael), but any Whole Foods or butcher shop should be able to track them down for you (and they’re generally pretty cheap compared to other cuts of beef, at around $6/$7 bucks a pound).
Don’t be scared by the long list of instructions or lengthy cook time here; there are essentially 4 components to make (the braised beef cheeks, the mushrooms, the puree, and the roasted garlic cream), none of which are difficult to do, and most of the cook time is totally passive, meaning you can turn your attentions to any final tree-trimming or cookie decorating that needs to be done. When you are finished, you are left with one of the most savory and satisfying cool-weather meals I can think of – chunks of tender beef and meaty mushrooms over an earthy purée smothered in a savory gravy and cool garlic-spiked cream. It’s a seriously special way to celebrate the season, and I can assure you that once you’ve given it a stab it will become firmly entrenched in your holiday-season meal rotation.
As for me, if you need anything at all I’ll be right here on the couch. I’ve got a riveting agenda on the docket of catching up on some emails and phone calls, flooding this here little blog with some new recipes and posts, and have tasked myself with finding a better deal on our car insurance (I know how boring that last one makes me sound, but I’m taking this challenge very seriously folks.)
- 2 large beef cheeks (1/2lb each to a bit more)
- 4 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped
- 1 small white onion, peeled and chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and gently crushed with the wide part of a knife
- 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 2 cups beef broth
- 1 cup full-bodied red wine (like a cabernet)
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tbsp corn starch mixed with 1 Tbsp cold water (for when you reduce the sauce)
- 1lb mixed mushrooms, sliced (I used an even mix of king trumpet, shiitake, and chanterelle)
- ¼ cup marsala wine
- 2 Tbsp butter
- olive oil
- 2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½" pieces
- 1 small head cauliflower, chopped into ½" pieces
- 2 Tbsp butter
- ½ cup whole milk, plus more, as needed
- kosher salt and fresh pepper
- ½ cup creme fraiche
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
- zest of 1 lemon
- kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
- Heat your oven to 315F. In a large dutch oven or heavy bottomed pan with a lid, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Season the beef cheeks with a good bit of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper (don't be shy with the seasoning - this is building and establishing your base of flavor), and sear the cheeks on both sides until the cheeks are golden brown and the edges are browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the cheeks and hold them to the side in a bowl or on a plate.
- Sauté the celery and onion along with a pinch of salt until they are just translucent and beginning to soften, 2-3 minutes, Add the smashed garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, 1 minute more. Add the wine, beef broth, and balsamic vinegar, and give the whole pot a good stir, scraping any flavorful beef and veggie bits up off the bottom of the pan (these bits add to your flavor as well). Bring the pot just to a strong simmer.
- Add the beef cheeks (nestle them down into the liquid and veggies so they are mostly covered) and the fresh rosemary, turn off the heat, and put the lid on the pot. Put the pot into the oven and set a timer for 3 hours (with an additional timer set for 1.5 hours to flip them). After 1.5 hours, flip the cheeks and nestle them back down into the liquid, just so they cook evenly.
- While the cheeks cook, make your roasted garlic cream. Take a square of tinfoil about 12" by 12" and place the garlic in the center. Drizzle the garlic with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and close the square up like you're making a little parcel, enclosing the garlic in the foil. Roast the garlic in the aluminum foil parcel right on the rack in the oven with the beef cheeks for 1-1.5 hours, till the cloves are golden brown and completely tender when you prick them with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly. When cooled, place the garlic in a small food processor, mortar and pestle, or even just in a small bowl. Process (or mix and mash) the cloves in with the creme fraiche, lemon zest, and kosher salt and pepper to taste, until you have a very smooth sauce. Keep the sauce cold in the fridge until you are ready to serve.
- Check the cheeks at around the 2.5 hour mark - they should be on their way to being very tender. At this point you can make the puree. Place the chopped potatoes and cauliflower on a baking sheet and toss them with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast until they are totally tender, 30-35 minutes (don't worry about them getting browned - we just want them tender). Remove from the oven and place them into the bowl of a food processor. Add in 2 Tbsp butter and ½ cup whole milk; puree until the mixture is totally smooth. You're looking for a texture that is spoonable but not overly drippy; add a bit more milk if needed to loosen the mixture up. Adjust salt and pepper if needed. Keep the puree warm to the side (you can always rewarm it in a sauce pan with a splash of milk if needed).
- At around 3 hours, the cheeks should offer almost no resistance when poked and prodded with the tip of a fork or knife. When they are tender, take the pot out of the oven and take the lid off. Take the cheeks and place them on a plate to the side. Strain the braising liquid, saving the liquid and discarding all of the solids; press down hard on the solids when you're straining to get the most flavor into the sauce. Place the sauce back into the dutch oven. Add in the corn starch and cold water slurry, and whisk well; reduce the sauce until it has thickened and coats the back of a spoon well. Taste, and adjust salt and pepper as needed (I always add a good pinch of salt at this point).
- While the sauce reduces, make the mushrooms. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the pan is hot, add the butter (let it melt) and then add the mushrooms; toss them well with a pinch of salt, and let them cook, undisturbed, in 2 minute increments. You want to get some nice browned edges on the mushrooms, so avoid stirring them too much at this stage. When the mushrooms have released their liquids and are starting to look brown and tender, add in the marsala wine and give them a good toss. Cook until all of the wine has cooked off and the mushrooms are totally tender, about 2 minutes.
- When the sauce is reduced and thick, the puree is ready, the mushrooms are cooked, and the garlic cream is made, you're ready to eat! Take the cheeks and gently break them up into large chunks. Place the chunks in the thickened sauce. Take a generous scoop of the puree and spread it on a plate; top the puree with a spoonful of the mushrooms. Split the beef cheek pieces up between the two plates, and ladle a generous portion of the thickened sauce over the top. Top with a big spoonful of the roasted garlic cream, and garnish with fresh parsley leaves.