The decision to serve beef cheeks at The Publican, an unfailingly impressive Chicago beer hall-cum-brasserie in the city's hip Fulton Market neighborhood, came after the proprietors opened a whole-animal butcher shop. Chef de Cuisine Brian Huston suddenly found himself with a surplus of the cut, which often renders home cooks squeamish.

"Some people are nervous about using cheeks, but they are one of our favorite cuts of meat," says Huston. "They are incredibly succulent and meaty, and there are only two cheeks per animal, so they aren't always available."

On a recent night during a mighty Chi-Town wind, we sampled Huston's dish and found ourselves agreeing with his assessment – so much so that we had to find out how he prepared his delicious dish. He explained that we should serve the meat with traditional down-home staples and focus on not overcooking the cut. But he warned us that our first step would be picking up a phone. "I recommend calling ahead to see if your butcher carries cheeks," says Huston. "While you're at it, ask if they'll clean and trim them."

While it's certainly satisfying for a contemporary home cook to undertake a challenge like this one, transforming oneself into a butcher is a different, bloody difficult task.

Braised Beef Cheeks with Grits and Collard Greens
(Serves 6 to 8)

Braised Beef Cheeks

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs beef cheeks

Brine

  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup sugar

Rub

  • 3 sprigs of rosemary
  • 1 bunch of thyme
  • 1 tbsp toasted coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp toasted fennel seeds
  • 1 anchovy
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Braise

  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped
  • 2 cups apple cider
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 qts of chicken stock

Sherry Glaze Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp roasted Calabrian chilies, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp of butter

Preparation

Step One
Two days before you plan to serve pork cheeks, make the brine by combining the sugar and salt, and a gallon of cold water. Submerge cheeks in brine and refrigerate. When ready to cook, remove from brine and dry on a resting rack.

Step Two
In a food processor, blend rosemary, thyme, coriander, fennel, anchovy, and garlic until it forms a thick paste. Stop and scrape down the side of the bowl once or twice. While mixing, slowly pour olive oil until the mixture emulsifies.

Step Three
Over medium heat, in a sauté pan with high sides and a lid, heat olive oil until it just starts to smoke, add cheeks and brown on all sides. Remove cheeks and place on resting rack. Let cool, and rub with the rosemary mixture.

Step Four
In the same pan, brown onion, carrots, and celery; add cider and vinegar then reduce by half. Place cheeks on top of vegetables and add stock. Bring the liquid up to a simmer, cover and place in a 350°F oven for two hours, checking after an hour to gauge where the meat is. The beef cheeks should be fork tender.

Step Five
Remove cheeks from the oven and let cool in the broth. Once cool, remove from the liquid and strain, discarding the vegetables. Reduce the braising juice by half, season with salt and pepper, and reserve for plating.

Step Six
While cheeks are in the oven, prepare the sherry glaze. Combine the sherry, maple syrup, and Calabrian chilies in a blender, and blitz until smooth.

Step Seven
When ready to serve, add glaze to cheeks and warm in 450°F oven using a sauté pan with high sides. Once heated through, about 10 minutes, remove from oven and place over medium-high heat. Add butter to the glaze and baste cheeks until the sugars from the glaze begin to caramelize. Remove from pan, discarding syrup, and serve with the reduced braising juice.

Cook's Note:

Feel free to substitute pork belly or short ribs for beef cheeks.

Grits

Ingredients

  • 6 ounces (1 cup) coarse white grits or coarse yellow grits
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 2 cups water
  • Fine sea salt
  • 2 to 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

Step One
Place the grits in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, and cover with 2 1/2 cups milk. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the pan, skimming off and discarding the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover and let the grits soak overnight at room temperature.

Step Two
Set the saucepan over medium heat, and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the first starch takes hold, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pan.

Step Three
Meanwhile, heat 2 cups of water in a small saucepan and keep hot. Every 10 minutes or so, uncover the grits and stir them; each time you find them thick enough to hold the spoon upright, stir in a small amount of the hot water, adding about 1 1/2 cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender throughout, but not mushy, and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and pepper.

Collard Greens

Ingredients

  • 1 pound collard greens, trimmed and washed, water still clinging to the leaves
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 slices bacon, cut in half lengthwise and sliced crosswise in 1/2-inch pieces
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp honey
  • Coarse salt

Preparation

Step One
Remove the tough stems from the collard leaves. Finely slice the stems crosswise. Stack a few leaves on top of each other, and cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces. Repeat with all leaves. You'll have 8 packed cups of leaves.

Step Two
Heat a 10-inch sauté pan over high heat. Swirl in the oil and add bacon; cook until crisp. Add onion and red pepper flakes. Fry until the onion is soft, about 13 minutes.

Step Three
Add the greens, 2 cups at a time, stirring as you add. They will collapse and shrink in the heat.

Step Four
When all the greens are in the pan and the heat has returned to sizzling high, pour in the vinegar and honey. Stir to evaporate. Cover and let the greens cook over low heat until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add a bit of water as needed to keep the greens from burning. Add salt to taste. Ideally, the dish should be a balance of sweet, salty, acidic, and spicy.

Cook's Note:

Instead of using collard greens, you can substitute mustard greens, Swiss chard, dandelion greens, or beet greens. Adjust the cooking time down a few minutes to achieve the desired tenderness.

To Serve

Spoon grits onto a dinner plate with a smaller quantity of greens on top. Add cheeks on top of these, and spoon over the reduced braising juice; scatter a few small leaves of uncooked greens on top as garnish.