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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Turn the Other Cheek: A plate of casonsei bergamasca, a veal cheek dish, from La Strada in Palo Alto.

Cheeky Monkeys

More and more gourmets in this country are discovering what the rest of the world already knows—cheeks are not just for kissing

By Leith Steel

THERE ARE those idealists who won't eat foods that have a face. I say, if it has a face, eat it. That is, eat the face. Cheek meat is some of the most succulent meat there is. A prized cut of meat in most of the world, cheeks—whether they be from cow, pig or even fish—are overlooked here. Luckily a growing set of enlightened and demanding diners are realizing our negligence, and cheeks are gaining prominence on both restaurant menus and in the home. If you're going to eat the chop, you might as well eat the cheek. You'll be glad you did.

Cows chew cud. Cows chew cud many, many times. Cows chew cud with their cheeks. (A culinary tongue twister!) Consequently cattle cheeks are a very muscular piece of meat that when properly cooked melt into a pool of meaty morsels. For those meat-minded people, few cuts of meat offer as much flavor-packed bang for your buck; the meat equivalent of Jolt soda, cheeks are the fork-tender, flavor-rich, glazed goodness of barbecue.

Both veal and beef yield choice cheeks, but where beef cheeks pack a powerful punch of meat-induced ecstasy, veal cheeks are the softer, subtler version, excruciatingly tender and more delicate in flavor. Both meats are excellent in stews and sauces. Cooked long and slow, the muscles of the meat break down and become even more tender until they are edible with a spoon. The collagen embedded within the muscles turns to gelatin, cloaking the meat in a full-bodied beefy glaze. Any sauce that the meat is cooked with becomes as potent as the richest gravy due to this naturally occurring phenomenon. This is one of the attributes that make it so valuable. Think oxtails and osso buco, but these beauties are boneless.

In northern Mexico, near the border of Texas, beef cheeks are cooked into legendary barbacoa, an indigenous variation of barbecue. It is more tender and richer than ribs. Long ago, Mexican cooks began wrapping seasoned beef heads in leaves and sealing the package in an earthen pit, cooking the gory mass over coals and simmering water. This combination of smoke and steam gently cooked the meat, adding subtle nuances of smoke to the already complex flavors of the meat.

Locally, chef Jim Stump at A.P. Stump's Chop House in San Jose occasionally serves braised veal cheeks with red-wine cinnamon sauce, celery root purée and micro arugula, a dish he is particularly fond of. More recently, the menu featured beef cheeks braised with vegetables and served with ricotta gnocchi.

"I grew up on a farm where it was a crime not to eat any piece of the animal," Stump says. "[The cheek] is an underutilized piece of meat. and it is absolutely delicious. People have no problem with eating a primary muscle, but they freak out over the idea of eating the cheek."

He says that putting beef cheeks on the menu can be a hard sell, but at a recent charity event where the dish was served everyone raved about the dish.

Move Over, Bacon

Carbonara. Amatriciana. People don't freak out over these two classic pasta sauces. Both of these superlative pasta dishes come from the region surrounding Rome, and both are dependant upon guanciale for the depth of flavor that imbues these simple sauces. Guanciale is an Italian specialty made from dry-curing pig cheeks. Similar to bacon but unsmoked and made from a leaner cut of meat, guanciale contributes a full-throttled, pure pork flavor and adds richness to the dishes that it colors.

More a component than a centerpiece, guanciale plays vital roles in many dishes where it achieves glory in its supporting role. Used very much as a Southerner might use a smoked ham hock, guanciale is less overpowering, in part due to its curing rather than smoking process. Any proud Italian will tell you that an amatriciana or a carbonara isn't authentic unless it is made with this critical cut of meat. Bacon and pancetta be damned—their stronger flavors can overwhelm the sauce. Guanciale is where it's at.

Guanciale can also give a little extra boost to stews and sauces. A few morsels of meat added to baked beans or braised greens wouldn't be bad, although my most memorable encounter with it was in a stew of braised wild boar where the two complementary and related meats built upon one another, culminating in a rich and fragrant stew. The guanciale was so tender that the substantial cubes on the fork dissolved immediately on the palate, leaving behind only an unctuous slick of porcine flavor.

"'But cheeks" (yes, that is "but" with one T and not two) are another chef favorite, and not just because of the dirty double-entendre. Touting the same benefits of all the other cheek meats, halibut cheeks are considered by many to be the best part of the fish. Similar to scallops in many ways, 'but cheeks—as they are affectionately referred to—are slightly larger than scallop but mimic their round shape, milky white color, lack of skin or bone and meaty texture and sweet flavor. Cheeks are the sweetest part of this popular fish and also the most tender. They are considered a delicacy in the regions surrounding the ports in which they are fished.

Often a special in seafood restaurants, this prized portion of fish is a bit more difficult to come by. While each halibut can be broken down into four large fillets, which are further portioned into individual servings, one fish can serve many, many people. The cheeks on the other hand can serve only a few.

Chefs love to put the cheeks on the menu, citing their extra-sweet flavor and an almost crablike texture. The cheeks can be prepared in many ways, but most often they are seared and served with a sauce or glaze. Halibut is a lean fish, and it tends to dry out easily; the cheeks, however, boast an additional amount of fat, which manifests itself in a richer flavor and moister consistency.

Sushi Scooby Snack

Hamachi Kama is the Scooby snack of sushi bars and seafood restaurants. When the chefs need a pick-me-up to sustain them through a long night of endless slicing and nodding to ignorant orderers, they know that the best part of the fish is waiting for them in back. Hamachi kama even appears on many menus and specials lists now that people have learned its secret.

The kama is the collar, or the area of the fish surrounding the first fins near the face of the fish. Unlike halibut cheeks though (halibuts are a flat fish, and the hamachi are round, or more accurately, fish shaped), this facial area of the hamachi is served with some skin and bone, especially bone.

It takes a dexterous hand with the chopsticks to pick out all of the morsels of meat nestled in the spider's web of bone, fin and flesh. But what you dig out is especially rewarding and worth all of the extra effort. Rather than being homogenous, the meat of the hamachi (also called yellowtail) collar varies tremendously from bite to bite; it can be firm or meltingly tender, a dullish gray or a dusky rose.

Regardless of texture or color, the flavor is incomparable. Up there with toro for its juiciness, the collar has a high component of fish oil, making it incredibly moist, both fattier and more flavorful than the fillets. Most often broiled and served with only the lightest brushing of glaze, the hamachi kama shines in its simplicity. The strong flavors of the fish come through, and the heat melts the natural fats of the flesh, which contributes to the high-impact richness of the dish.

"Yellowtail [hamachi] cheeks are very popular. It is a meaty area of the fish and it has a lot of flavor," says Keiko Sakuma, owner of Kaygetsu, a Japanese restaurant in Menlo Park. "We don't have a lot of it, but customers love it."

Sushi restaurants might buy three or four whole hamachi to break down into sushi and sashimi, and each one will yield only two collars. It is the lucky customer who gets to feast on this specialty portion.

Naomi Roda, an owner of Saizo restaurant in Sunnyvale, seconds this. "It is very popular; most customers really like it. There is a lot of customer demand for it." Both women also appreciate that this allows them to use more of the portions of the fish.

Around the world, from Mexico to Europe to Japan, and across the animal kingdom, from beef to pork to fish, cheeks are enjoyed for their rich flavors and sublime textures. The one word that comes forward again and again any time cheeks are mentioned is succulence. No wonder cheeks are made for kissing.

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From the March 15-21, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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