Been making a lot of soup lately — the kind that doubles as the main dish in a meal. Anything with lots of liquid helps fight dehydration in this terrible summer heat. Like this meat and vegetables soup. It’s really just another version of nilagang baka (boiled meat and vegetables soup), an endless variety of which can be found all over the world. What’s so unique about this one? Well, it uses a part of the cow that would probably make most First World residents cringe in horror. Too bad, really, how they lack appreciation for the tastier parts of an animal.
This soup has chunks of the cheeks of a cow. As with most edible animals, it’s the meat on the head that has the best flavor and texture. It’s true with most fish, it’s true with pork and it’s true with beef. Next to the head, the meat nearest the bones. The meat with least flavor? The ones that, ironically, command higher prices — the loin cuts.
It takes a long time to cook beef cheeks to the perfect level of tenderness when it is gelatinous and, quite literally, melts in the mouth. My late aunt who liked to use beef cheeks for kare-kare used to simmer the meat overnight in the backyard using firewood. Well, it’s 2014 and there’s a choice between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker. I prefer the slow cooker to simmer beef cheeks. Two hours on HIGH, then 10 hours or so on LOW. Longer than overnight but it’s safer than firewood. I throw in a some salt, a whole bulb of garlic, a whole onion and some peppercorns too. The long cooking time really squeezes out the flavors of the spices, transferring them to the meat and broth. Once the beef cheeks are tender, it’s all just a matter of adding vegetables.
For the vegetables, I chose a combination of traditional and non-traditional. Saba bananas are a common ingredient in Filipino nilagang baka dishes. I combined saba bananas with shiitake mushrooms and Chinese broccoli leaves.
And, finally, a sprinkle of toasted garlic bits just before serving. These little things really transform a soup from good to great.