The Jobs list in December is guaranteed to turn one into the Grinch. There’s all the Christmas stuff; women take on the burden of organising it all, at our own behest, and annually I wonder why on earth do we do this to ourselves? And yet here I am, writing the cards, worrying about table settings and undelivered parcels and what to give the nursery teachers as a thank you gift. Then there’s the house jobs (lockdown with a three year old does not make for an ordered household. We’re in Tier 3 which essentially means No Non-Household Fun Allowed. There’s a lot of TV at present), and the allotment jobs (it still needs covering) and then all the work jobs to get done before the holidays (holidays! Pah!).
So I come to realise that at this time of year I have to make space for small, soul-sustaining things – else martyrdom and a minor breakdown will set in – one of which is manuring the allotment. The sweet joy of shifting a pallet of poo, ripping open bags, forking through the rich brown gold, to create a veg patch as pristine as an untouched canvas in time for winter.
This year’s December door swag is a hastily constructed bouquet of greens and oranges, gathered by my Mum from her garden and then tied together for the door by me. I fully intended to adorn it further with dried hydrangea and strawflower heads but will probably never actually get around to doing so.
The lockdown baking continues – of course – it’s such a normalised activity now that I barely notice it, but I do want to record Harry’s progress from bemused onlooker to active ‘helper’. Here we’re making brown sugar cinnamon rolls, using a scraper to spread scented butter over stretched dough.
In my last post I mentioned that I felt some Project Cookery coming on. Reader, I am true to my word. Project Cookery is anything which requires a little effort: pickling, drying, layering, fermenting. It’s a good time of year to have a go at something new, given that we’re at home anyway so the small daily interventions that Projects require can be easily slotted into a daily routine.
Usually come December I’m having a go at making my own gravadlax or contemplating a gammon, and so it’s a natural progression to take the curing/salting mindset down a different road, to a different ingredient. The project, therefore, was decided: Salt Beef. Inspired by the River Cottage Meat Book, I tracked down a 2kg rolled brisket from my local butcher…and that’s where my troubles began.
It may be easy to make OK salt beef, but I have concluded that to make GOOD salt beef requires years of experience and more precise instructions than any recipe I have found. What follows, therefore, is not my definitive salt beef recipe, more a record of our family’s (for that is what it became) explorations.
Step 1: The Pickle
Stage 1 of making salt beef is to pickle the meat in a sweet-spiced brine solution for about a week. Easy enough. Except the myriad recipes I referred to confuse the matter. To roll or unroll the meat? Kosher (sea) salt or the bog standard stuff that comes in 1kg sacks from the Co-op? What receptacle does one keep a brisket plus 2+ litres of brine in for a week? In the fridge or not? Salt petre or not?
In the end we unrolled the meat, stabbed it several times with a skewer, then put it in my biggest plastic cake tin which, happily, could then hold 2 litres of brine and sit on the top shelf of the fridge. Some recipes called for a 5 litre mix which surely calls for a barrel and an out-house – fine if you live in Devon (I’m talking about you Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall) but not so great for folks in Smethwick.
I didn’t use salt-petre for the simple reason that I didn’t want the palaver of an online shop for an ingredient I will rarely ever use, especially if it’s just for aesthetic purposes. The spices I kept in keeping with the season: cinnamon, star anise, clove, juniper, bay.
2 kg brisket, unrolled and stabbed with a skewer
2 litres cold water
75g sugar (I used half granulated, half brown)
200g salt (I used normal table salt)
2 bay leaves
dessertspoon each of black peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise, cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Place the brisket in a large tupperware box or other receptacle – it needs to be kept covered and not react to brine, so plastic or ceramic is best (not aluminium). Heat all the brine ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes, cool completely and then tip over the brisket. Cover and refrigerate for 6 days, turning once per day.
Step 2: The Soak
On day 6, I tipped away the brine and covered the meat in fresh water, to remove excess salt.
Step 3: The boil
This is the bit that I think we messed up. The idea is to poach the meat in a court bouillon until it is meltingly tender. The problem with brisket is that, in my view, it actually rarely achieves tenderness: some of this is beyond the cook’s control (much depends on how the animal has lived, died and been butchered) but most of it is due to cooking time. The recipes I looked at said to look the meat for between 2-4 hours – now, that’s a big leeway right there.
Anyway, the beef want into a stock pot with carrots, leek, onion and garlic (there should have been more bay leaves but we ran out) and was simmered for two hours. At this point it was declared done (we were hungry) and removed it from the heat; in hindsight, I have decided that it needed either MUCH LESS or MUCH MORE cooking.
The argument for much less time in the pot is that a shorter cook prevents the meat drying out too much; it is a myth that poached meats can not be over-cooked.
The argument for much more cooking is that it gives the touch connective tissue time to disappear into a soft gelatinous mass, a state that can only be achieved with a profoundly long cook.
The true perfect cooking time therefore remains an unknown but my advice for the aspiring salt beef cook is to have a thorough prod of that meat before declaring it done, really checking for tenderness, and to err on the view that when it comes to brisket, more cooking is better than less.
The drained brisket
1 each: carrot, onion, leek, roughly chopped
A few garlic cloves, bashed
Place the beef into a large stock pot with the veg and herbs, cover with cold water, then bring to a simmer. Cook until meltingly soft – probably 3-4 hours, but could perhaps only be 1. The timing of this dish remains a mystery.
When it’s done, remove the meat and serve. Note: do not put the stock liquid down the sink as it will be full of melted beef fat that can clog the drain. Leave it in a cold place overnight, scrape the hardened fat off, then the stock can be saved for other dishes or chucked, as you will.
Step 3: What does one do with 2kg salt beef?!
Now here’s the rub. What on earth do you DO with that much salt beef?! The flavour is delicious, salty yes but also complex with clove and cinnamon. The problem is that it’s just a teensy weensy bit tough…oh OK, at times it was like shoe leather. Of course there is no gravy to counteract the dryness.
Meal 1: Serve hot, in thick slices, with boiled new potatoes and buttered carrots. The Irish way.
Meal 2: Serve warm, in thick slices, tucked into a toasted bagel with gherkins and a slather of hot mustard. The Brick Lane bagel-shop way.
Meal 3: We’re in the territory of leftovers now. Many recipes recommend a red flannel hash (salt beef, beetroot, potato, onion) but honestly, our beef is too tough for that, so I am turning it into a ragu, rich with wine and tomatoes, thinking that an extra two hours cooking won’t do it any harm.
The verdict: It’s easy enough to make, and I love the flavour, but that piece of beef cost about £15 which in my view is an expensive bit of Project Cookery. I’m not convinced it’s worth it – but then maybe if we’d cooked it properly I could be swayed. Let’s see how that ragu turns out.
Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Moving the pallet of manure and mulching both allotment and garden (still need to get the plastic covers on). Broad beans and the annual cut flowers have germinated but are leggy weaklings.
Cooking and eating: Osso bucco, steamed syrup pudding, chocolate buttermilk muffins
Also: Christmas overload already; all the fun things we had planned have been cancelled due to Sandwell being in Tier 3. Starting again on the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.