Explorations in salt beef

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.

Allotment and garden have been mulched with a thick blanket of manure

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.

This year’s December door swag

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.

Harry has progressed to helping with cinnamon buns

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.

Soak the brisket in a sweet, spiced brine for one week

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
Bay leaves

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.

Braise the beef with herbs and stock vegetables until tender

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.

Salt beef: serve sliced with potatoes and carrots, in a bagel with pickles and mustard, or try leftovers in a long-braised tomato-rich ragu

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.

Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Notes for a tip-top turkey

Allegedly it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It isn’t of course – that honour goes to June, when asparagus is in season, the wildflowers are in bloom and it’s light for 19 hours a day – but I’m willing to concede that opening the first chocolate panettone of the holiday period is pretty damn good. By the way, there’s no need to spend a fortune on the Christmas panettone or stollen; this was £4 from Wilko’s and is brilliant in every way.

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Hello breakfast!

Yesterday I dropped in to see my old friend Sally Russell, who tells me – with some trepidation – that she is in charge of Christmas dinner this year. Now this raises an eyebrow, for two reasons. Firstly, Sally is a vegetarian. Secondly, she has a genuine intolerance to butter, cream, oil, cheese…all the good stuff.

For Sally to be cooking Christmas dinner for 11 people (or whatever it is) is A BIG DEAL. So here I brain-dump my top-tips for the Christmas turkey, refined over many years of experience.

Tip 1: Buying the turkey

Buy the best you can afford. This is important: a well-reared bird will give you a juicy, flavoursome result.

The Kelly bronze are the tip of the top – they’re an old-fashioned breed and only really do well when outdoor reared, so have higher welfare standards. The downside is that they often have little black pin-feathers, which you might find off-putting (just pull them out with a tweezer). If the Kelly’s are too much money, go with free-range or outdoor reared if you can. I think that the best place to go is a local farm-shop (Sally, think about going to Gwillams Farm Shop, not far from you, or Clives Fruit Farm).

PLEASE avoid the cheap bargain-basement supermarket freezer turkeys. These are no better than conveyor-belt chickens and kept in appalling conditions. Morally abhorrent and also impossible to cook well.

To feed 10 people, I’d go for a bird that’s around 6-8kg. Any bigger and it’s a struggle to cook.

Once you’ve got your bird home, remove any plastic wrapping so that the skin can dry out a little. We always get ours on the 23rd or 24th December and leave it in a cool room rather than put it in the fridge. Make sure you remove the little bag of giblets, saving them for the stuffing and gravy.

Make sure cats can not get at the raw turkey, else you will end up sharing your bird with your feline friend.


Tip 2: Flavouring and prepping the turkey

This is the good bit. You will need:

Up to 200g butter

1 orange

1 lemon

Generous handful of fresh winter herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary work well)

Salt and pepper

Streaky bacon – enough to cover the bird

A roasting tin big enough to take the bird and fit in the oven

Roasting rack that fits in your tin (optional, but it works for me)


I do all this on Christmas eve, so it’s stress free.

The butter is going to be flavoured and then spread all over the bird. So chop half of your chosen herbs finely, and add them to a bowl with your butter. Grate in the orange and lemon zest, season generously with salt and better, and use your hands to squish it all together.

Now get your bird and use your hands to loosen the skin on the breast away from the flesh. Go easy, to avoid tearing it too much. (Remove any knobbly rings from your fingers to avoid damaging the skin.) Squish half of the butter into this opening and ease it all the way down the breast. You can insert whole sage leaves under the skin too, if you like. Ease the skin back over the breast, and secure in place with a rosemary stick or skewer if you think it needs it.

If you’re stuffing your turkey, do this next – ease the stuffing into the neck flap and tuck in the ends. Don’t over-stuff, and I’d avoid putting stuffing into the cavity as it can make it longer to cook the bird through. Any leftover stuffing can be cooked separately in a dish.

Spread the rest of the butter on the breast and legs of your turkey. Take your streaky bacon and lay it east-to-west over the bird (e.g. from leg to leg, rather than head to neck. It’s more likely to stay put this way). The fat in the bacon helps to flavour the turkey and prevent the breast drying out.

Take the zested orange and lemon, cut in half, and stick them into the cavity with your remaining herbs.

Now put your turkey into the roasting tin or – as I do – on a rack so it’s raised up out of the tin. Cover the lot loosely with foil, tucking the ends around the outer edge of the roasting pan.

The turkey will be quite happy left overnight like this, provided it’s in a cool room or fridge. Important: take the bird into the kitchen several hours before you cook it, so it’s at room temperature before you put it in the oven.

I also like to make a stock with the giblets at this point, which is the basis of my gravy (this is another blog post in itself).

Tip 3: Work out the timings

Everyone lies about how long it takes to cook a turkey. I utterly fail to understand why people cook their birds for 5+ hours – no wonder it gets such a bad press as a dry meat. So before you do anything else, work out your timings.

A free-range bird cooks in a much shorter time than a flabby battery turkey, so you’ll have to do a bit of this by eye. Hugh FW recommends cooking the bird between 100-200 minutes, so between 2 to 4 hours, and he’s deliberately vague as so much depends on the vagaries of your bird and your oven. If your turkey is fridge-cold it will obviously take longer to cook, which is why I like to have mine at room temperature before I start.

If you’ve bought a good bird, and it’s not stuffed in the cavity, it will probably take a total of 2 and a half to 3 hours. It will then need to rest for an hour. Yes, an hour! So let’s assume your bird will take a total of 4 hours.

At this point the older generation may well be throwing their hands up in horror! So my advice is to roughly work out your timings beforehand, but on the day, cook your turkey for 30 minutes: in other words, check and baste every 30 minutes until it’s done to everyone’s satisfaction.

So work out what time you want to eat your lunch, and then think backwards to work out when to put the turkey into the oven. If you want to eat turkey at about 2pm, it goes in the oven at 10am.

Tip 4: Prep everything else

Your potatoes are going to cook in the oven whilst the turkey is resting. So use Christmas morning to get all your other veggies and sides prepped. Enlist help as required.

Tip 5: Cooking the turkey

Make sure the turkey is at room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 220c. We’re going to give it a half-hour sizzle (I learnt this from Hugh FW) before turning the heat down to cook it through. So when the oven is at 220c, put the bird in the oven and leave for 30 minutes.

Then turn the heat down to 180c, pour a little water or white wine into the base of the tin, and cook for another 30 minutes. The liquid helps create a moist atmosphere for the bird to cook in.

After 30 minutes, take the bird out of the oven and baste it – pouring fat and juices all over the meat. Put it back in the oven and cook for another 30 minutes before repeating.

Keep going, checking every 30 minutes, until the meat is just done. You can tell this because when you insert a skewer into the thick part of the thigh, juices come out clean. I also sacrifice a pair of oven gloves and lift the bird directly, with my gloved hands, to pour juices out of the cavity – they too will come out clean when cooked.

Top tip: Display cooked turkey to your mother / mother-in-law / any other opinionated adult, so that everyone is satisfied of its cooked-ness.

The bird now needs browning. So whip off the foil and bacon, turn the oven up to 200c, then put it back in for 20 minutes or so until it’s burnished and lovely.

I actually think turkey is quite forgiving, so if it does take a little longer than our calculations then no stress, just keep it in the oven a bit longer. If it’s cooked earlier, whip it out and let it rest a bit longer.

Tip 6: Resting the turkey

When it’s done, put the turkey onto a warmed plate or roasting tin – make sure whatever you use has a lip to catch the juices. Cover with clean foil, maybe double thickness, and then cover again with a tea towel or two. Place it somewhere warm, but not hot, to rest. It will look like this.

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Resting turkey, Queen optional.

The turkey can rest for an hour, or more actually. What happens is that the muscle fibres relax, which makes for a juicier bird. It won’t get cold, don’t worry.

Tip 7: Cooking everything else

Use this hour for the other VERY IMPORTANT thing – cooking your roast potatoes.

Use the juices in the roasting tin to finish your gravy, and meanwhile get the sides sorted, drink champagne, etc.

Tip 8: EAT!

It’s now lunch time! Congratulate yourself on your hard work, enjoy your tasty bird, and sit down whilst somebody else washes up.

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Voila! Juicy flavoursome turkey!

Sally, I wish you luck, and I may well blog again this week with instructions for gravy and stuffing.