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.

Ingredients:
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.

Ingredients:
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.

Blackberry (baby) muffins

Plague has visited the household. Harry brought home – simultaneously – a vomiting bug, a chest infection and a general got-no-energy malaise. The vomit, dear God, the vomit! He’s now fine of course, but I am in day 10 of being decidedly below par. It’s also the time of year when the biting insects reach peak-feasting mode and I succumb to wearing jungle formula to bed. I know we should appreciate the warm but frankly, I am now ready for drizzle, anoraks and things-wrapped-in-pastry.

Meanwhile the harvest continues. Beans…so many beans, and courgettes, so many courgettes. And great-looking chard, cavolo nero, perpetual spinach, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and rather less-great-looking knobbly tomatoes. Plus, whilst not armfuls of flowers, enough for a few pretty vases a week. I also am gratefully receiving the fruit of other people’s labour: just look at this whopper of an aubergine!

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

The sweetpeas, sunflowers, cleome, rudbeckia and cosmos are providing several vases a week

What to do with all these beans!

There’s been a good deal of batch cooking this week. Given that I’m still working and am losing about an hour a day to massive coughing fits, I’m not entirely sure how that’s happened, but there it is. Cooking on auto-pilot. I like to keep a good amount of baby food in the freezer, ready to go, to prevent meltdowns at teatime. Fruity muffins are useful and I’ve been using this River Cottage recipe from their Baby and Toddler cookbook which, in truth, taste way too much like health food to me, but Harry likes them. The purple juice stains, so you must either strip your child before they dig in, or else surrender your power to the washing machine. I choose the latter.

Substitute the blackberries with raspberries, redcurrants, blueberries or apples as the mood takes you. Cooked muffins can be frozen. Defrost at room temperature and maybe given them 20 seconds in the microwave before eating to refresh. Grown-ups may prefer these higher-sugar tayberry muffins instead.

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

125g wholemeal flour
125 plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter
1 egg
125g plain full-fat yoghurt
125ml whole milk
100-200g blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180c. Sift together the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. In a pyrex jug, melt the butter in the microwave until just melted. Using a fork, whisk the egg, milk and yoghurt into the butter. Add the milky mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine (I use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in the blackberries. Dollop the mixture into muffin cases and bake for about 20mins or until golden.

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

Harvesting: last French beans, runner beans, chard, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, courgette, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cleome, sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia, dahlia, sweetpeas. Gratefully receiving beetroots, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine from my folks.

Taking up: bolted lettuce and rocket, lots of annoying thistle weeds

Cooking and eating: Red beans and ham hock, hidden-veg pasta sauce for Harry, Peach cinnamon buns, beetroot salad, mixed veg couscous. A 15% Manzanilla, the first time I’ve enjoyed a sherry since before pregnancy and sign that my liver is improving. Cough mixture.

Reading: The legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a brilliant portrait of both a Scottish island (drizzle!) and the secret lives of women

Visiting: Tenbury show. Lots of trips to Coventry for work.

Pear (or apple) pudding cake

Working in the arts was meant to herald a life filled with glamour, parties, intellectuals and Interesting People. To be paid to write for a living, what a privilege! And all that is true – in part – but most of the time life is rather more mundane (think freezing cold workshops, too-much-time at the computer, that kind of thing). And then once in a while I’ll be called upon to be an actual MODEL in a shoot that I’m working on, donning a smelly old wig from the costume store, and will have to ACT for a camera. Oh the joy! This pic is for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new exhibition The Play’s The Thing, which opens this weekend. You can read about it in this Telegraph article. And that’s another career highlight ticked off the list…

The Play's The Thing

The photoshoot for the RSC’s exhibition The Play’s The Thing

In the rather more prosaic world of allotments, things have sloooowed right down. I’ve pulled out the squash and courgette: they probably all had another couple of weeks left in them, but really, enough is enough. The cosmos have come to the end of their insanely-good four month life, but the dahlias and chrysanthemums are still producing several bunches of colour a week.

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Pink and apricot on one side…

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…pumpkin shades on the other!

With so many wonderful English apples and pears around, it’s good to have at least a few fruity cake recipes up one’s sleeve. This one is a favourite – an apple and almond sponge, dense with caramelised fruit and damp with almonds. The original recipe comes from the River Cottage Every Day book, and it’s fabulous, but occasionally I’ll sub the apples for pears and will chuck in a few chunks of diced marzipan for an extra hit of almond-goo.

First, prepare a 20cm springform or loose-bottomed cake tin, and pre-heat the oven to 170c.

Next we prepare the fruit. Peel, de-seed and chop into wedges 2 firm pears or dessert apples (use more or less, or a mixture of both, depending on how large the fruits are. If using pears I don’t always peel them). Melt 25g unsalted butter in a frying pan, add 1 heaped tablespoon caster sugar and heat until the butter begins to bubble. Add the fruit and let it all cook together over a medium heat until the caramel begins to brown, then remove from the heat.

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Caramelise the prepared apples or pears then leave to cool slightly

The batter is very simple. Cream together 150g unsalted butter with 125g caster sugar until very light and pale. In a separate bowl, mix together 75g self-raising flour and 75g ground almonds. Alternatively beat the flour into the butter mixture along with 2 eggs and a drop of almond extract, if liked. You’ll end up with quite a stiff cake mix.

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Prepare the cake batter

Pile the cake batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top, then stud the batter with the fruit, drizzling over any buttery-caramelly juices that remain. If you want an extra hit of goo, dice some marzipan and arrange the chunks on top.

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Arrange batter, fruit, juices and marzipan in the tin

Then bake for about 45 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. I usually cover the cake after about 30 minutes to prevent it getting too brown (you can see that this one still managed to get slightly singed). Allow to cool in the tin before turning out.

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A gooey pear and almond pudding-cake

This is called a pudding-cake as really it’s best served warm with a dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream, but it’s also good at room temperature. This is a damp cake so it doesn’t keep brilliantly – try to gobble it up within a day or two. If eating it for pudding, the cake can be successfully reheated in a low oven (150c) for ten minutes or so.

Parsnip & cheddar soda bread

Tomatoes, be gone with thee! Courgettes, au revoir! With summer’s veg glut over, roots are making a return to my kitchen and amongst them, the humble trusty parsnip. Not that they’ve come from the allotment – we do have a few tiny plants, more seedlings really, that will stay in over winter to see if they fatten up (although my hopes are not high). Nope, farm shop parsnips it is and their rich, vaguely-spicy sweetness is a welcome addition to October dinners.

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One of last year’s allotment parsnips – this year’s didn’t germinate so well and are still tiny

It’s easy to see the parsnip as merely a useful adjunct to a winter roast – and a roasted parsnip chip is truly brilliant, provided that it’s not over-cooked…burnt parsnip being surprisingly easy to make, and horrid. But I’d urge all cooks to think a little more creatively: these roots are cheap-as-you like and their sweetness can take the strong flavours of chilli, spice and cheese with ease. Their dense texture makes for a creamy, satisfying soup, or try them baked in a creamy gratin to sit next to sausages or a pork chop.

Today I whipped up this soda bread, studded with strong cheddar and grated parsnip, which is great alongside a steaming bowl of soup for a nutritious and simple supper. It’s easy, inexpensive and vegetarian – and sometimes, that is just what it needed.

First, preheat the oven to 180c and prepare some baking parchment on top of a baking tray. Slice and sweat 1 onion in a drizzle of olive oil until it’s really soft – around 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grate 1 parsnip (I don’t bother to peel mine) and 50g strong cheddar using the coarse side of the grater. In a bowl, stir together 175g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal), a pinch of thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl and give it a stir to combine.

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Mix flour, parsnip, cheese, onions, salt and pepper in a large bowl

Then whisk an egg with three tablespoons of milk, pour onto the dry ingredients and stir until you have quite a loose dough. Don’t overmix – it will stay a little craggy. Shape the dough into a rough ball and place on the baking tray.

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Add beaten egg and milk to bind to a soft dough

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Shape into a bowl and place on baking parchment

Using a sharp knife or a bread scraper, cut half-way down the dough to make a cross (don’t cut all the way through). Dust with a little flour and then bake for 40 minutes or so, until risen, golden and hollow-sounding with tapped.

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Make deep crosses with a knife or metal bread scraper, then bake

You’ll open the oven door to find this crunchy-topped light savoury loaf. Leave it to cool for a few minutes but have this warm, maybe with soup, and definitely with lots of butter! It doesn’t keep brilliantly so try to eat it the loaf in one sitting.

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Parsnip and cheddar soda bread

Recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day.