Beefer MadnessIn "Eat Local country," food writer T. Susan Chang says, neighbors get together to buy "beefers" — whole steers — from a nearby farm. Her share — some fresh ground beef, steaks, tongue and even a heart — provided for a year of memorable eating.
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About The Author
T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
"Take it," said Mark. "You know you want it." He was brandishing a frozen beef heart the size of my head, and, to tell the truth, I was not at all sure I wanted it.
There were a half-dozen of us, mindful carnivores all, in Mark and Cindy's driveway that night. Shop lights illuminated the vacuum-sealed remains of three steers, portioned out in 2- and 3-pound increments on Mark's worktables.
The scene looked like a cross between a drug bust and a medieval auto-da-fe. Some of us couldn't help looking over our shoulders for the fuzz, even though what we were doing wasn't even a little illegal. And though mad cow panic was years in the past, there is no doubt what we'd done to secure this beef — grass-fed, free-range and $3.50 a pound — partook, in its own way, of madness.
Here in Eat Local country, it's not uncommon for a group of neighbors to band together at the beginning of the season and buy a "beefer" — a whole steer — from a nearby farm. Mark, the maddest of us all, had masterminded the purchase of not one but three.
Since small-scale slaughterhouse operations have tight requirements and narrow windows of opportunity, we had to wait several weeks until he got the word — and then drove rumbling off into the night in his pickup to bring back a truck full of clunking, frozen meat packages.
Some of us had quarter-shares, some had sixths. I had an eighth. Even that much, as I learned under the shop lights, is a lot of meat — and an instant lesson in carnivorous diversity.
Some of the pieces looked familiar in shape — the porterhouses and T-bones, the rib roasts and sirloins. And though it was a large amount, I could easily get my mind around the 40 pounds of ground beef, wrapped in 2-pound packages. I traded up a roast for a bunch of London broils, and grabbed the marrow bones for good measure.
Then there was the heart. Despite wanting to preserve my reputation as an open-minded cook, I hesitated. In my mind, a picky 5-year-old was playing chicken with an adventurous omnivore. It was touch-and-go for a moment or two, but in the end, the omnivore won. "OK," I said, heaving Exhibit A into my box. "I'll take it."
As a year passed, I worked my way down through the freezer, using the most flavorful, fresh-tasting ground beef I'd ever had for some memorable bolognese sauces, chilis and burgers.
I saved up the steaks for special occasions and lovingly warmed them to 110 degrees before searing them at their juicy, marbled finest. I learned a few great marinades for London broil, and revived an old favorite way to braise chuck.
We roasted the marrow bones, sucking at them delicately. Emboldened by this sortie into the fringes of beef, I even bought some tongue, which, after four hours of simmering, was dark, dense and velvety, with a rich, fatless gravy.
But I remained wary of the heart, that parallel universe of beefdom lurking at the bottom of my freezer chest . I imagined it waiting there, as reproachful as Poe's telltale heart, daring me to throw it out as it neared its first birthday.
At last, I took up the search for a recipe. It was not a simple matter. Not one of my 650 or so cookbooks had a recipe for beef heart. E-mails to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the British guru of offal, went unanswered. And most of the recipes for beef heart on the Internet were meant to be consumed by tropical fish or domestic dogs — not a good sign.
But at length I found a recipe for beef heart stewed Southwestern style, with mole sauce and wine. With the recipe tester's ill-founded confidence, I updated it with toasted spices, roasted garlic, edamame instead of canned limas, and a handmade mole that took me two hours all by itself.
Four hours of slow simmering later, I took a cautious bite. Every red blood cell in my body sat up and took notice as the taste of iron filled my mouth. The texture was first yielding, then ropy as I hit the pure protein fibers. I chewed some more. More iron. More rope. I declared myself ready to file it under "learning experience."
The angelfish and the bichon frise clearly knew something that I did not. As it turned out, so did my family, which went on to eat the stew with every sign of unfeigned gusto.
I missed Mark's beefer order this year, so I set up my own, splitting a steer with four other families. It was a last-minute order, but I had a waiting list of 12 additional families.
Yet on our cut sheet, where we specify chops versus roasts or ground beef versus cube steak, nobody checked off liver, tongue — or heart. Chances are, someone will turn to me again with an oddly shaped package and a glint in the eye: "You know you want it!" And chances are, after a moment or two of struggle, the madness will prevail. "OK," I'll say. "I'll take it."
I adapted this recipe from the recent reprint of the classic 1927 French cookbook, Madame Saint-Ange's La Bonne Cuisine (10 Speed Press2005). The translation was idiosyncratic ("leave tongue to disgorge"), and there was no indication of when the vegetables were supposed to go in. But the meat was tender and delicious, so I hope I interpreted Madame Saint-Ange's 80-year-old recipe correctly.
Makes 4 servings
1 beef tongue weighing 2 to 3 pounds
1/4 cup white wine
2 carrots, cut into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
1 onion, cut into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
1 or 2 large sprigs thyme
3 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 quart beef broth (if not using homemade, try to choose one without MSG or "hydrolyzed wheat protein," which is the same thing)
1/4 pound chunk of smoked ham, with skin and bone if possible, optional
2 tablespoons corn starch
To prepare the beef tongue: With a sharp knife, cut off any irregularities — fat, bones, dark glands — clinging to the "heel" of the tongue. Trim as much of the bumpy membrane coating the tongue as you can, but don't worry about getting every last bit.
If you have time, let the tongue sit in a large saucepan filled with cold water for an hour or two. Then drain it, refill the saucepan with enough water to cover the tongue, and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes.
Skim any scum that forms on the surface of the water. Remove the tongue and submerge it in cold water until cool and firm. Drain it, and remove any remaining white skin with a sharp knife.
Place the tongue in a heavy pot just large enough to hold it (you can curl it slightly). Cover the pot, place it over medium heat, and sweat the tongue until it's dried and firmed a bit, about 15 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until the pot is nearly dry again.
Place the vegetables, herbs and the ham, if using, beneath the tongue and add the broth, which should cover the meat about two-thirds of the way.
Place a circle of buttered or oiled parchment paper directly on the tongue, greased side down. Cover tightly and simmer for 3 hours, either on the stove or in a 375-degree oven. Check the pot periodically, adding water as needed to keep the meat two-thirds covered, and scrape the pot's bottom with a wooden spoon to keep it from sticking. Turn the tongue every half hour or so for the first two hours. After that, baste once or twice.
When the tongue is tender (poke with a skewer to check), remove it to a platter.
Whisk the cornstarch with about 1/3 cup water in a small measuring cup. Strain the cooking juices, which will be nearly grease-free, into a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. When reduced to about 1 1/2 cups, start adding some of the cornstarch slurry, bit by bit, allowing it to come to a boil between each addition. When the sauce has thickened to a light gravy, remove from heat.
Slice the tongue 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick. Serve with the gravy and some steamed vegetables.
Anita Boswinkel, who was my stepmother for many years, taught me this recipe. Her family made it in the Netherlands in the days of scarcity after the war, when they couldn't always get much beef. She usually made it with potatoes, boiled with salt pork and mashed with carrots and onions. But I prefer it with kale potatoes. Saute the kale with some garlic, whiz it in a blender with some yogurt, and mash it into the potatoes. When you're ready to serve, make a well in a great dollop of potatoes to hold the meat and gravy. It's unreconstructed comfort food for a cold night.
Makes 4 servings
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chuck steaks (3/4-inch thick), or chuck roast cut into steaks
Salt and pepper
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 bay leaves, fresh or dried
3 whole cloves
2 to 3 tablespoons white vinegar
1 quart beef broth (optional)
Season the beef on both sides with salt and pepper. In a heavy skillet just large enough to accommodate the meat in one layer (cast-iron works well), melt the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the meat, raise the heat, and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side.
When the meat is browned, scatter the bay leaves and cloves into the crevices and give the cloves a minute or two to give off their fragrance and swell. Reduce the heat to low, add the vinegar and deglaze the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon (hold the meat out of the way with a fork if you need to).
Add enough beef broth or water to halfway cover the meat, cover tightly and bring to a simmer. Simmer for at least 2 hours, checking the level of liquid every 20 minutes or so and adding more beef broth or water as necessary to keep the meat at least halfway submerged. Turn the meat a couple of times during cooking.
When the meat is tender and falling apart, remove it to a platter. Reduce the remaining liquid to a thick sauce, scraping the pan with a wooden spoon. If you have trouble getting all of the browned bits, add a little more vinegar. Return the beef to the pan and serve hot, with mashed potatoes.
Chili is so easy to make, I'm almost embarrassed to be writing a recipe for it. If you've made chili before, you don't need my help. If you haven't, this is a good first chili with endless potential for variation: Try using different herbs, different dry spices or different chilis. It's hard to go wrong.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 or 2 chipotles en adobo, or dried chipotles rehydrated in hot water, chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 pounds ground beef
3 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 12-ounce package frozen corn
1 large can pinto beans or other beans (cannellini, navy, black-eyed peas, etc.), drained (optional)
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot. Add the onion, cumin and celery seed, and gently cook until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the chopped chipotles and garlic and stir together for another minute or 2.
Raise the heat to high and add the beef and honey. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook the beef, stirring occasionally, until it loses its red color and begins to brown a bit. Add the oregano and tomatoes and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release any brown bits. Cover tightly, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, and cook for about an hour. Check every 20 minutes, stirring and adding a little water to keep the chili from sticking.
After an hour, stir in the corn and the beans, if using, and add water again if dry. Heat for an additional 15 minutes over low heat, until piping hot throughout.
Serve over rice with optional garnishes: avocado, scallion, sour cream, crumbled queso fresco or shredded cheddar, hot sauce, etc.
"London broil" simply refers to a cut of lean meat that's marinated, grilled or broiled, then sliced thin across the grain. Flank steak, cheap and juicy, used to be the most popular cut for London broil, but other steaks, such as top round, also can work. When I was young, my mother made a flank steak I adored. At the time, cooking meat was as mysterious to me as it is to any 6-year-old. I never dreamed how easy it could be to make something so delectable, provided that you have the necessary self-possession to work with very high heat.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
2 1/2 to 3 pounds London broil, 3/4- to 1-inch thick
1/2 large onion, peeled
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
Juice of 4 limes
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons corn oil or canola oil
Prepare the meat by slashing the surface on both sides (I like a cross-hatch pattern) with a sharp knife, about 1/4-inch deep.
Drop all of the marinade ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until combined. Empty into a heavy-duty zip-top bag, and add the meat. Seal it securely (you can put the whole thing, bag and meat together, in a mixing bowl if you're concerned about leaks). Marinate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Preheat the broiler or the grill. When it's very, very hot, remove the meat from the marinade (reserving the marinade) and sear quickly but thoroughly — so the exterior forms a nice caramelized (but not carbonized) crust on both sides, about 4 minutes a side.
Move the meat to a cooler part of the grill, or farther from the broiler, and continue cooking until interior is medium-rare to medium, another 7 to 10 minutes depending on the heat.
Remove the meat to a platter and tent with foil while you prepare the marinade. (This resting time makes the meat easier to cut and allows it to reabsorb its juices all the way to the center.)
Strain the marinade into a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat and reduce to a sauce-like consistency. Slice the meat finely across the grain and serve with the sauce.