Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cracking the Pot Roast Nut

You may recall that we acquired a cattle-beast some months ago, albeit all cut up and now resident in our purpose-bought chest freezer, several hundred pounds' worth. The most noteworthy artifact of acquiring a whole cattle-beast is that you don't get to pick and choose (duh). Rather, you get exactly the cuts of beef that the beast produces, in a statistically identical distribution. For the present purposes, this means, contrary to your average supermarket presentation, you get rather a few steaks and other cuts of the most popular varieties and bits such as brisket that you can pretty much figure out what to do with. But you also get a lot (read: A LOT) of bits and bobs that "normally" find their way out of sight and out of mind: ground beef, stew beef that might as well be ground, and, in the case of New Zealand, you get around a dozen instances of the "rolled roast".

Formally, the rolled roast is derived from slabs of the meat that lies between the skin and the ribs (if memory serves), which are (as the name suggests) rolled up and tied with twine. Practically, it means a cylindrical lump of meat, fat and gristle about 5" in either dimension. In case it's not obvious from the description, we're talking about the toughest pieces of flesh you'll ever have to deal with, either in the kitchen or on the plate.

Hence the challenge.

How to render the rolled roast edible, or even palatable? My first stop was the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Mimi Rodgers has an elaborate pot roast recipe that includes pureed root vegetables and many steps to a yuppie-friendly presentation, and I tried it. Clearly it wasn't developed with the rolled roast in mind, because after several days of marinating and several hours of cooking, the results were edible, but clearly hankered for a more, shall we say, SELECTIVE cut of meat.

However, Mimi (and God bless her and that book; there's more practical--and novel--wisdom and elegant writing than in a decade of run-of-the-mill cookbooks) does have a memorable point. Contrary to the received wisdom of cookbooks from Joy onward, she likes pre-salting meat. Theory being that, rather than toughening the meat by drawing out moisture, EXTRA long exposure to salt ultimately tenderizes the thing.

So this time, I put it to the test. I made up a preparation out of whole cloth. I unrolled the roast into its 1/2" thick slabs, sprinkled them generously with salt, pepper, roughly-chopped garlic and dried thyme. Rolled it back up and stuck it in the fridge for three days. Took it out and browned it all over in olive oil. Added onions for long enough to soften and brown. Then threw in a few cups of beef stock and red wine, and put it on barely simmering. For hours. Hours and hours. It must have been seven hours from initial simmer to the plate.

...and for many of those hours, the lump of flesh stubbornly insisted it was going to be a palate-defying, character-building lump of chewy gristly obviously-flesh-with-a-bad-attitude. But by the time the gardening work was done and it was time to throw in the carrots and the new potatoes, it was looking like real food. And when I finally plopped it on the cutting board to rest, it flopped down in surrender, yielding to dismemberment like a cooked apple. It rejoined the pot likker on the plate and the root vegetables like old pals. And it tasted like, well, it tasted like meat ought to taste: crude and rich and flavoricious and reminding you that it came from somewhere. Somewhere nearby.

So there you have it: salt, rigourously applied; and slow cooking, over a long-ass period of time. Not that hard, really. I'm surprised it seemed like a challenge.

And to think, we've only got eight or ten of them left.

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