19 December, 2008
a rousing success
I know one of the cardinal rules of entertaining is NEVER to make a dish for guests that you've never made before. I have never adhered to this rule. I think that if you choose your guests wisely, inviting only people who are adventurous and generous of spirit (and come to think of it, why would you have any friends who are not?), all will be well. Make sure your guests are in the experimental mood, tell them in advance what invention they're in for, and let the bells chime.
It was in this spirit that Annie and her family arrived for my much-dramatized spiced beef on Wednesday. As you will recall, I acquired a solid gold 2-kilogram chunk of brisket from my dear butcher, Mr Stenton of Brackenbury Village, nearly two weeks ago. In the intervening time, I had to wait for the federal authorities to vet Mr Stenton, ascertain that he was not a card-carrying member of the IRA or any other paramilitary organization, and let him purchase 46 grams of saltpetre. Then I had to trek up to Notting Hill to the Spice Shop and hunt down juniper berries and allspice, plus some very intriguing sort of black peppercorns. Once this was accomplished, I was ready to go.
Rowley Leigh's Spiced Beef
(serves 10 at least)
1 2-kilogram piece of brisket, with fat but no sinew or membrane
100 grams Demerara sugar
15 grams saltpetre
125 rock or sea salt
30 grams black peppercorns
15 grams allspice
15 grams juniper berries
Rub the beef with the sugar, top and bottom, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight. The next day, grind the spices coarsely in a mortar and pestle or in a food processor and combine with the salt and saltpetre. Rub this mixture vigorously into the meat, cover again with film and refrigerate for 10 days, turning the meat from time to time and ensuring it is evenly exposed to the curing mixture.
After 10 days, remove the meat from its brine and rinse off any adhering spices. Place the meat in a tight-fitting casserole with two inches of water. Cover with greaseproof paper and the lid of the casserole. Place in a moderate oven 150C for three hours so that it gently steams and braises.
Remove the meat from the oven and leave to cool in the casserole. Once cool, remove to a dish and place a weighted plate -four tins of tomatoes is the usual prescription - on top. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, serve the meat cold, in thin slices.
Well. I can report that this dish, positively Rubenesque in its audacity and fleshliness, is MAGNIFICENT. I put my nose down to it right away and was transported to the corner of Houston and Avenue A, the location of the most superb Jewish delicatessen on earth, Katz. The aroma is at once robust and delicate, smelling faintly of a gin and tonic (that's the juniper for you) and making you think of Henry the Eighth with a stein of ale in one hand and a huge roasted turkey leg in the other. This beef is not for the faint of heart, but then what good food is? It's hearty, generous, and very, very exotic.
We revelled. The candles gleamed, the Christmas snow that we'd sprinkled on the table provided the perfect vehicle for young Fred to write messages to everyone, Annie's usual ringing laughter mixed with Elsa's determined, "Let me tell my story, somebody: stop interrupting!" And the side dishes were perfect, though I say it. I had intended to produce Orlando's outrageously rich straw potatoes in goose fat, but the afternoon got away from me and I did not have time to julienne anything or anyone. So it was mash: rich and decadent with double cream. I had also intended to serve a lovely crunchy red cabbage slaw with fennel, but someone had cruelly bought all the red cabbage in Shepherd's Bush, so I improvised and ended up with:
Sauteed Savoy Cabbage with Fennel and Fennel Seeds
(serves 10 generously)
3 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 head Savoy cabbage, shredded as for cole slaw
4 heads fennel, sliced thin (be sure to include the ferny tops)
2 tbsps fennel seeds
Heat the oil in a large skillet and fry the garlic until just soft. Throw in everything else and saute gently, taking care not to burn the garlic. When the fennel is soft, you're done.
Keith was right when he said that the soft (and dare I say it) unctuous vegetables were the perfect foil for the beef, and with a nice dab of mash on one's fork to go with it... heavenly.
Interestingly, the meat that weighed nearly exactly 2 kilograms when fresh had diminished to about 1.3 kilograms when we were ready to cook it. And yet there was nothing approaching 700 grams of liquid in the dish the beef marinated in. A mystery, to be sure. It was intriguing to note how, as the days went by, the texture of the beef changed; it started out that rather pliable and lumpy feeling of raw meat, but by the end of the marinating process it had solidified and hardened. Fascinating. And delicious, too. John mused that he might prefer the beef without the final step of refrigeration, just lifted from the hot braising brine and eaten immediately. Perhaps next time.
The dinner was the perfect festive occasion to usher in a little more Christmas spirit. I look back on that evening now with nostalgia, as I am writing now from a bed of dizziness and misery. I have the Virus That Ate Shepherd's Bush, or even the Greater London Metropolitan Area. Just miserable. I only hope I don't pass it on to Avery, and that I feel somewhat less dire when it's time to get on a plane tomorrow evening and head to Connecticut. People have been frowning darkly when they find out I am under the weather and muttering things like, "Mine hung on for two weeks." That is not on, not at all.
I'm wading through Christmas cards and stamps and piles of presents and books I cannot live without for two weeks and cameras and all the other detritus needed for our holiday. I feel nowhere near ready to leave home for such a long time, but I know from experience that once I arrive at Red Gate Farm, my cares will melt away and I'll be ready to celebrate.