To continue with my twin fascinations of charcuterie and seeing what kinds of preposterous havoc I can wreak in a tiny kitchenette, this week’s recipe is for home cured beef. I found this technique in Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast. People in America know of Fergus Henderson, if they know of him at all, because of Anthony Bourdain. Henderson is lord and master of St. John’s restaurant in London, made famous because Anthony just won’t stop raving about it. In particular, Anthony likes Henderson’s roasted veal marrow bones with sea salt. He even declared it his death-bed meal. But chunks of cooked marrow on toast are only a tiny part of the shenanigans Henderson gets up to. A typical sampling of the recipes in The Whole Beast will include delicacies such as:
Rolled Pig’s Spleen
Sorrel, Chicory and Crispy Pig’s Ear Salad
Duck Hearts on Toast
Lamb’s Brain Terrine
Crispy Pig Tails
I can’t even find a decent marrowbone in this part of the world, so I’m not likely to have any more luck with spleen or pig tails. Here’s something I can make, though, and something that is delicious but not too daring: home cured beef.
What exactly is curing? Curing is a complex process (chemically speaking) but basically consists of putting meat in a brine or packing it in salt. The salt draws the water out of the meat cells (and the cells of any nasty bacteria, killing them in the process) by osmosis. The sugar, apart from adding a pleasant taste, promotes the growth of nice bacteria (Lactobacillus) which out-compete the nasty bacteria and prevent their return by generating an acidic environment through lactic acid. So cured food, properly done, is both safe and good for you. Of course, nature being nature, things can go wrong. If this happens, your nose will alert you pretty quick, and all you have to do is start completely over from scratch.
Home Cured Beef
(adapted from Fergus Henderson)
¾ cup coarse sea salt
1 ½ cups sugar
6 sprigs rosemary
Finely cracked black pepper
Mix the sugar and the salt together. Place 3 sprigs of rosemary in a plastic container and generously cover this with half the salt/sugar mix.
Lay the beef on this,
then cover with the rest of the mix (if you have not got enough of the salt and sugar mix, make up some more in the same 1:2 ratio). Nestle the rest of the rosemary into this.
Cover the container and leave it in the fridge for three days. At the end of that time, you will find that the salt and sugar has sucked all the moisture out of the meat. It’s amazing. The end result looks like a piece of leather in a melting snowbank.
Remove the cured beef from the now damp sugar and salt, rinse under cold running water, and dry with a clean cloth. When dry, take the pepper and rub the beef all over. Wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until you use it (this is not a long curing process and as a result the meat will not keep for more than a week and should be refrigerated).
The beef resembles jerky but has a quite different flavor, both refined and surprising. At first bite you think it’s jerky. Then the strong steak-like overtone hits. Finally you are left with the aftertaste of a fine coppa. Very nice with a lunch of crusty bread, blue cheese, olives, and perhaps some other preserved meats for comparison.