Sometimes creativity needs a little help from the supermarket. I had a few ideas for this weekend, yet I wasn’t quite convinced: I decided to let the grocery store suggest what I should cook, given available ingredients and special offers. I was lucky enough to find a very nice and perfectly sized chunk of meat which screamed for some roast beef, looking like a great main course to marry with golden potatoes and grilled polenta.
Polenta should deserve a separate post: for brevity’s sake I’ll have Wikipedia tell you the whole story about it. Suffice to say that it takes so much time and effort to cook it that you really want to do big portions, and use the leftover as a side order for the next day (it will taste even better, by the way): it’s great with cheese, meat, fish and basically everything you can eat, as long as you can count on some sauce. Roast beef isn’t that great for sauce, so I decided to go for a small “fusion” experiment, marrying the best English practices with some Italian stuff that would end up with some nice smooth juice to glaze the meat and eat with polenta.
Everyone can cook roast beef: get a chunk of meat, whack it in the oven, hope for the best. If you really want to impress your friends with some nice juicy meat, a few hints might help you perform the hat trick. Ingredients first: what you’re looking for is a nice chunk of meat, properly sized (everything less than 1Kg is a a good steak, not something to roast), and with a decent amount of grease. Grease is what makes the difference, what we’re trying to avoid here is dry meat, so you want some good, white grease layer on top (feel free to shrink it to 1/2 cm, but keep in mind how that’s the absolute minimum). Your meat should also look like marble: an evenly red meat is OK but tends to be dry, whereas some nice and thin grease veins are your best bet towards a great roast.
Once you have the proper chunk of meat, get ready in advance: you really (and I mean really) want to take it out from the fridge no less than two-three hours before you start cooking. Your meat should be at room temperature, or a couple of hours later you’ll be going to slice something that’s much better for your shoes than for your stomach. Trust me, this is possibly the most important suggestion I can make when cooking beef, or any kind of meat or fish for that matter.
It’s now time to get all the ingredient for our “italian” sauce ready. Pre-heat the oven to 180Â°C. Finely chop (you bought that ceramic knife, didn’t you?) one carrot, some celery and a shallot. Carrot, celery and onion are the foundation of italian cooking: a lot of italian dish start with what we call soffritto (Wikipedia to the rescue, again): using shallot instead than onion is a very nice and dirty trick, as shallot have that special something you don’t want to miss. Ask any professional chef: it will take a few drinks, but eventually he might confess that his kitchen heavily depends on shallots and butter.
Grab now a garlic clove, unpeeled, and throw it with the chopped veggies, a spoon of olive oil, a glass of white wine, some rosemary leaves, salt and pepper into a roasting pan which is large enough to accommodate your chunk of meat yet small enough to leave roughly 1/2 cm of the sauce mix on the bottom. Grab a fairly sized potato, peel it and slice it into two or three long chunks no less than 1cm high (you’ll see why in a minute), add it to the sauce and whack everything in the oven.
Beef’s turn, now: first think we want to do is treat it with a massage, in order to soften the meat and add some flavour. What you need here is a good teaspoon of rock salt, some pepper and, possibly, some english mustard powder. If you can’t find it, a spoonful of french Dijon mustard, possibly whole-grain, is the closest thing you can get, but you’ll be missing something. Since we’re doing an Italian version of the British long-time fav, we’ll use some olive oil as well. Don’t be scared of getting your hands dirty: squash the mix through the meat, and massage it thoroughly. You’ll end up with a somewhat greasy chunk of beef, which is ready for the next step.
Grab a frying pan now (yeah, I know, I hate dish washing as well), and heat it over a strong flame. When it’s painfully hot, throw the meat in the pan (no need for extra grease, as we’ve been using olive oil for our previous massage), and let it seal for a couple of minutes per side. Some notes here: first of all, this is a crucial step, if you fail to seal the meat properly, the flavour will vanish in no time flat. As a consequence, try to remember that your chunk of meat vaguely resembles a cube, which means it has six sides, not just two. You want to seal each and everyone of them, which incidentally means you will have to hold your meat in some funky position over the pan: get ready for some blisters, unless you use long tongs to hold the beef over the pan. Don’t even try to use a fork or to pinch your meat in any way, unless you want to burn in hell for the capital sin of throwing flavour away.
We’re ready to hit the oven now. Take the roasting pan out and – quickly – arrange the potato strips you’ve been cutting before so that the meat gets to rest on them. You don’t want the meat to make direct contact with the sauce, as this is likely to cause sogginess: resting your beef chunk over two or three potato strip is the best compromise, as meat juices will flow anyway to the sauce, while your meat will happily absorb vapor from the sauce and roast evenly, even on the bottom side. Slap the pan back in the oven, and dedicate yourself to scraping the char bits from the frying pan. Pour half a glass of white wine in the pan to help you, and make sure you get all the tasty charred lumps, which you will then pour in the oven over the meat. Don’t wash the frying pan just yet, we’ll need it in a while.
Get a good watch, now, and consider you will need 35 to 45 minutes for 1Kg of meat to cook evenly: time is for rare to medium cooking, as I consider “well done meat” as the utmost example of oxymoron ever. Be warned: if I’ll ever be elected to any parliament chair, I promise I will propose to outlaw meat extermination via extreme cooking. If you can’t stand pink meat, consider a vegetarian diet. Good timing also requires a sheer amount of trust in your oven thermometer, which is like trusting women about their age: there is no substitute for direct knowledge, or trial and error, so just wait and see.
The next (and final!) step involves a food processor, a sieve and some tin foil. First of all, don’t be impatient: after 35 to 45 minutes, your meat is cooked but it’s not quite ready. During the cooking process, meat juices tend to move outwards from the center, concentrating on the outer edge of the meat which is hotter: what you want to do is let your beef cool down a bit, which will allow juices (and flavours) to return to their original position. If you cut your meat too early, the process will be incomplete, and you will see a clear separation between cooked meat on the edges and raw stuff on the center, with lots of juices getting lost on the carving board: you know you did your homework well when slices are coloured with an even gradient going from light brown to pink.
Take the meat out of the oven, grab a good chunk of tin foil, wrap it around the meat and wait for no less than 15 minutes, which is plenty of time to prepare the sauce with the juice lying at the bottom of your pan: throw the potato chunks away, pour the rest in a food processor and mix. Now grab the frying pan which should still be lying around, and use it to adjust thickness of the resulting sauce: if it’s too thick, let it simmer reduce a bit, if it’s too dry, add some white whine and let the alcohol evaporate. If you’re not on a perpetual and apparently useless diet as I do, add some butter and whisk. Since carrots and shallots will still be a bit uncooked (this is fully expected), you need to sieve the sauce through, which will result in a very smooth and silky liquid, great for your meat and vegetables. Open the tin foil now, and carve the meat in thick slices (around 1/2 cm): cold roast beef is great for sandwiches and salad, and should be as thin as possible, but hot stuff requires hefty portions. Use, if possible, hot plates for serving, add the side dish of choice, glaze with sauce and rejoice, as your efforts will be applauded by a cheering audience.