Meat Tartares: Old skool, New school

What’s better than raw meat? Two raw meats, that’s what.

Chef C had the brilliant idea to do a traditional beef tartare, alongside a new-fangled Noma tartare. The Noma cookbook has a recipe for beef tartare (the restaurant sometimes serves musk-ox). Wanting to contrast the traditional beef with something a little more gamey, and thinking we wouldn’t find musk-ox, we thought venison would be a good compromise.

So, of course, I found musk-ox. But since it was frozen, and the butcher said (admiringly) that it was very gamey, we decided to go with venison.

The first order of business was to source the garnishes for the Noma tartare. Unfortunately, early winter in Toronto isn’t the best time to find wood sorrel, aka shamrocks, either in the back yard or at the local florist. While I obsessed over what micro-herb to use atop the tartare, Chef C very sensibly decided on… sorrel! Chiffonade of sorrel, to be precise.

She then made a tarragon emulsion: a whole whack of tarragon leaves (plucked labouriously from their stems) blenderized with grapeseed oil, shallot, garlic, apple balsamic vinegar, Ultratex 3, and a few tablespoons of a monster, hours-long sub-recipe: chicken glace… a chicken stock boiled down to a thick syrup-gel. Other garnishes for the venison tartare: butter-toasted rye breadcrumbs, microplaned horseradish “floss”, shallot rings, salt, juniper berry powder, and mustard oil.

Chef C subjected the venison to the full Noma treatment: instead of finely mincing it, she scraped it into strands by dragging a chef’s knife along the length of the tenderloin. And here is the finished product:

Meanwhile, your Bluebarry got to work on the beef tenderloin, mincing it into dice that were probably between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Chef C decided on Anthony Bourdain’s steak tartare recipe, which includes too many garnishes to list. I was charged with mixing the garnishes into the minced meat, and around the 66% point, I thought better of adding any more.

One ring mold later, Chef C had the tartare on the plate:

Now, with added toast-points!

The diners’ verdict? A unanimous decision in favour of the beef tartare! The austere, new-school garnishes served with the venison were no match for the salty-sweet-umami explosion that was old-school steak tartare. Even accounting for the added flavour, though, everyone agreed that the farmed venison was somewhat watery and bland. (This included your Bluebarry, who refrained from tasting the beef version until giving the venison a good chance to shine.) The flavour of the pastured beef was prominent even through all of the garnishes, while the venison didn’t show up well despite its delicate treatment. Everyone seemed to agree that the beef version was perfectly seasoned, so if you’re tempted to use the Bourdain recipe, be wary of adding the full complement of seasonings. Similarly, the venison may have received too heavy a dose of mustard oil. The all-too-obvious moral of the story: Season lightly, and taste as you go… especially when it’s your first time making a dish.

Next time: we’ll try the musk-ox.

Variations on a theme by Noma

I was so excited to make this Noma dish: Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow. A garden full of different vegetables, each shaved thinly and quickly pickled in its own designated brine. And smoked bone marrow – something that sounds almost too decadently awesome to exist.

I made two versions of this: one, with bone marrow, on New Year’s Eve; the other, with seared scallops, a week later. I present both of these below.

For the marrow version: Four days ahead of time, procure your marrow bones. I had six, two-inch sections, and that was about right for 6 people. Soak them in cold water for two days, changing the water every 12 hours or so. Then switch the soaking liquid to a 7% salt brine – i.e., 70 grams of salt per litre of water.

Getting marrow out of the bone is a tricky business. Set the bone down on a cutting board, with the wider cut-side down. Protecting your hand protected (somewhat) with a tea towel or a chain mail glove, grip the base and, using a flexible steak knife or boning knife, carefully stab downward around the perimeter of the marrow until you’ve done a 360. Turn the bone section over, and try to repeat the procedure. This will be easy on the upper and middle segments of bone. Depending on your butcher’s skill and how little he likes you, you’ll likely end up with some segments that are partly or mostly bony at the wider end. If this is the case, carve out an opening wide enough to admit your index finger, trying your best to minimize the amount of fragmented bone that you introduce into the marrow. The next step is to poke the marrow out of the bone – this is best done when the whole thing is ice cold.

The next step is to smoke the marrow, using a combination of hay and wood chips. I found timothy hay at – you guessed it – the pet store, where it’s sold for bunnies and other, more rodent-esque creatures that apparently have invitations to the homes of my neighbours for reasons that are obscure to me.

The smoking happened on my ghetto smoker. Hay smoke is pretty intense – I was skeptical that it would end up tasting like anything other than a barn fire. In the Noma book, Redzepi prescribes a smoking time of 20 minutes. It was hard for me to see how this would impart flavour, but I followed instructions anyway.

For both versions: Redzepi calls for flash-pickling each veggie in a chamber vacuum for 10 minutes. Not having a chamber vac, I used the marinating accessory jar that came along with my Foodsaver. I really can’t say whether it worked better than just marinating in a bowl for half an hour or so – some day, I’ll do a controlled, double-blind trial of Foodsaver vs. bowl. But I can say that it worked just fine.

Many of the brine recipes call for apple balsamic vinegar. This is a hideously expensive ingredient; I paid about $30 for a 250ml bottle. (Yes, mother, I heard your sharp intake of breath from 120km away…) Of course, it’s also amazing: like balsamic with the slight, tangy, autumnal scent of apples gone to cider. Soooo good.

The bone marrow version of this dish had beet (in a very apple balsamic-intense brine), carrot and parsnip (in another apple balsamic brine), kohlrabi (in a brine of white vinegar and seaweed – I used a mix of wakame and laver, but I think nori or kombu would be fine – dulse might be too smoky), and cauliflower (in a straight-ahead vinegar-and-sugar brine). I forgot to make the cucumber and turnip. The scallop version had cucumber (in a watery brine with fresh dill and a tiny bit of vinegar), beets, carrot, and cauliflower.

To pickle the veggies, proceed thusly. Get your mandoline out, and shave yourself some veggies  – you’re going for slices just a touch thicker than a standard carrot peeling, and about 1cm wide. Except for the cauliflower, which needs a mandoline (or a knife wielded by steadier hands than mine) you can get by with a peeler. Carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi like being thrown into ice water after being sliced – it makes them curl up.

Here’s the Foodsaver flash-pickling apparatus, looking very Mr. Wizard:

… and here it is with carrots and brine:

… and here are the carrots after their dip in the brine:

Here’s the cauliflower, cheerily mimicking a cross-sectioned brain in formaldehyde:

And finally, just because it’s so pretty, here’s the pickled cucumber (which did make it into the second version of the dish):

For the marrow version: Slice the cold marrow into coins. Take the pork rib stock you’ve prepped, and boil some of it down into a near syrup.

For the scallop version: If you have pork stock left, so much the better (think bacon-wrapped scallops…mmm.) If not, warm up some demi-glace. Sear your scallops (sea scallops / diver scallops, not bay) in some clarified butter or neutral oil.

Here’s the marrow version – this was plated at about 11:59:10pm on New Year’s Eve, so there are no micro-herbs or flower petals… we did end up garnishing it with some tiny dill sprigs (after the photo session), but that’s about it.

Picture doing 7 plates with at least 2 or 3 rolls of each of 4 vegetables, cauliflower shavings, and marrow coins carefully doused in hot pork jus, between 11:52 and 11:59, and you’ll understand the lack of garnishes.

And here’s the scallop version, replete with edible (duh) flower petals and dill spriglets… (now be honest, does this make me look gay?)

Some thoughts:

  • 20 minutes of smoking was more than enough for the marrow. It was decidedly smoky, and the smoke permeated the pork jus on the plate. Far from unpleasant – downright heady – but I think it would have been better with a more subtle smokiness.
  • Not surprisingly, the quality of the root vegetables, in particular, matters a lot. Older, woody beets, parsnips, and carrots don’t absorb brine well, and their texture is less succulent than that of more tender veggies. Obvious, yes, but worth paying attention to.
  • Once you’ve rolled your veggies up, trim the sides so you end up with even geometry.
  • Do as much prep ahead of time as possible – most importantly, roll up your pickled veggies. But don’t plate and refrigerate, or the fat in the protein/stock components will congeal.
  • Kohlrabi + seaweed… delicious. Who knew?
  • The marrow version was superior, flavour-wise. Very, very rich, but super-tasty. But the scallop version was great too, and more suited to being a course – rather than a taste – for a short menu.
  • Redzepi doesn’t call for flower petals, but they actually added a lot to the scallop version of the dish: it becomes even  more a riot of colour, and their light perfume was oddly parallel to the briny-sweet scallop scent.
  • Crucially, given the cost of the apple balsamic: you can strain, refrigerate and reuse the more acidic/sugary brines a couple of times at least.

Friday Night Lights

Yesterday’s dinner for two nomnivores was better than it had any right to be, so it gets blogged.

The first course was something that we’ve actually never cooked before: sardines. Living deep inland, we tend to avoid those fish that depend most on freshness: the small, oily ones. Unfortunately, these are the same ones that have a magical confluence of culinary virtues – they’re super tasty, cheap, healthy, sustainable, and quick and easy to cook.

What led us to take a chance on these lovely little guys?

1. We’ve learned that Toronto gets most of its fresh fish delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so Friday is a good bet.
2. The weather was good enough to cook outside – a key concern, if you don’t want your house to smell for days, and if you do want your fish to have that grill-kissed flavour.
3. There was a big pile of sardines at the fishmonger (in this case, Domenic’s at the St. Lawrence Market), and they looked impeccably shiny and fresh.

The staff at Domenic’s took pains to gut and scale the six little fish – a fiddly job that took the better part of 10 minutes.

The dish came together thusly:

The coals were lit.

Some good, dense, day-old Italian bread was repurposed into croutes: brushed on both sides with olive oil, broiled in the toaster oven, and sprinkled with sea salt.

We improvised a salad of diced ripe tomatoes and roasted red peppers, chopped scallions, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

We beheaded the sardines, and used a cool trick to debone them: laying them spine-up on the cutting board, with their belly flaps splayed out, run an index finger down the length of the spine with medium pressure. You’ll feel a subtle, zipper-like effect. Turning the fish over, grab the spine at the “neck” end, and press down against the flesh with your other hand as you pull up on the spine. Once you reach the tail, lop it off with a flick of your knife. Flip the fish over, gently pull out the dorsal fin, and you’re done. Dress the fish with a little olive oil and some sea salt.

The fish were grilled for about 90 seconds a side, and plated with the salad, croutes, and some chopped parsley and basil. We haven’t tasted fish like this since our long-ago trip to Istanbul – electrically fresh, somehow both rich and light, and elevated by the scent of olive oil and charcoal.

Contented sighs and a couple of glasses of wine later – Segura Viudas cava with a drop of Orange Bitters – it was on to the main course: grilled skirt steak with a fricassee of fava beans and chanterelle mushrooms.

I can’t pretend this is an easy, weeknight-dinner option, but if you have time to marinate the steak and deal with the multi-step business of shelling fava beans, the payoff is huge.

The steak – you DO know about skirt steak being cheap, crazy-flavourful and tender, right? – was cut into rectangular serving sizes and marinated in dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, minced onion and black pepper.

Meanwhile, the favas: take a few pounds of them (this will yield a cup and a half or so), string them by snapping off the stem-end and pulling, and pop out the beans. Blanch them for one minute in a big pot of boiling salted water (lots of water means the temperature won’t drop when you throw the beans into it), and shock them in an ice bath. Finally(!) remove their leathery skins by nicking the edge of the skin with your thumbnail and, pinching between your thumb and index finger, pop the beany goodness into a bowl.

When your grill is ready, take the steak out of the fridge (skirt steak is so thin that it’s best not to let it come up to room temp before grilling) and fire it for about 2 minutes a side over a very hot grill.

While the steak is resting, assemble the fricassee (a fancy word for a saute with a lot of fluid). Saute your sliced chanterelles, add the favas, gloss the pan with a half-cup of rich veal stock (or some demi-glace), and taste for seasoning.

The finished product