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.

Just like Mom used to make: “Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma”

This dish, from Alinea, got a lot of oohs and ahhs. Chef C and I split the prep on this one. I made the cranberry puree and the first few steps of the barley a couple of days ahead of time. I also rendered some beef fat by cutting it into half-inch chunks and melting it over low heat in a pan with a half-cup of water:

Tasty, no? Mmm.

The day before service, Chef C put together the walnut “pudding” and poached small, rectangular cuboids of persimmon – we don’t have any pictures of this prep, but Carol from Alinea at Home captured it nicely.

An hour or so before service, I vac-packed two 6-oz portions of bison tenderloin with a couple of tablespoons of the beef fat:

…and cooked them sous vide at 135’F (oops – it was supposed to be 130’F) for about 40 minutes. This was twice as long as the recipe called for, but sous vide is very forgiving that way.

The plating of this dish is somewhat… unorthodox. A week prior to the dinner, I had secured some small juniper branches, and Chef C was relieved to find a garden store proprietor who was willing to go behind the store and chip several sizeable river rocks out of his iced-over fountain!

Just before service, we heated the river rocks for 20 minutes in a 450’F oven, and puffed the cooked-and-dehydrated barley in a small pan of sizzling canola oil.

The dish comes together like so:

  • Bison is sliced across the grain, and the slices are trimmed into small rectangles and rolled around the poached persimmon chunks
  • A small  juniper branch is placed atop a sturdy plate (not the “fine china”!)
  • A screamingly hot river rock is placed atop the juniper
  • A bison-persimmon roll is placed atop the rock
  • Single micro-dollops of cranberry puree and walnut pudding, a few grains of puffed barley, and a dusting of ground juniper berries, crown the bison rolls

Full credit to Chef C for the precision plating!

This was my first experience with a dish that incorporates inedible bits for functional, aesthetic and aromatic reasons. The logic behind the dish is really quite elegant: the hot rock releases the juniper’s aroma as it sears the bottom of the bison, and the juniper insulates the plate as it releases its aroma. (The juniper and the rocks seem to echo the northern woods more than the open prairies, so venison might have worked even better… but I digress).

The contrast of seared and rare bison was welcome – sort of like salmon that’s seared on one side and raw on the other – and the flavours of the garnishes (plus the texture of the barley) worked in harmony with the bison. The persimmon was nice enough, but I didn’t see it as an essential component.

Everyone loved this dish, and, – since by this time in the evening we were all kind of sloppy from the wine – we hurried to “cook” trimmed scraps of the sous-vided bison on the rocks. Unfortunately, Chef C ran into a catastrophic squeeze bottle failure when attempting to anoint her second piece of bison with walnut pudding:

Garnish malfunction!