Katsuobeefy

I’ve always been a fan of mistakes as the metaphorical equivalent of mutations in genetic code. Most of them result in failure, but once in a while they make for dramatic improvements that could not have occurred otherwise. It’s true in my studio, and it’s most definitely true in the kitchen, where a recent mistake made for a pretty wonderful discovery. This post is supposed to be about duck prosciutto–the first of the Charcutepalooza assignments, which I joined too late to get done in time–but I honestly don’t have much to say about it that I haven’t already. I’ve been making it for several years, and try to never be without it. Here’s a post about it and other goodies from a few years ago. And since it was a hard heel of cured duck that gave me the idea that turned this pwn upside dwn, it seemed like a legitimate jumping-off point for this post.

Dashi is the mother stock in Japanese cooking, most often made from kombu and thin shavings of bonito fillets that have been meticulously cured, smoked and aged under specific conditions. The two components are both rich in umami, and add a subtle yet profound depth to even simple preparations. I use it often. I’m lucky to have a beautiful katsuo kezuri-ki (bonito shaver) that I got as a birthday gift in 2008, and the friends who gave it to me travel to Japan with some regularity so I don’t have to worry about running out of bonito fillets (it’s very hard to find for sale in this country in whole form; the pre-shaved version is easily found in bags in Japanese markets).

I have a Japanese cookbook wherein the chef recalls working with a French chef years ago. The French chef watched the author make dashi, which takes only a few minutes, and remarked condescendingly that his demi-glace took three days to make, implying that it was therefore superior. The Japanese chef then explained to him that curing, smoking, fermenting, and drying the bonito fillets to make katsuobushi takes a year, and is carefully done and tended by hand throughout the process. The French chef, suitably chagrined, ceded the point. The cure, the smoke, the air-drying and the white mold that grows on the fillets (similar to that which grows on cured sausages) as they dry all contribute to a tremendous depth of flavor, and the front-loading of all the labor means that it is indeed easy to whip up a batch on very short notice.

Recently I cured a beef eye round to make bresaola, but I forgot about it in the back of the fridge since there was a bunch of other stuff going on in there. Three days is pretty much the ideal cure time; much more than that and the meat gets too salty. This one sat for 4-5 days. I pulled it out, rinsed and hung it per usual, but as it slowly shrunk and hardened and I glared at it knowing it was over-salted I had an idea. I’ve used semi-fossilized duck prosciutto ends sort of like bonito in places, usually grating it onto oshitashi or the like, so I figured I’d make a virtue of the too-salty meat and let it fully harden to something near the vitrified level of katsuobushi.

It’s been about six months now, and what began as a gorgeous deep red cylinder of grass-fed local beef has now shriveled to a fraction of its former size and is wood-hard. Bonito has more of a ceramic feel (and sound, and it breaks like glass if you drop it) but I figured that it’s pretty fully dried out and was eager to try using it in place of bonito in a couple of applications.

First off, miso soup, which is the form in which most of us first encounter dashi. I did it exactly the way I do with the fish: bring a piece of kombu slowly up to a bare simmer, then take it off the heat and remove the kombu, Add the shaved meat (fish) and return to a simmer, then take off the heat and let sit covered for five minutes. The result smelled so much like a beautiful beef jus that I looked around frantically for a roast beef sandwich to dunk in it, but alas there was none. So I consoled myself with a bowl of beautiful, gently beefy miso soup with some scallions for a bright garnish while my mind raced to cover all the possibilities inherent in such a new discovery.

Tonight some finely powdered beef worked well as a secret supplement to a pizza sauce. Next up I’m going to use it as a garnish/condiment for some greens. Meantime, I’m basking in the happy accident that led to this most welcome addition to the pantry. So for anyone who’s cured something that came out too salty to enjoy as-is, try letting it harden, grating it fine and using it like this. You might just do it on purpose the next time.

17 comments to Katsuobeefy

  • You put the ushi in katsuobushi.

  • Don’t you just love that feeling of delighted discovery that comes when something like this turns on the lightbulb over your head? Almost as much fun as Christmas.

  • You’re breaking new grounds! This is so ingenious the food police might come knock at your door. Very cool.

    And i want that bonito shaver.

  • I also covet the bonito shaver.

  • I’m very gadget-averse, but will join the throng of those clamoring for a bonito shaver. I wonder what would happen if you took this in a more “pho” direction.

  • Absolutely brilliant. Seriously, this is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” things.

  • Peter

    Mrs. W: Thanks.

    Blanche: You should have seen my list of post title ideas. Uschi Digard even figured in at one point.

    Zoomie: Inspirado is good stuff.

    M. Zen: Ça marche assez bien, en fait. Mais l’outil, c’est le mien.

    MrBelm: Korin has them for in the $60-$70 range. The bonito may be harder to find; some quick googling yielded a couple of sites where it can be ordered if one can understand Japanese.

    Christine: See above.

    Dave: It just sort of occurred to me. Cultivating beginner’s mind in the kitchen is a big part of learning how to really cook, I think.

  • you know peter, i might just do it – and well, then again i might not…

  • Ushi? Man, you put the oishii in dashi, too! Awesome.

  • Peter

    Claudia: No, you’ll just try to guilt me into making it for you.

    Eugenia: I’m about to make some more of this soup because I’m cold. And because I can.

  • [...] this case, the liquid was beef dashi, made with a semi-fossilized hunk of bresaola that overdried. I talked about this discovery back at the beginning of the year; it involves using shaved beef like bonito. This time around I [...]

  • [...] the slipping of a bit of dried duck breast into a bowl of noodle & soup and the shaving of an overcured bresaola to make dashi. His Lamb Pastrami was damn cute and on cue and the miso-ed bacon tarte renversée an invitation [...]

  • Synchronicity at it’s best. I missed this post when it was new, but found it just after taking an eye of round from its brine and hanging it for bresaola. I suspected it was in the brine too long, but finished anyway.

    Gave it a try today, and yup, too salty. But good. But too salty.

    So it’s back into the fridge for another chance at greatness – thanks for posting this. Hate to imagine it, but it will be snowing and frozen when it makes it’s second debut…

  • Peter

    Cool. Glad you found it.

  • Patrick

    Where did you get the katsuobushi kezuriki? I want to find a well, quality kezuriki.

    • Peter

      A friend brought it from Japan. There must be somewhere online you could order one, though it will likely not be cheap.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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