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.

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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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