In which we are very clear

I'm not proud of myself or anything but look what I made! A kitchen basic every serious cook should learn...

Following an extended cookie/cheese/charcuterie season, I feel like a fatted calf myself.

I’m craving light, fresh, green, you know, the stuff that isn’t in season in Pennsylvania now.  The greenest things in my kitchen today are the pangs of envy I’m feeling for those of you blessed with citrus fruits in your yards  – some bright, lemony deliciousness would be a welcome treat.

But, we Pennsylvanians are not without our own winter brightness.  Thank goodness for cabbage, parsley and apples, I say.

I’ve decided this year to focus on improving my most basic kitchen skills. The ones we tend to skip because they’re too boring and fussy.  It’s much more fun to fast-forward to the more exciting stuff like splashing  sauces with flourish and setting things on fire.

Without mastering the basics, you will still make some fine, enjoyable meals.  But, you will remain dependent on recipes and the store for spices and ingredients.  Master the basics and you advance to creating memorable, haunting dishes from nothing more than you can scrounge from the freezer or pantry.

Since beef is my thing, I thought beef consommé would be a good project to start.  When you have good quality stock or broth on hand, you’re ready to make so many quick yet amazing meals on the fly.  Making stock has been part of my weekly routine for a long time. I swear, it’s not really a big time hog; my stove does most of the work while I sleep.

I make good stock, but because I usually choose the quick and dirty method, I tend to skip the little tedious steps that would make my stock great.  I happily eat rustic, rough-around-the-edges foods with bits and chunks, but for some reason after weeks of holiday excess I really, really wanted some beautiful, super clear, purest of pure essence of beef. So, consommé it is.

My mission had several goals:

  1. To make quality use of typically wasted parts of the cow 
  2. To experience the difference the extra fussery makes in the final stock 
  3. To decide if said fussery is worthwhile 
  4. To see if I could

My imaginary helpers for this project were Darina Allen, author of my go-to cookbook Forgotten Skills of Cooking, Queen of Bones & Fat Jennifer McLagan and a tip or two from Paul Bertolli of Cooking by Hand fame. I know. How intimidated lucky can I be?

Important Step One: Start with good beef.

I was fortunate to have access to 3 whole ox tails, a part of the cow often ignored. My tails were purchased directly from a local farmer who raises lovely, healthy, grass-fed Angus beef. OK, I will confess ox tail is not my favorite cut of beef, but this is mainly due to laziness on my part. A low slow braise turns it into yummy pot-roast like shreds and ox tail makes some of the best stock ever – lots of rich beefy flavor and super-silky texture.

My ox tails on a bed of carrots, onion and celery, ready for a good roasting. Ox tails are usually cut more conveniently than this; if not, ask your butcher to be sure and score them for easier handling.

About your meat choice, my esteemed helpers say:

Paul Bertolli:  “It is important that the meat and poultry you use be impeccably fresh.  The broth pot is not the place for old or ‘high’ meat, as their off aromas do not cook away.”

Jennifer McLagan:  “Don’t buy your beef and veal just anywhere.  A good butcher, or a local small producer, can ensure the provenance of your meat and guarantee that your veal is humanely raised.  The tenderness of beef cuts can’t be judged by simply looking at them; a good butcher carefully ages his meat to ensure its flavor and tenderness.”

Darina Allen: “For strength of flavor in this, the meat really needs to be aged.  Fresh meat will not give you the depth of flavor you need for good consommé.”

My Note: you may feel confused by possible conflict between the advice of Paul Bertolli and Darina Allen. There is in fact none. Off or spoiled is not the same as aged. Aged meat is not rancid. Rather, it has been allowed to rest in a climate-controlled environment after slaughter to allow excess water to evaporate and enzymes to break down the strands of muscle fiber. Aging is what makes the meat more tender and flavorful. So, it is possible for your beef to be both aged and impeccably fresh.

One other confusing factoid: Darina comes from a background of small, diversified farming in Ireland where it is commonly understood that the meat from older cows produces more flavorful meat. In the US, we have become accustomed to our beef coming from very young cattle and are not often able to experience the difference age adds to the meat. If you can, give mature beef a try. It’s true; old animals make the best broth.

Important Step Two: Make good stock.

Usually, I make stock from leftovers. Bones of earlier meals, scraps of veggies, whatever needs to be used up, thrown straight into a pot, covered with cold water and allowed to simmer all day. I admit to skipping the roasting step that really does make a big difference.

Today, before starting, browning convert that I am, I always begin by throwing my veggies and/or meat into a roasting pan and roasting first.  When using onions, leave the skins on for a small shortcut and additional color.

Paul Bertolli: Uses a stove top method, browning the meat in batches in an oil coated heavy bottomed stockpot though he says, “It is not necessary to brown the meat to the point that its surface develops a crust.” Another Bertolli difference: He uses a mixture of 70 percent beef (made from a combination of meat and meaty bones) for meaty flavor, 20 percent poultry to which he attributes a “soft and homey dimension of flavor”,  and 10 percent gelatinous pork for collagen and silky texture. He uses no vegetables or seasoning – his is meat juice straight up. He prefers the pure flavor of the meat extraction and since the broth will be later used in preparations that  contain vegetables, adding them sooner is unnecessary.

Jennifer McLagan: Roasts meat first in the oven at 425°. She also scatters carrots, celery, onion and leek over the bottom of the roaster, and places rinsed bones patted dry on the vegetable bed. She roasts the meat for an hour, turning several times until  well browned.

Darina Allen: Also uses aromatic vegetables and an oven roast, but she uses a 450° oven, roasts her beef bones w/scraps of meat on them for 30 minutes alone, then adds the veggies until they are colored at the edges. She also adds garlic, clove, peppercorns, bouquet garni and tomato paste to the liquid.

My note: good stock is forgiving. All three yield excellent results.  The most important ingredient is time and attention. I tend to mix and match from all three methods and have not been disappointed yet. Can you ruin it? Absolutely – simmer slowly and check on it regularly or you will boil the liquid away and burn the pot. Once the pot is burned dry, there’s no salvation. Your stock is officially ruined.

Find a printable recipe for basic beef stock here.

Important step three: The raft

This is the part where things get freaky. I had never seen this done and it takes a bit of faith because the directions sound a little suspect. A raft is used to clarify the broth. It’s a mixture of pureed carrots, celery, leeks, beef and egg whites, poured into cold skimmed stock, stirred well, brought to a boil slowly over low heat and stirred constantly.  What??  This stuff looks NASTY and my stock is a priceless elixir of beautiful well raised  ox tails plus a day of my time…. I don’t want to do it.

I am not exaggerating the fearsome nasty appearance of the clarifying raft.

But, Jennifer McLagan promises that “… my perseverance will be rewarded with a stunning golden broth with an intense beef flavor.”  And Darina Allen calls consommé the “…pure essence of beef – simple, elegant and nourishing.”  She also says that, “Even for many trained chefs, it’s often a forgotten skill and a real accomplishment when successful.”  Paul Bertolli is silent on the subject of consommé but his devotion to craftsmanship is so evident, if he makes it I’m sure it is the golden-est,  clear-est, most intensely flavored nectar imaginable.

Important tips from the masters:

DA: “As soon as the mixture looks cloudy and slightly milky, stop whisking. Allow the filter of egg whites to rise slowly to the top of the saucepan. DO NOT STIR the consommé; just leave it to simmer gently for 45 minutes – 1 hour to extract all the flavor from the beef and vegetables.”

JL:  “As the liquid approaches the boil, it will appear to curdle; don’t panic, that is what you want.”  “The whites will form a congealed mass on the surface, which will puff up and then crack as the steam escapes.”  Whew…

So anyway, nervously I realize my no-guts-no-glory moment has arrived and I dump the unsightly mess into my lovingly simmered, de-fatted and cold but de-jelled beef jell-o. I trust my mentors to get me through and take extra care to follow instructions precisely, but YIKES!

Well, thankfully, my mentors have not let me down. It worked! After gently simmering this nastiness for 45 minutes, I lift off the scum, slowly strain the clarified broth through a double layer of coffee filters in a wire strainer and LOOK! It’s gorgeous! Golden! And PERFECTLY CLEAR!

Lift off this putrid looking mess
Strain slowly & gently through a dampened double layer of cheesecloth, thin dish towel or two coffee filters
It's clear, golden and delicious. Little black dress in a bowl. Of course I couldn't resist adding those ravioli...

Both chefs strongly warn to resist rushing the straining and to not be tempted to press the mixture through the strainer as that will cloud the consommé.

Click here for a printable recipe for ox tail consommé.

I admit I’m a little excited. It’s delicious too. But, I also know it’s probably one of those things that my eaters will not express proportionate admiration for. After all, isn’t beef broth from a can clear? Isn’t this the sort of punishment food you get in the hospital?

I decide the ultimate garnish is what I need to ensure this broth reads VERY SPECIAL: ROYAL PAIN IN THE ASS TO MAKE. The punctuation for my nectar is inspired by recipes from both Jennifer McLagan and Paul Bertolli.

The meat left on the bones after making your stock should not be wasted, but should live on as an unbelievably rich, tender and flavorful filling for pastas and other yummy treats.

Jennifer McLagan’s suggestion that my consomme could be garnished with a wonton wrapper stuffed with diced ox tail and minced parsley (cooked separately of course to not cloud the crystal-clear broth) got me a little excited,  so I adapted some home-made semolina pasta, hand rolled it (don’t give me too much credit here – I didn’t have wonton wrappers, fancy white flour or a pasta machine and I wasn’t going to the store) and made rustic ravioli.

I married Paul Bertolli’s alternate filling from leftover sugo meat recipe to Jennifer McLagan’s minced ox tail and parsley stuffed wonton suggestion. Being so bold as to “improve” Paul Bertolli’s filling recipe, the addition of fresh parsley makes me like it even more.

Find the printable ox tail filling recipe here.

Ta-Da! To say I’m proud of myself would be a bit of an understatement, but to say I’m glad I took pictures because this won’t be happening again anytime soon is even more true.

Glad I did it, have learned much about that culinary workhorse stock and the experience has deepened my understanding of broth in many valuable ways. And, now I can spell consommé without looking it up!

Let me also say my thrifty friends, lest you’re fretting about all the wasted beef, vegetables and egg from my raft, no worry. A special staff dinner was held where it was very much appreciated.

Special perks to the extermination staff for a job well done. Nothing goes to waste around here...

7 thoughts on “In which we are very clear

  1. What is a city girl to do? I don’t have access to a farmer who has oxtails….only the Giant Eagle down the street. What cuts would you recommend???

  2. Pingback: Auburn Meadow Farm

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