Friday 9 December 2011

Cooking a neck of beef

All animals have necks. The one you're most likely to come across is lamb neck, either as scrag end for hotpot or lamb neck fillets. Pork (pork collar) you may find. Stuffed goose neck is a bit of a classic throughout much of continental Europe, though finding goose necks will be a challenge even for a real butcher.

What is common to all the necks is that they contain muscles that are worked all the time (all that leaning down to eat grass): they are the absolute opposite of fillet/tenderloin. With the exception of properly prepared lamb neck fillets, they all benefit from long, slow cooking, both to make the meat tender and, as importantly, to break down all the connective tissue to give that ever so desirable unctuous feel.

I was inspired to start thinking about beef neck by a post by Matthew Fort on his blog, though I didn't find his final method of serving it (as a sort of rillettes, I think) all that attractive. A good straightforward braise (with the prospect of a gorgeous rich stock/gravy at the end of it) seemed much more appealing.

You need a traditional, independent butcher for cuts like this.  If you have a proper butcher who buys whole carcases and breaks them down himself/herself that shouldn't be a problem. Supermarkets and meat retailers, who only get joints that have already been broken down from the carcase simply won't be able to do it for you.

So, the next time I was at the marvellous Roy Porter butcher's shop in Chatburn in Lancashire's Ribble Valley, I asked innocently about the prospect of a piece of beef neck. Roy Porter and his team always seem to rise to the challenge, and after checking that I really did mean a whole neck, and not chuck steak or clod, shopped up as mince or stewing steak, and controlling the rolling of their eyes, they set to taking a neck off, I think, a Dexter carcase and boning it. I was presented with a gorgeous, great hunk of flesh, in excess of six pounds in weight. Just as Matthew Fort says in his piece, there were claret and burgundy coloured muscles within this mound of flesh. I was a little surprised just how lean it was. As you can see there is not exactly a shortage of fat and connective tissue, but it's predominantly lean, pure muscle.

I removed a few small pieces from the major muscles to see how it would respond to quick frying/grilling. Some pieces of meat that we traditionally regard as braising cuts do make good steaks (hanger and skirt for example). Unfortunately, unlike lamb neck fillets which are surprisingly tender, it was immediately evident that these were not suitable for quick cooking.

I did not bother trying to trim the meat at all. The first stage in preparing my dish was to give a liberal coating of, and rubbing in the khmeli suneli spice blend made by the excellent Seasoned Pioneers. This is a blend of Coriander Seeds, Cloves, Cinnamon, Fennel Seeds, Mint, Dill, Savory, Fenugreek and Marigold Petals, apparently based on a Georgian recipe. It's a good, warming blend that doesn't dominate, but quite literally adds a certain je ne sais quoi. (I sometimes use it as a flavouring in wholemeal loaves.)

I melted some dripping in a large pot and added a large onion, cut into quarters. Then around half a pound of bacon bits (the trimmings and ends of bacon that butchers generally sell off cheaply), roughly chopped, and some thyme.

Returning to the meat, I roughly rolled it, though without bothering to tie it, and added it to the pot with some bay leaves. The pot was then topped up with roughly one-third water and two-thirds of a young, fruity red wine.

I brought the liquid up to the boil on the hob and then put it in the oven, pre-heated to 120°C, where it stayed for around six hours. It was cooked and reasonably tender at this point, though could clearly benefit from a little longer.

But I took the meat out at this point and left it and the pan to cool overnight. My purpose was to allow the fat which had rendered to set on top of the liquid, to make it easier to skim off the excess fat. After that, the cooking liquid could be brought to the boil and left to simmer for a while to reduce it, reheating the meat in the liquid. If you were serving it all in one go, you should reduce the cooking liquor down to the desired serving consistency at this point. I was going to serve the meat over a couple of days, so initially, I left the cooking liquor as a lighter broth, though it still had a good, rich flavour and texture.

Here's the meat, still steaming, straight out of the pot, ready to "slice" - I put that in inverted commas, as the meat is now so soft and unctuous that it's not easy to slice. You certainly need to cut across the grain.

And here's the inside, showing the layers of different muscles and textures:

I think this is a dish that cries out for a bowl of creamy mash and buttered cabbage.

If you go on to reheat it a few times, the cooking liquor is going to improve in depth, and indeed, if it lasts long enough the very last portions will make a good ragu to serve with pasta.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this blog Andrew. My lovely butcher suggested neck for Christmas as I wanted beef and the rib joints were all booked, so I went for it and then spent a week panicking about how to cook it. I searched for recipes but only yours seemed suitable and it was perfect! I had a 5.5lb piece of neck with the bones in which I braised for 7 hours and rested for one hour. It was delicious and falling apart, the braising liquid made a gorgeous gravy too, together with the veg from my allotment the meal got me huge brownie points from my family! Thank you.