About a month ago at this point, an associate hosted a “hot-foods” party: an annual thing he does every February. I resolved to actually cook something for it this year, and spent the week before developing concepts for a recipe.
Some background on this party: it’s packed full of nerds, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about cooking for a crowd like that, it’s that you can’t go wrong with bacon. I started imagining something consisting of about a 3-4 pound piece of beef, rubbed, then wrapped in bacon. I decided on a rub consisting of salt, garlic, cayenne, paprika, and chili powder. I ended up making the chili powder myself by cutting up dried chilis (I have a really good knife set, and a large mortar and pestle). I had considered cilantro, but ended up not adding it as it threw off the balance.
This would do fantastic as a roast, but roasting is a precise art that doesn’t lend itself to packing up the results, driving 20 miles, and then leaving it out all day. Braising, I’ve found, is a process much more tolerant of this kind of thing. Thus, I decided on doing a braise.
The liquid is arguably the most important element of a good braise. Braising is all about putting all the right elements together, then letting them all melt down together into a nice, rich sauce while the meat turns into a beautiful, tender, juiciness that you can pull apart with a fork.
So I knew I had to get the sauce right. Working out from the rub ingredients, I considered possible bases. Something made from tomato paste, whiskey, and vinegar (remnants of my North Carolinian origins: vinegar-based barbecue sauce) started to come to mind. Another idea came to me while eating at my favorite ramen joint: soy sauce, chili oil, and white vinegar (something I make as a dipping sauce for gyoza). Then I got the idea to try to combine the two.
This seemed challenging, but making a sauce is fundamentally no different from mixing a cocktail: you have to blend flavor spectrums together in a way that balances and compliments.
The combination that ended up working was an even blend of organic soy sauce (this has a different flavor from pasteurized soy sauce), apple cider vinegar, and Rittenhouse Rye, with about one tablespoon of tomato paste per half cup of liquid.
I started out by making the rub by grinding up salt, pepper, and finely minced chilis and chipotle chilis (I used about a 2-1 ratio by volume of regular and chipotle chili), then added about 5-6 cloves of garlic and about as much paprika as I chipotle chili. Note that if you’re using fresh spices, you really have to adjust the flavor yourself; potency varies too much by batch and by plant.
I debated adding a little sugar to this, but decided against it. For people who like sweets more than me and aren’t as fond of salt and vinegar as I am, this might work.
Next, I applied some of this rub to the meat. When applying a salt-based rub to meat, you need to put some amount into a pan and keep rubbing it in for about 30 minutes. Most of it won’t stick at first, but if you keep at it, it eventually all will.
I was originally going to wrap it in bacon and let it sit overnight, but a coworker gave me the idea of soaking the bacon in rye instead. So I put the roast in a container in the refrigerator overnight and put the bacon in a separate container with rye.
After about 18 hours of sitting, I took the roast out, seared it, wrapped it up in the bacon then seared it again. I made a mistake here: I should have deglazed the pan so that I could give the bacon a good sear to the point that it started to get nice and crispy. Instead, the carmelized bits in the pan from the first sear started to burn and I had to stop early.
I had doubts about the double-sear, but it turns out that it is possible to wrap up a seared roast in bacon without burning yourself, if you’re careful.
After this, I deglazed the pan (add a bit of water on low heat and let it dislodge everything, save all the liquid for later), and sauteed one leek, one sweet onion, two dried chiles, one dried chipotle pepper, some mushrooms, some of the leftover rub, and some marrow bones until they were good and browned, then added back the liquid from deglazing the pan along with the braising liquid I’d prepared and let it boil down some.
After that, I put the roast in with everything, put the lid on, and let it braise at 300 degrees for about 3 hours. I used a shallow pan that had just enough room with the lid on for the roast to fit inside. But for a braise, the less open space you have inside the container, the better.
I was going for a good slow cook, so I chose a lower heat and a longer time. I took it out of the oven about every 30 minutes or so to turn the meat over and spoon some of the liquid on to it. However, braising is all about moist heat, so you don’t want to open the lid too often.
Because of the nature of braising, it’s hard to overcook, but I probably could have gone with a 2 1/2 or 2 hour cook time just as well.
At the end of the braise, I had to skim off quite a bit of oil. This isn’t surprising, as bacon and marrow-bones tend to add a lot of oil and as they cook. I had no use for the oil, but in a larger cooking process it could have been re-used in another dish that called for oil, as it would have soaked up quite a bit of chili and garlic flavor.
The results were quite pleasing. After braising for about 3 hours, the sauce had mellowed out quite a bit into a lovely tangy mixture with the “slow-burn” effect one gets from cayenne pepper. The meat was nothing short of amazing.
I had a 3 1/2 pound roast, and it lasted all of 30 minutes at this party, and people were literally scraping the pan to get every last bit of the sauce. Someone had made some cornbread, which did quite well in combination with the sauce.
All in all, this was a definite success.
This is reconstructing the recipe after the fact, but it should be relatively accurate:
- 1 Leek
- 1 Sweet onion
- 2 Cups mixed aromatic mushrooms
- 3 Dried chipotle peppers
- 4 Dried mexican red chiles
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup mixed peppercorns
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 cup organic soy sauce
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- Rittenhouse Rye (1/2 cup for liquid)
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 3-4 lb center round beef roast
- Thick-cut bacon
Combine the salt, pepper, 2 chilis, and 1 chipotle pepper in a mortar and pestle and grind. Mince the garlic and add it along with the paprika, then stir around until the garlic dries up.
Apply the rub to the roast, then cover it. Also add a small amount to a separate container along with the bacon. Cover and let both refrigerate for 12-24 hours.
Sear the roast in a pan with a small amount of olive oil, then deglaze the pan and set the liquid aside. Carefully wrap the roast in the bacon, tie it, and then sear it again (no oil this time) until the bacon is crispy. Set the seared meat aside.
Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, rye, tomato paste, and 2-4 tbsp of leftover rub. When the flavor is right, add the liquid from deglazing the pan earlier.
Chop up the leek, the onion, the remaining peppers, and the mushrooms, sautee them in a pan along with the marrow bones and a small amount of olive oil. Sautee until golden brown, then add the liquid and cook it down until it starts to thicken.
Add the roast, spoon some of the liquid on to the top, cover, and place in an oven at 300 degrees for 2-2 1/2 hours. Turn the roast and the bones over every 30-45 minutes and spoon some liquid on top of them before covering and placing back in the oven. For the last 10-15 minutes, remove the lid and place the uncovered container in the oven.