Long and slow
PUBLISHED: 14:21 27 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 February 2013
Jane Sanderson suggests how to make an impressive dinner party dish out of a modest cut of meat.
In the spirit of economy that has descended on our household, I bought a thrifty but handsome joint of silverside for a dinner party the other day, without really knowing what I was going to do with it. I flicked through a few cookbooks, ignoring the pot roasts, as I wanted something with more of a sense of occasion. In the end I settled on a daube of beef, which is as distinguished a use of silverside as I can imagine. It was most definitely a daube and not a stew, because there's an important distinction. Although the same cheap cuts are used - silverside, chuck steak, or a good, gelatinous shin - the meat is cut into much bigger chunks, so that each portion of the finished dish might have only two pieces of beef, along with the carrots, shallots and velvety sauce.
The larger cut helps prevent the disappointing stringiness you sometimes get with the tiny cubes of stewing steak that British butchers tend to favour. Actually, even if your intention is to cook the most basic of beef casseroles, it's still worth ignoring what the butcher has on display in the shop and asking for a single piece of your chosen cut, then dealing with it at home.
My inspiration for our daube - apart from the economy drive - was a meal we had near Nice last summer, in an old-fashioned place with a gloomy interior, thick leatherbound menus and a garish arrangement of plastic flowers as a table centrepiece. It was tucked behind an unprepossessing hotel with panoramic views of the A8 motorway and we would have run a mile if we hadn't had a recommendation from the charming lady we were staying with. She urged us to go, telling us the same family had been running the place for two generations and the food was never less than excellent.
Certainly, their Daube de Boeuf was sublime, and it came served in a covetable little lidded earthenware pot - a daubière, naturellement - just for me. The meat was meltingly tender and the sauce rich and soft, with none of the bitterness from which a red wine marinade can sometimes suffer at the hands of a less skilful chef.
Of course, one of the most important ingredients in a daube - as in any dish using a humble cut of meat - is time. All those inexpensive delicacies from the extremities of the beast - trotter, shin, oxtail, shanks - are truly easy to cook but simply can't be rushed. I always think cookbooks underestimate the amount of time required to produce the right result. Long and slow is the answer.
That's once you start cooking. Some of these wonderful dishes should really be started the day before if they're to reach their full potential in both flavour and texture. The beef for a good daube, for example, should spend a night in a marinade of herb-laced red wine.
So, to make the daube that we enjoyed, with enough for five and some left over, cut about 1.5kg of the beef of your choice into 10-12 pieces, put them in a bowl with 2 peeled and sliced onions, 4 peeled and sliced carrots, 2 peeled and crushed garlic cloves and a bouquet garni. Cover with red wine and 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar, then leave in the fridge overnight.
The next day, drain the meat and veg, and keep the precious marinade. Saut some lardons or chopped streaky bacon in a heavy pan, then brown the meat - having first dabbed it dry - in the same pan. Add the vegetables from the marinade, but discard the bouquet garni and use a new one. Add a long strip of orange peel - this is important for the real, Provençal flavour - and then season well with salt and black pepper. Pour the marinade over, bring to the boil and let the liquid reduce a little. At this stage you should scrape off and discard any impurities that rise to the surface - this helps eliminate bitterness in the sauce. Then cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, or with foil and a lid if you think it's necessary, and place in the oven at 150 degrees Celsius for at least three hours.
In Provence, this dish would be served with Camargue red rice or a dish of pasta, but good old mashed potato does the trick too. And if you have the time, and the self-restraint, it tastes even better reheated the next day after another night in the fridge.