March 4, 2014 - Radio Kitchen - Raw Beef
Our topic this week may be something of a turn-off to some people, and something of interest to others. Here's the deal: every now and then, maybe once every two years, I get a hankering for a raw beef sandwich. It's a taste I inherited directly from my father, so I think it's in my genes. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino of the Waterfront Kitchen tells me that every time he puts Beef Tartare on the menu, it sells out.
I do find raw beef appealing, if it is the right kind of beef: low in fat, one of the better cuts, and from an impeccable source. I cannot face the idea of raw chicken or raw pork or raw lamb. But raw beef doesn't bother me.
The best way to secure good beef is to approach a butcher or beef purveyor you know and trust (in my case this would be Shane Hughes of Liberty Delight Farm in Reisterstown) and ask him to custom grind you a pound of meat. Lean sirloin is good, but for my money Tri-Tip is best. For even safer results, buy an inner cut of steak, and grind it yourself.
I do a variation on my father's recipe. I get a few slices of fresh pumpernickel bread, a really good mustard, a white onion that I slice up very thin, and my best salt and pepper. Mustard goes on bread, onion on mustard, raw beef spread over all, and then the seasonings.
If you're curious, the best feature of raw beef is the texture, which is smooth and silky. The flavor is mild, sweet and very savory. The thing that makes it work is contrast: crisp tangy onion vs. smooth textured beef; the spicy mustard against the sweetness of the meat; the salt and pepper, heavily applied, against the mildness of the meat; the dark pumpernickel bread supporting all the contrasting elements.
The much more famous variant is of course Steak Tartare. Legends abound regarding the origin of the name. Some claim the nomadic Tartar warriors placed a slab of beef under their saddles to tenderize (and maybe season it with salty horse sweat). On the whole, doubtful. The first mention of Steak Tartare as a dish occurs in early 20th century France, where minced raw beef was served with tartar sauce.
Far more likely. Incidentally, this dish was also called "Steak Americain," perhaps a reference to those latter day Tartars, the cowboys.
Contemporary Steak Tartare is a widespread dish, particularly in northern Europe. Variations abound but the most common has finely minced onions, capers and that other red flag food stuff, a raw egg. Regardless of venue, salt and pepper always figure into the mix.
Health concerns are not fabrication. Most chances of bacterial contamination are associated with cross contamination from the hide or intestines of the steer to the surface of the carcass. According to law, the carcass is steamed, to kill the bacteria, but unclean cutting equipment raises the risk of cross-contamination. So working with a butcher you absolutely trust is a must. Keep in mind, any cut taken from deep within the carcass is almost certain to be pristine, and if you grind it yourself with your own hand cleaned machine, you'll be fine.