I’ve discovered a new cut of beef. At least new to me – I’m not claiming to have discovered a part of the cow previously unknown to culinary science. We went to the Stoke Newington farmer’s market at the weekend for the first time in an age – I’m normally working Saturdays, and if I’m not it’s usually because we have other plans – and we were at the organic butchers van buying half a dozen sausages in a half hearted (in my case, perhaps, more than Becca’s) spirit of January frugality, when my eye was drawn to something labeled Middle Rib of beef. This was a cut of meat clearly related to short ribs, which I have had, and cooked before, except the sections of rib were longer, and, I suspect cut from further down, closer to the belly of the beast. Compared to short ribs – also known as Jacob’s ladder - the whole thing was both thinner, and fattier, if you see what I mean. Basically a flat, streaky slab of fat and meat, with a couple of ribs going through it. Not unlike a portion of bone-in pork belly. Except these bones were four great big cow ribs, each a couple of inches wide.
Ideal for slow roasting, the organic butcher said, and it puffs right up as it cooks. I was already picturing it, and internally slavering slightly at the pictures in my head, so I couldn’t not take it, and we had him cut the four bone slab in half and went home with two ribs' worth of it. And it was in keeping with a January spirit of frugality at just £7 a kilo, even at organic farmer’s market prices. Some might argue that a large part of the little bit over a kilo we walked away with was made up of bone and fat, and, of course, they’d be right. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bargain. Fat = flavour. Bones = stock. All good.
When it came to cooking time I preheated the oven to good and hot (about 240C) in my usual manner, heating up the roasting tray with it. While the oven was heating I scored the skin side of the joint, and, with my pestle and mortar, ground together a handful of peppercorns and rocksalt with a single star anise pod, which I then rubbed well into the scored skin along with a good teaspoonful of English mustard powder.
I took the roasting dish out of the oven once it was sizzling hot, then put it over a flame on the stovetop, lightly oiled it and placed the joint into it, skin side down to sear for just a minute or two, just until it really started to smell like roast beef. Then I flipped the joint in the tray and returned it to the oven. After about fifteen minutes I turned the oven right down as far as it would go (which on my oven is about 130C) and opened the door, partly to help the heat escape, partly to check on the progress of the joint. It had already, as promised, puffed right up – so that the inch and a half deep slab that had gone in, was now at least twice that, probably more like four inches deep. It looked, and smelled, fantastic. I wafted the door a few times to dissipate heat, put the roasting dish onto the lowest, therefore coolest, shelf, and then closed it up again and left it for about an hour and ten, so it had had just about an hour and a half in total. As it turned out, that might just, as you’ll see below, have been a few minutes too many for perfectly done.
I took it out and left the meat to rest, foil covered while I turned up the oven temperature again to get some colour into the veg that had been roasting above the meat for the second half of it’s time in the oven. Meanwhile I made a gravy in the roasting dish, having scooped out several dessert spoons of fat, then added a good splash of wine (vermouth in fact, as I didn’t have any white wine open) and a dash of stock (duck in this case) from the fridge.
After half an hour’s rest, I sliced the rib joint in half between the two ribs, and served them up, one big slab of meat, fat, bone and beef crackling per plate, along with the roast veg, and that ever faithful friend of roast beef, pickled red cabbage. It was delicious, if not elegant. The meat was tender, although it was tricky to cut – proper serrated steak knives would be recommended – the problem being the awkwardness of the meat relative to the rib rather than toughness. The fat had rendered to succulent tenderness and really absorbed the flavours of the rub, with the star anise in particular coming through seductively. Still though, I have to admit, it would be a tough plate to sell to anyone who wasn’t keen on fat. Not that that’s a problem in this house.
It was, I have to say, a very satisfying dish for two fat loving carnivores, such as Becca and myself. I wouldn’t, though, say that I was a hundred percent satisfied with it. The meat was arguably slightly overdone, although with a cut like this, it’s a fine judgement. Certainly it was cooked well beyond the shade of pink (a pretty deep crimson) I’d normally be aiming for on a roasting joint, but on such a fatty cut that would never be my intention. Cook the flesh rare in this case and the underdone fat would render the whole thing inedible. And with so much fat surrounding it, the flesh is in little danger of drying out through overcooking (certainly not in this case). Nevertheless, next time I’d be looking to experiment with cooking times and temperatures with the aim of getting the fat to the required state of near rendition, with a little more red blood still held in the meat. The options would be to simply reduce the times while retaining the method described above; to turn the oven down as soon as the meat goes in, so it starts sizzling hot, but is cooling from the off; or to go the whole hog and do all the browning of the skin side in a pan on the stove and then transferring to oven heated only to 130, and checking it from about an hour and twenty or so (although I suspect by this method it would benefit from at least a couple of hours). Never mind, that just makes a perfect excuse for having middle rib of beef at least twice more.