Of Braised Beef Tongues and Heirlooms
“WHY?!” you might ask, and you are justified in asking. In fact after I paid, the butcher inquired as to whether it was for a science project. When I said no, that actually I planned to braise it, he said “eyuckkk” and looked at me in disgust.
Well, to answer your question, I actually have a couple of reasons. First was a recommendation from my Grandmother. It all began one winter, when I was very happily snowed in at her Portsmouth apartment, completely lost in one of her bookshelves. Earlier she had made the comment that she was worried I had outgrown the Abercrombie & Fitch gift cards she sent me each Christmas (I had). “You know, Grammy,” I said. “What I’d really like for Christmas is for you to send me some of your favorite books each year.” And so it began. Each year around Christmas time I anxiously await her package, which for two years in a row has arrived the very evening of my Book Club holiday book swap (my grandmother has an odd way of timing gifts– my mother has noted for years that her Hola!s always arrive when she’s had a particularly bad day).
This year, the box was much larger than usual. A few days later, this note arrived describing its contents (I hope she won’t be upset with me for publishing portions!): “Another Christmas present consisting of things I don’t want any more. Johanna, you’re the one who started this! The Spanish pottery is what’s left of Grammy’s collection after Stephen & Kippy and Peter & Jen claimed what they wanted– hope you don’t find this insulting!” Not at all. Birth order.
“The afghan is sort of an heirloom: it was crocheted by my father’s mother.” I was particularly excited about the afghan. In fact the afghan, which modest as always, my grandmother is describing as “kind of an heirloom” (it was made by my great, great grandmother for heaven sake!) was probably the best Christmas present I got this year.
Conveniently, it also just happened to match all of my living room decor perfectly. In fact, it matched my living room much better than the one I’d been drooling over from Anthropologie. The one that I couldn’t bring myself to buy because they wanted $198 for it (for $198 I could hire a great grandma to crochet me one at my house and I bet you she’d throw in a batch of cookies!)
So you’re probably thinking, “this is all nice, Johanna” but what the heck does this have to do with the huge piece of flesh you decided to cook for your friends this weekend?
I’m getting there. “Julia Child’s books are almost too shabby to send for Christmas, but maybe you can think of them as heirlooms, too. I haven’t used them as much as it would appear– they got their “patina by sitting on open shelves in my damp dusty kitchen. I don’t know what possessed me to try the tongue recipe, because I didn’t like tongue, but it was so delicious that I made it twice. Maybe it was a success because we were in Germany then, and there you can get wonderful fresh tongue. It’s a good memory– but somehow I’m not tempted to try it again.” And so the challenge was on, I would try making the tongue.
But I couldn’t try it in January, since I wasn’t eating meat, and from there I continued to put it off. I needed an extra push, and it finally came in the form of the Daring Cooks March challenge: brave the braise. And so the stars were aligned; I mean really, what’s more daring than tongue? Michael Ruhlman, whose book “Ruhlman’s Twenty” inspired this challenge (I’ll be needing a copy!) says that braising is one of the most valuable techniques, as it demonstrates what cooking is all about – “transformation, turning raw, tough, inexpensive ingredients [read: tongue] into hot, tender, delectable dishes.”
And delectable it was. Here’s my take: it tasted very similar to roast beef, except less uniform. Parts of the tongue are wonderfully lean, tender pieces of meat while others are much too fatty for my taste. And yes, you can notice the taste buds on some bites. As I note below, I wish I’d reduced the boiling time a bit, as I would have preferred the meat a bit more rare. Then there is the sauce, O.M.G. the sauce. It was the first thing I’ve ever made that made me wish I had a gravy boat. It’s amazing how rich and creamy it is given how little fat goes into making it. I could eat it straight with french bread, or just with a spoon… oh wait, I did. Also, I recommend serving it to your more adventurous friends.
Langue De Boeuf Braisée Au Madère (Fresh Beef Tongue Braised in Madeira Sauce)
From: The French Chef Cook Book by Julia Child – Featured on the Hundred and Thirty-Second Show
The Tongue: What you need: 3.5-4 lb beef tongue (mine was 3.1)
Large kettle or Stock Pot (mine is 5 gallons) Preparing the tongue for cooking: Trim any extraneous matter on the underneath and large end of the tongue. To freshen the tongue, and to dissolve any clinging saliva and remove all blood, scrub the tongue with a vegetable brush under warm running water, then let soak 2-3 hours in a sinkful of cold water, and drain.
Boiling the tongue: Place the tongue in a large kettle, covered by 5 inches of water. Bring to a slow boil. Skim off any greyish scum until it ceases to rise. If the tongue is not salted, add to the kettle 1 1/2 Tsp of salt for each quart of water. Boil slowly for *2 hours, covered or partially uncovered. The tongue at this point is about 2/3 cooked and still quite firm. *I think I boiled mine for too long, as it was pretty well cooked through. I would recommend checking on it after 1.5 hours.
Peeling the tongue: When the tongue is cool enough to handle, slit the skin all around the top edge and peel off the top surface of the tongue using your fingers, and a knife if necessary. The skin will come off quite easily on the top; underneath you will have to slit the skin in lengthwise strips and remove it with a knife. Trim the fatty parts away, and any loose meaty bits of the thick part of the tongue underneath, and remove any bones that may be lodged in the flesh of the tongue.
This is where I expected myself to lose it. Let’s just say that this step sounds less than a’peeling’ when you wake up horribly hungover and read through the evening’s recipe. Shockingly it didn’t bother me (not much grosses me out).
Slicing the tongue: Make slices about 3/8-inch thick and as uniform in diameter as possible. To do this, the plan of attack is to cut several vertical slices at the thick end and then begin to slice on a bias, slanting toward the thick end as you come off the hump, slanting more and more until the knife is almost horizontal with the cutting board as you reach the tip. Madeira Sauce:
The Madeira sauce can be made in advance or while the tongue is soaking or boiling.
- 2 Tbsp Butter
- 1/2 Cup Onion, finely diced
- 1/2 Cup Carrots, finely diced
- 1/2 Cup Celery, finely diced
- 1/4 Cup Boiled ham, finely diced
- 3 Cup Beef stock or bouillon
- 1 Tbsp Tomato paste
- 1/2 Tsp Dried Thyme
- 1 Bay leaf
- 2 Tbsp Arrowroot powder*
- 1/4 Cup dry Madeira, or a dry sherry
- Melt the butter in a saucepan; stir in the onion, green pepper, celery, and ham. Cover the pan and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned.
- Add the stock or bouillon, tomato paste, thyme and bay leaf and simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from the heat
- Stir the arrowroot (or corn starch) in a small bowl with just enough wine to make a smooth paste; stir in the rest of the wine, then beat into the hot liquid. Bring to a simmer for about 2 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and cleared. Correct seasoning [with salt and pepper].
Braising the tongue: Arrange the sliced tongue in a casserole or skillet, pour on the sauce with its vegetables, cover, and simmer slowly for 30-40 minutes, or until the tongue is pierced easily with a fork.
Serving suggestions: Lightly butter a hot serving platter and mound hot mashed potatoes or buttered noodles in the center. Arrange upright slices of the tongue against the mound and spoon a bit ot the sauce over each slice. Surround the tongue with the braised vegetables. Pour the remaining sauce into a warm gravy bowl. Accompany with hot French bread and a red Bordeaux wine.