Friday, September 18, 2009

Cheers to the Roast

One of the best splurge meals that is accessible to the average Joe is the prime rib roast.  Unfortunately, for many people, the term is a bit of an oxymoron--if you're not getting a prime cut of meat, then it's not prime, girls and boys.

Does Your Beef Make the Grade?

Over the years, we've learned why a cut of beef that is fantastic melt-in-your-mouth magic at a restaurant is just "eh" at home.  It's all to do with the grade of beef. Want your beef to get an A+ for taste?  Then you need to understand the USDA's grades.

The USDA grades the quality of meat based on "traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of meat."  The three top grades and their USDA definitions are as follows (quoted from USDA):

  • Prime grade Image of Prime Label is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).

  • Choice grade Image of Choice Label is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if "braised" — roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

  • Select grade Image of Select Label is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Generally, you'll find Select cuts at the local megamart.  Some specialty shops claim to have better cuts, but usually they only offer choice.  Bless Costco's heart... they often put out beautiful pieces of prime.  Sure, it costs more, but it is soooo worth it.  And, if you keep your eye out for it, you'll find Costco often offers prime cuts for the same price as the select cuts found at the supermarket.

Like Wine, Beef Gets Better With Some Aging

You've heard the phrase at all the fancy shmancy restaurants -- "we age our beef".  Why is aging such a big deal?  With time, the meat breaks down a bit and becomes more tender.  As it ages, it can also gain flavor as moisture is lost and the flavors concentrate.  And who doesn't love tender meatiness?

There are two ways to age beef--wet and dry.  In wet aging, the meat is vacuum packed in plastic and left in a controlled refrigerated environment for up to four weeks.  Unfortunately, since the moisture has no place to go, wet-aged beef gains in tenderness but not so much in flavor.  Even more unfortunate, because it is an easier and cheaper solution, it has become an industry standard for aged beef, with as much as 90% of the beef aged in this manner.

And then there's dry aged beef--the gold standard, the nirvana.  It requires more care and more space than its cryopaked brethren, and there's more shrinkage (Yes, George Constanza--there is shrinkage!) due to the loss of excess moisture, but boy is it worth it!

Happily, dry-aging can be done in the comfort of your own home.  In fact, some of your favorite Food Network pals, namely Guy Fieri and Alton Brown,  have shared their know-how on dry aging.

Let's get started. First, you'll need some tools/equipment:

 - Cheesecloth (and lots of it!):  You'll find cheesecloth, which is a mesh-like fabric, in most megamarts, usually in the baking/cookware aisle.  The cheesecloth will help whisk the moisture away from the meat. (Hence, dry aging.)

- Large plastic storage container:  The container should be large enough to hold the roast with lots of breathing room. We picked up a set of these handy-dandy containers at Costco; some went to toy storage, one went to meat storage.

- Small wire rack:  The rack needs to be able to sit comfortably in the container; we used a steamer metal rack.  The rack allows air to circulate around the bottom of the roast.

Your meat will need to breathe while it ages, so the first thing you need to do is drill holes in the plastic container.

Next, make sure your rack will sit flat and firm on the lid of the container, which will serve as the bottom of your meat-aging contraption. (It's a lot easier to lift the box off the lid than lift the meat out of the box.)  Our little rack has four "legs," so we made slits in the lid to snugly fit the legs.

Now, dry your roast with some paper towels and place on the rack.

It's time to mummify your delicious piece o'meat.  Take out your cheesecloth, and gently drape (you don't want a super-tight fit) it around the roast.  Make sure it's covered on the top, sides and bottom.  Triple wrapping is recommended.

When she's ready, your meat mummy will look this:

And then you can put the holey base of the container over the meat.

Tuck your container o'love into the refrigerator, as far in the back as possible. You'll need to change the cheesecloth about once a day.  Restaurants dry age beef for as long as four weeks, but our TV pals suggest do-it-yourselfers age their beef for about a week or so.  (We don't have special dedicated refrigerated rooms with carefully controlled temperatures, and there is a fine line between dry aging beef and a nasty, rotting science project.)

As time goes on and the beef loses it excess moisture, the roast will shrink in size (and weight) and start turning a darker brown color.  The meat might also have a mature smell to it.  If it has a very strong stank to it, or it has green on it, then you might have had a problem with keeping it sufficiently dry or cold.  In such cases, proceed with extreme caution (and at your own risk).

This is what our love looked like after she spent some time chillin' and dryin'.

Puttin' the Heat to the Meat

Hungry yet? Let's cook this thing!

You'll want to perform some basic calculations before you get started.  The cooking time for a medium rare roast is 17 minutes per pound of roast.*

* This is the final weight after aging. Don't use the weight of the roast when you bought it!

When planning, you will want to allow for an additional 60 minutes of pre- and postresting. 

About 30 minutes before cooking is to begin, remove the roast from the refrigerator so it can come to room temperature and preheat your oven to 450º F.

Season the roast generously with salt and pepper.  (If you like other seasonings on your prime rib roast, go for it.  You can even insert slivers of garlic if you'd like.)  Place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan, and then put it in the oven.  After 30 minutes of cooking, lower the temperature to 350º F and continue cooking for the rest of the time that you calculated.

Didn't know you'd need math?  You see, your 9th grade teacher was right... ;)

Let's use an example.  Let's say you have a 5 lb roast (weight after dry-aging).  The roast will be in the oven for a total of 85 minutes (17 minutes * 5 lbs), 30 of said minutes will be spent at the higher temperature.  Total cooking/prepping time will be:

60 minutes + (17 minutes * 5 lbs) = 60 minutes + 85 minutes = 145 minutes = 2 hours and 25 minutes

So, if you want to eat at 7:00 pm, you'll want to take the roast out of the refrigerator at 4:35 pm.  At 5:05, the roast should go into the oven at 450ºF.  At 5:35, you'll lower the oven temp to 350º F and continue cooking for another 55 minutes.  At 6:30, the roast will come out of the oven to rest for another 30 minutes.  And at 7:00 pm, ring that dinner bill!

(Note: This recipe is based on talk show host Melinda Lee's recipe.)

Prime's Best Buddies (or What To Serve as Sides)

Yeah, you could just sit down like a caveman and tear at your luscious roast beast, but it's much nicer (and more civilized) to serve some sides with it.  No need to get complicated or fancy; sometimes simple is perfection. Go easy on the flavors in your sides, as you don't want to overpower the flavors of the roast.

Breads.  Yorkshire pudding (which is a more of a tender roll/biscuit than a pudding) is a traditional favorite, but I find it to be a big ol' hassle.  A fresh, hot loaf of French bread and some butter works just as well.  (Better yet--skip the butter and dip the bread into the pan drippings.  Oh.Yeah.Baby!)  Like it sweet?  Try some Hawaiian rolls.

Veggies.  Roasted broccoli or cauliflower stand up to the meat without overpowering, and both are very easy to do. When you take the meat out of the oven, bump the temp back to 400º F - 425º F.  Place veggie stalks on baking pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for about 15 minutes or to your desire tenderness.

Sauteed veggies also make great sides.  Green beans sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper put green and freshness on your plate.  Better yet, scoop up some of the oily pan drippings from the beef and saute the green beans in that.  Delish!  Sauteed spinach is also an easy and flavorful option.  Grab a few bags of prewashed spinach, toss a kiss of olive oil in pan, throw in the spinach, and let wilt to deliciousness.  Towards the end of cooking, add some salt and crushed/minced garlic.

Like to hide those veggies in some cheese?  Try broccoli gratin.  There are many good recipes out there.  I prefer the one in Joy of Cooking.  Essentially, you make a cheddar cheese, toss in some broccoli and bake.

Potatoes.  Meat and potatoes is a marriage made in culinary heaven, right?  Try Emeril's rich and decadent Garlic Mashed Yukon Potatoes.  More of a gratin fan?  You can't go wrong with bacon, cheese and potatoes in Tyler's Ultimate Potato Gratin.  It's a bit of work, but well worth it.  Want to keep it simple?  Baked potatoes are a classic addition to any meat meal.  Put all sorts of toppings in little bowls and let your guests serve themselves.

Cheesiness.  We're huge fans of cheesy goodness, and a little cheese with the meat can be a very good thing. In fact, it can add to the comfort food factor.  Consider serving a broccoli gratin (see above) or a freshly baked macaroni and cheese.

  Bon Appetit! or: Let The Feasting Begin!

Once the meal is ready, it's time to eat.  Gather your guests, pour the wine (or other favorite beverage) and enjoy your labor of love.  Just be warned--fine food cooked at home can become addictive! 

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