Scotland. Land of whisky, lochs and tartans. Land of the Edinburgh festival, mountains and Macbeth. Land of bagpipes, kilts and sporrans. Land of Sean Connery, Billy Connolly and Braveheart. There are many things that we routinely associate with Scotland, but amazing food is not always one of them – in fact, for many, a terrifying experience with a steaming, tumescent haggis or an artery-hardening deep-fried Mars Bar is about the only “typically Scottish” food they can recall. But to dismiss Scotland as the land of deep-fried things and stuffed sheep stomachs is to do it a real disservice.
Because Scotland is also the land of clean, cold water for the raising of famously delicious salmon; of plentiful green pastures, ideal for the production Aberdeen Angus grass-fed beef; and craggy mountains, ideal for raising Scottish Blackface sheep known for their excellent meat. I first became aware of Scotland’s increasing reputation for excellent fresh produce when I enjoyed an evening of carnivorous joy with Donald Russell at The Balcon, sampling their premium grass-fed beef from Scottish cattle. More recently, though, I was once again reminded of Scotland’s excellence in this regard when I attended a dinner hosted by Scotch Beef. And before you correct me, yes, it really is Scotch (as opposed to Scottish). As we were told during the evening by the charming and debonair Laurent Vernet (head of Marketing), “Scottish” beef is merely a vague adjective whereas Scotch Beef is not only an analogous term to Scotch Whisky but also an EU-recognised PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) name. This means that beef that does not come from Scotland cannot be labelled Scotch Beef – but the PGI is also a quality assurance scheme, covering the entire lifespan of animals born in Scotland, including the farming, feed, auctions, transport and processing of such animals. So purchasing a cut of Scotch Beef ensures not only the quality of the product, but also 100% traceability of each piece of meat.
But of course, nice as all that is, the proof of the pudding’s in the eating – however noble the intentions are, customers are after taste first and foremost. So to allow me to try out some of this beef in my own kitchen I was provided with a voucher and a list of local stockists of Scotch Beef PGI – which is how I found myself in Stoke Newington last Saturday morning, a part of London I have not visited since my citizenship ceremony back in 2007. My goal was J Parsons Butchers (also known as The Cookery) at 113 Stoke Newington High Street – be warned that if you approach it from Dalston Kingsland station as I did, you will pass at least 2 other no. 113s (Dalston Kingsland Road and Stoke Newington Road) before you get to the correct no. 113. But once you arrive you know that the walk was worth it. It’s a proper, old-fashioned family butcher, bustling with both customers and blokes in white coats brandishing cleavers and saws. “Do you have any Scotch Beef bone-in rib-eye steaks?” I enquired. “Oh yes!” beamed the butcher, producing a gigantic fore-rib of beef which he neatly cleaved into its two remaining constituent steaks.
I say steaks – I mean ABSOLUTELY GIGANTIC SLABS OF MEAT. Seriously. The kind of thing you see on restaurant menus followed by “If you finish one, your party eats for free!”. Most of what you will see on sale as rib-eye steaks have the bone and most of the fat removed, but these puppies were complete. Traditionally, the forerib of beef is a roasting cut consisting of the 7th to the 10th rib, counting from the animal’s head, with the attached muscles, including the half vertebrae from a side of beef but excluding the breast end of the ribs. Including the bone means more flavour, and the fat means tender juicy meat – but of course the problem is how to cook an inch-thick, 2kg steak? Simply barbecuing or pan-frying it is almost certainly going to result in dry, overdone outside and a bloody interior. Now, that may be your idea of fun, but it’s not mine. Another option might be to sear the outside of the steak in a hot pan and then finish it in a hot oven. But I decided to see if I could recreate the near-perfect rib-eye that I’d eaten at The Balcon, by cooking it sous vide.
For those who do not know, sous vide is a method of slow cooking that involves cooking things in vacuum-sealed pouches in a water bath at a constant and relatively low temperature for a very long time – I have done a much more detailed write up of the science and mechanics of sous vide cooking previously, so I won’t repeat that here. It’s an ideal method of cooking supersized steaks like this because no matter how thick the steak, the long, slow cooking will ensure that it is cooked evenly all the way through. And then all it needs is a quick sear in the pan to caramelize and you’re done. I chose 55C for 7 hours, but there is considerable room for experimentation with the time and the temperature – although you should try to keep the temperature below 60 in order to preserve the pretty pink colour of the meat. The results were restaurant-quality – in fact, not a million miles from the steak I had at The Balcon! The meat was succulent, tender and pink all the way through even the thickest parts of the steak, but without the slight ooze of blood that usually accompanies this shade of pink. Perfection. The flavour was superb – juicy and meaty, kind of the way steak used to taste when you were a kid but never seems to any more. The pepper sauce combined the mild flavour and pretty colour of pink peppercorns with the tongue-tingling zing of Sichuan pepper – but you could also skip the pepper sauce and serve this simply with grated fresh horseradish. And what better accompaniment to this spectacular piece of meat than a special bottle of wine from our cellar. The 1996 Springfield Caberet Sauvignon has been my favourite wine and vintage since its release all those years ago and I was curious to see how well it had weathered the years (and the trip from South Africa in my suitcase!). I need not have worried: winemaker Abrie Bruwer says “I only want to sell wine I am proud of” and that is evident in this bottle. The wine was remarkable fresh for a 17-year old wine, showing no signs of oxidation, but with deliciously soft and integrated tannins providing a backdrop for the lush palate of jammy blackberries punctuated with notes of mint. It made a fantastic aperitif and really came into its own with the beef – a triumph for international culinary relations!
DISCLOSURE: The rib-eye steaks in this piece were provided free of charge by Scotch Beef , to enable me to create a recipe to participate in a Scotch Beef recipe competition. I received no other remuneration for this post and all opinions expressed are my own.
Other bloggers cooking meat sous vide include:
- Neil’s sous vide lamb shoulder
- Michelle’s sous vide steak with blue cheese sauce
- Helen’s sous vide pork belly
- about 2kg of bone-in rib-eye steak (mine was a single large steak)
- kosher salt
- your favourite dry spice rub (I used a Jamaican jerk rub)
- a little sunflower oil for grilling
- FOR THE SAUCE
- ½ tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 Tbsp dried pink pepeprcorns
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp plain flour
- 2 Tbsp Brandy
- 75 ml single cream
- salt to taste
- Pre-heat a sous vide machine to 55C.
- Season the meat generously on all sides and vacuum seal it in a heavy duty plastic pouch.
- Place the sealed pouch into the sous vide machine, close the lid and set the timer to 7 hours.
- To make the sauce, crush the peppercorns lightly in a pestle and mortar, then heat them in a dry frying pan till they start releasing their fragrance.
- Add the butter and when it has melted, stir in the flour. Add the brandy to make a paste, then add the cream and stir well to remove any lumps. Add a little milk to thin the sauce and reach the desired consistency. Add salt to taste.
- When the steaks are done, remove them from the pouch and pat dry. Lightly oil and then heat a gas barbecue hotplate or cast iron frying pan until smoking hot, then add the steak. Cook the steak for 60 seconds per side (no more!!), then using tongs, hold it upright standing on its fatty edge to caramelise the fat.
- Slice against the grain and serve immediately with a green salad, potato chips and the pepper sauce.