There are plenty among us that have heard of mock meat or the more “appealingly” named, meat analogue where things like soy protein, wheat or vegetable protein are moulded, flavoured and transformed into the likeness of your everyday meaty goodies. My intriguing local mock meat store sells a mind boggling array of curious meat phonies – I once even spotted pork ribs – complete with a fake bone! And I was almost tempted to buy and try it too. Almost.
But have you heard of artificial meat? If you’re conjuring up images of meat being created in a sterile white lab by a bunch of scientists in lab coats – well, you’d be right. Professor Mark Post and Dutch scientists at the University of Maastricht are now using tissue culture techniques to cultivate pig muscle cells in the lab. The process is still very much in its infancy, and is right now limited to a thin layer of aligned muscle cells in a tissue culture flask but with a large enough collection of cells I guess you call “tissue” and with enough muscle tissues strung together, I guess you get “meat”. There are no illusions to the current limitations of this artificial meat though, it lacks the fat cells that actually give meat it’s distinctive flavour and without those fat cells, cooking the artificial meat would not give it any of the flavours we’ve come to expect of meat. As the distinctive flavour of meat can be attributed to something called the Maillard Reaction: a reaction between the amino acids in the protein and the sugars in the meat that when cooked the reaction releases products we detect as delicious mouthwatering aromas.
The concept is an odd one – as an ex-scientist and an avid foodie with an adventurous appetite for the curious, I would definitely try this artificial meat. Commercial viability is a long way off yet, and without a spare €200,000 – €250,000 to buy the first 0.5kg artificial meat sausage that will be produced sometime in the coming year of two, it seems I’ll be waiting a while until I can try artificial meat. There are clear benefits of this once financial economies of scale are achieved, particularly to developing countries, and to those that have ethical issues with eating meat or are just uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals (I know some that won’t eat meat products that still retain the original form of the animal – from whole poultry or whole fish, to in one extreme case, even a whole prawn). But artificial meat seems at extreme odds with what we proudly tote as “natural”.
If and when artificial meat becomes the societal norm remains a question, but until that point, I personally believe that if you’re going to indulge in meat, you should invest the time to respect the source, the effort and energy required to get it to your plate. It’s a worthwhile exercise to continuously remind ourselves where our food actually comes from.
So when I was recently offered the chance to partake in a MLA project that would take me through the journey from Paddock to Plate, I eagerly agreed. The project revolves around one Angus steer raised on a grass paddock by Alison McIntosh, a beef producer based in Crookwell in Southern NSW. This steer is to be divided into 9 cuts by Anthony Puharich of Vic’s Meats and Victor Churchill, and I am one of 8 foodbloggers that have been allocated their own individual cut and asked to develop a unique recipe in consultation with none other than Warren Turnbull of Restaurant Assiette. The final recipes will then be given the Assiette touch and presented back to us at a special degustation.
And yours truly has received The Chuck.
I have to admit, I’m not the best with identifying where each cut of meat comes from. I could confidently point to the right end if forced to play the proverbial pin the tail on the steer, but I wouldn’t be confident beyond that. I’m told that the chuck extends from the neck to the fifth rib of the chest cavity and is a cut of beef full of flavour, but tough and full of connective tissue. For these reasons, the cut lends well to stewing, braising and slow cooking.
So many ideas were flying around my head on what I could do with the cut, but one idea sang louder than the others and slowly but surely, insidiously took root in my brain and systematically waged a smear campaign against all the others. The idea revolved around the curiously named “Italian beef” an Italian-American concept born in Chicago that looks like it produces some seriously tasty sandwiches. Specifically, the inspiration came from Al’s Italian Beef in Chicago – spotted some time ago in Alan Richman’s show for gluttons, Man vs Food, and now firmly seeded in my mind and causing some degree of wanderlust for the windy city.
Italian beef requires wet-roasting, a technique that achieves that coveted char roasted surface on top whilst being steamed from a rich, wet braising stock below. Once slow roasted until it falls apart with gentle prodding, the beef is pulled apart, lubricated with braising gravy and eaten to the tune of groans of delight. I was also keen on finding a way of marrying the pulled beef with the pine mushrooms that I’d foraged for at Belanglo State Forest. One of my current favourite mushroom foraging books, 100 Edible Mushrooms, by Michael Kuo recommends stewing pine mushrooms for at least 40 minutes to make them palatable. It sounds excessive but this slow wet roasted recipe sounds like the perfect vehicle to test this theory.
After some back and forth consultation with Warren, the idea of a pasta appealed the most and I was sent off to create a recipe for pulled beef and pine mushroom cannelloni.
Pulled beef and pine mushroom cannelloni
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: About 3.5 hours (allow about 3 hours to cook and another 30 minutes to prepare the cannelloni and sauce).
- 1kg chuck beef roast with most of the fat trimmed off
- 2 cups fresh sliced pine mushrooms or about 50g dehydrated
- 10g dried porcini mushrooms
- 200g speck, cubed
- 2 large onions, roughly chopped
- 2 large celery stalks, sliced
- 2 large carrots, sliced
- 1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed
- 10 sprigs thyme
- 8 bay leaves
- 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 1 cup of beef stock
- 3.5 cups red wine
- 5 – 6 cups hot water
- 1 cup plain flour
- 8 cannelloni pasta sheets (or 4 lasagne sheets cut into half)
- 1 tsp corn flour or potato starch
- 1.5 tsp of white truffle oil
- 1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground salt and pepper
- Combine one cup of red wine to onions, thyme and garlic, salt and pepper and pour over beef to marinate at room temperature whilst the rest of the ingredients are prepared (at least 30 minutes – 1 hour or several hours in refrigerator).
- If using dehydrated mushrooms, rehydrate in about 2 cups of hot water (reserve this soaking liquid to use as stock later).
- Preheat oven to 180C.
- Drain beef and dust in flour, heat oil in a heavy based pan over medium-high heat and sear beef until golden brown on all sides. Set aside.
- Fry speck until golden brown on all sides, set aside.
- Drain onions and garlic from red wine marinade, combine with carrots, celery and eggplant and cook until just softened. Stir in the cooked speck.
- Pour over the meat marinade and 2 cups of red wine and bring to the boil. Add in thyme, bay leaves, mushrooms and soaking liquid; then add a cup of stock and enough water to cover ingredients.
- Create a small indentation in the ingredients and place the beef on top.
- Transfer the pot to the oven and roast for 1.5 hours at 180C with the lid off to create a roasted surface on the beef from above whilst steaming from below. Flip the beef over every 30 minutes or so to ensure even roasting coverage. If using a meat temperature thermometer, the inside of the beef should reach about 160C for medium. Add more water if needed to ensure the ingredients are covered under liquid.
- After 1.5 hours, remove the beef, slice in half and submerge into the pot with the roasted side up. Add more water if required to keep the ingredients moist then roast for another 1.5 hours until the beef is tender (the beef should pull apart easily using two forks and gentle pressure).
- Remove beef from pot and allow to rest for a few minutes before pulling it apart in chunks using two forks. Add beef back to pot to warm through and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Remove 1.5 cups of the braising liquid and strain through a muslin cloth to achieve a about a cup of clean consommé (add more hot water to the pot if too thick to yield 1.5 cups of braising liquid). Heat this in a small pan with the remaining ½ cup of red wine and some corn flour to thicken.
- Meanwhile cook cannelloni sheets according to instructions and place cooked sheet on a flat surface. At one end of the pasta, place 2 tablespoons of the stewed mix and sauce, taking care to include a good amount of beef and pine mushroom in the mix. Make sure the pasta is filled to the ends then gently roll the pasta to achieve a filled tube shape and place on a warmed plate. Repeat until each plate has two cannelloni.
- Pour a very liberal amount of sauce over the cannelloni (about ½ cup), drizzle over about ½ teaspoon of truffle oil onto the sauce, then garnish with fresh flat leaf parsley leaves. Serve immediately.
The chuck provided by Alison McIntosh and Vic’s Meats was impressive enough to elicit a low whistle. This was marinated, dusted in flour and seared to seal before stewing.
The aromatics and vegetables were sweated, then pine mushrooms, herbs and wine added.
Once brought to the boil, the beef was placed on top of the stew to allow roasting from above and wet stewing from below.
The beef is ready when it falls apart like a quivering mess with a mere prod of a fork.
Sauce is key to this cannelloni recipe as unlike most cannelloni dishes, I am not slathering it in a red sauce and topping it with molten cheese. I wanted to feature the beef flavours in the sauce and use complementary flavours like the red wine and even truffle oil to lift the flavour of the mushrooms. But as the stewing liquid was gloriously thick, this required a few levels of straining to achieve a thin clear sauce.
With the sauce set, fill the cannelloni generously with pulled beef, pine mushrooms and saucy stew ingredients and roll into shape.
Top with a generous amount of sauce, drizzle with truffle oil and garnish with parsley.
The beef was so tender and the pine mushrooms retain a surprising amount of rigidity and provided a textural contrast to the softer elements in the dish. Ok, I’ll be honest, pine mushrooms haven’t won me over yet. They are sure fun to forage for, but as far as wild mushrooms go, they are disappointingly devoid of robust flavour. I’d hoped that cooking the life out of them would make them more texturally palatable too, but alas, no. They still had the textural consistency of spongy styrofoam.
As an alternative, with the leftover ingredients I actually hatched up plan b – which was delicious – perhaps more so than the cannelloni. I cut up the remaining lasagne sheets into wide pappardelle strips, added fresh skinned and chopped ripe tomatoes to the stew and created a pappardelle with beef and pine mushroom ragu.
Complicated? Yes, no doubt. There are some people who dream of leaving their desk jobs and trading their suits for chef’s whites and calculators for spatulas. Not me. Having come from a family that toiled in restaurants for most of my life growing up I appreciated how much hard work it was. Guts and often, very little glory. The spotlight shines brightly on the fine dining culinary stars of the industry – the restaurants that make up a tiny fraction of the industry – the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of restaurants like my father’s that make up the iceberg mass beneath that proverbial surface. He used to work 6 days a week, disappear in the early morning and return well after I’d gone to bed. And he always smelt like the restaurant. As a young child I would accuse him of skipping showers but I eventually came to realise that the oily kitchen smell seemed to have permeated his genetic makeup and was indistinguishable from his own scent. Despite my love of food, the kitchen life didn’t appeal to me and the first chance I had, I waddled out of the kitchen and passed through a lab on my way to an office desk.
This recipe creation experience, just confirmed for me that I am much better suited to cooking casually for forgiving friends and family. However, the experience has given me an even greater appreciation of what chefs do – from the sourcing of premium ingredients, the conception of clever ideas, the actual execution and the eventual presentation. If the amount of thought, research, time and energy I have personally dedicated to this one meagre task could be quantified I’m sure it would be the new dictionary definition of “inefficient“, next to a sheepish photo of me.
But on a more serious note, I shudder to think about the amount of time and energy it would have taken to get this dish of pulled beef and pine mushroom cannelloni from the paddock to my plate and simply speculating how many hands it had to pass through and many man hours it took is sobering enough. And when a dollar value is placed on the value of human labour in this process, I marvel at how undervalued our produce is!
With my side of the recipe bargain fulfilled, now I wait eagerly to see what Chef Warren Turnbull has made of my recipe, and I’m sure, how even the simple becomes magical in the hands of a professional. Not to mention the anticipation of the mystery dishes created by the other 7 foodbloggers. I wonder whether there be a beef dessert featured? Or what Warren will do with his allocated cut – the flat meats? Stay tuned for the follow up post on Paddock to Plate.by