When I first contemplated writing a blog – and I contemplated for a long time – I had a difficult time getting past a few obstacles. I was afraid I would run out of ideas and information to pass along, or stories to tell. I tend to be a bit pedantic about certain techniques and methods, and I was afraid I would bore the living daylights out of the dozen or so people who might find me. I didn’t have a very sophisticated camera, so I was afraid my photographs would not be up to par with those on so many sites I admire. I was finally sort of catapulted into diving into the deep end and just starting.
What a blessing it was. I now keep a separate notebook of story and food ideas. Stories always lead to food, and the other way around, too. It’s been good for me to learn to curb my need to over-explain and to insist on certain techniques. It tends to be a good idea to have all the rules in the world for oneself, and let others take care of their own. Besides, the point is to get us all into the kitchen and to enjoy what we do there. And it’s a good thing iphoto was invented because it helps me make ho-hum photos a little better.
A so-so camera is one thing. No camera is quite another. My little Canon served me faithfully for about three years. It banged uncomplainingly around the country and the world. It was my catering companion, my hiking buddy, and chronicler of all things animal and food. All it required was an endless supply of AA batteries. And one day it simply stopped. It was the day before I left to cater meals for a weekend out at a beautiful ranch in southern Montana. A place of sweeping vistas up and down the valley bounded on the western edge by the Beartooth Mountains. A place where we prepared and served fantastic food. I wanted to tell you about all of it. And I will. But you’re going to have to use your imagination for some of it.
The Beartrap Ranch is only about an hour’s drive from where I live, but it is a world apart. My wonderful helper and I catered a weekend of meals for two couples who had purchased the whole package as an auction item from one of my favorite charities. I deliberately designed Friday evening’s dinner to be casual, as I wasn’t precisely sure when everyone would arrive. The menu was:
Very Versatile Seafood Mousse with grilled crostini during cocktails before dinner
Braised Bison Brisket on hearty sandwich rolls
Potato and Snow Pea Salad
Any brisket is a pretty tenacious piece of meat. It takes some cooking – low and slow – to bring it to its wonderfully silken consistency and deep flavor. I had gone ahead and braised the meat the day before I left, chilled it down and refrigerated it overnight, then transported it cold. It would only benefit from being reheated slowly in its own braising juices.
The first thing I did after I arrived around mid-afternoon on Friday and got all the food and equipment unpacked and put away, was to prepare the seafood mousse, as it needed to chill. Just before we served it, I sliced a couple of baguettes and ran them under the broiler to toast on both sides.
Meanwhile, the brisket was simmering gently. We set arranged tables on the patio, and served dinner in one of the loveliest dining rooms I’ve seen lately.
It was from this same spot that on Saturday afternoon we sat and watched a thunderstorm gather on the far side of the mountains, then drift up over them and lightning its way toward us, driving ahead of it that wonderful smell of rain on green pastures.
While I can show you where we served, your imagination is going to have to fill in for the lack of any photos of my own.
BRAISED BISON BRISKET
The ingredients are simple, as are cooking and serving, As always, if you start with good quality meat, your results will be all the better. A braise is almost better if prepared a day in advance and gently reheated because the flavors are that much deeper.
3-4 pound bison (or beef) brisket
Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper
2 large or 3 small yellow onions, peeled, 1/2″ dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
Steak or sandwich rolls
1 red onion, peeled, thinly sliced
Whole grain Dijon mustard
Reserved braising juices as dipping sauce
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Warm a stove-to-oven pot that has a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Season the brisket on all sides and both ends with salt and pepper. Place the roast in the hot pan and brown it well on all sides and ends. You’re browning (and go for a good dark brown) the surface carbohydrates, which is going to lend great flavor and character to the braising juices. When fully browned, remove to a platter and set aside.
- Add the onions to the pot along with some salt and pepper. The water that begins to cook out of the onions will deglaze all the flavorful browned bits from the bottom of the pot, so use a flat-ended wooden stirrer to scrape them loose. When onions have softened, add the garlic and cook until very fragrant.
- Return the roast to the pot. Add both cans of tomatoes. Bring the contents of the pot to a good simmer, then cover with the lid and place in oven. This would also be the point at which you could transfer the contents of the pot to a slow cooker.
- The meat needs to braise slowly and gently for about 4 hours. Turn it over once an hour so that no half is left out of the liquid for longer than that.
- If you plan to braise and serve on the same day, reduce heat to 250 to hold the meat until you are ready to serve.
- If you’re going to serve it the next day, remove the pot from the oven after four hours. Remove the lid, and remove the meat to a cutting board. You need to cool the meat and the braising liquid to 70 degrees within two hours, at which point you can refrigerate it. The easiest way to cool the meat quickly is to slice it in half lengthwise, then turn it over every 20 minutes or so. As for the braising liquid, when I empty a plastic bottle of 20 to 32 ounces (bottled water, for example), I run it and its cap through the dishwasher, fill it 3/4 full with water, and keep it in the freezer for instances just like this. Drop one or two ice paddles (as they’re called) into the braising juices and stir them around now and then. You’ll be amazed how fast it will cool.
- When the meat is cool, wrap each piece in plastic. Transfer the cooled braising juices to a container and refrigerate.
- To reheat it all, pour the juices back into the original pot. Add the meat. Place in a 250 degree oven until ready to serve. It can take a couple of hours to reheat completely, so be sure to factor that into your timeline. If you reheat at a higher temperature, there is a good chance you’ll toughen the meat you spent so many hours tenderizing.
To serve, imagine great big steak rolls split lengthwise, just waiting to be toasted under a broiler or on a grill. Spread the toasted rolls with whole-grain mustard. Carefully lift the meat out of the braising juices and lay it on a cutting board. Use a sharp slicing knife to cut the meat into slices about 1/4″ thick. Divide them among the rolls, about 4 slices each. Top the meat with curls of sweet red onion. Close the rolls and slice them in half across the middle. Have some small bowls or ramekins to hand. Ladle the braising juices into them and serve with the sandwiches as a dip. Look out over your vista, whatever it may be, and toast to good food, good friends, good life. You don’t need a photograph to show you how to do that.