Beef: And Other Bovine Matters by John Torode [cookbook review]

Australian-born, UK-based chef John Torode has given the world a surprising thing with Beef: And Other Bovine Matters (buy from Amazon): a truly well-done book of beef recipes. With his cowboy swagger and straight-shooting chattiness, Torode's an obvious candidate for meat writing, but the surprise is that, oh, 10,000 or so years into our love affair with cow products, you'd think it would take Shakespeare — or at the very least, Betty Fussell — to come up with something new and clever to say on the subject. But from flaring nostrils to swishing tail, Torode is a master of this meat.

Torode is responsible for introducing Australasian food to the UK, and serves as the token Aussie in popular TV shows across the pond like “MasterChef Goes Large.” He also, perhaps more notably, runs the hugely successful restaurant Smiths of Smithfield. And with Beef, he provides an extremely useful resource for practically everything related to the purchasing, preparation and cooking of his beloved cow.

Know your cow

Torode gets us started at the beginning: he defines and illustrates the primal and subprimal cuts; provides practical and instructive explanations of their various textures, costs, flavor and quality (and what to look for and avoid); furnishes a guide to reliable beef sources, including exclusively grass-fed beef; supplies directions for at-home meat curing; explains the differences among breeds, from the Aberdeen to the Simmental, and — of course — forks over a grand set of recipes.

And what recipes they are! The preparations naturally skew Australasian, and cover everything from the basics (Stocks, Soups & Gravy) to the prosaic (Pasta & Rice, Steaks & Big Hunks) to the more adventurous (Carpaccio and Offal), running the gamut from quick 15-minute steak whip-ups for the fam to operatic productions for 100 that involve the impalement of a cow’s entire leg. And they're comprehensive: Torode’s recipes leave no innard unprobed and no muscle unmasticated. Beef is the Kama Sutra of cow cookery, and depending on your temperament, it will leave you raring and ready to whip up a feast, or you'll find yourself wide-eyed, knock-kneed, vaguely traumatized and in need of a Valium.

Use every part

But the book’s crowning achievement, even beyond its comprehensive compendium of recipes, is its brilliant packaging. Not a single detail has been overlooked. Even its color scheme evokes the preparation and consumption of beef: white (the delectable marbling of fat), red (rare meat, fond-tinged blood); brown (butcher’s paper), and black (grill marks and beautifully seared steak). The cover of “Beef” doubles as a handy Beef Cuts 101 poster, and Jason Lowe's photographs are beautifully shot works of art in their own right (Some are practically pornographic — check out that carrot on page 167!)

But that voice...

While Beef is an excellent book of recipes, and a great guide to the intricacies of recreational cow cooking, Torode's attempts to have an authorial voice are less successful. My advice: ignore any editorial tangents, and keep your interaction with “Beef” as recipe-focused and businesslike as possible. Stymie any impulse to peak around and see what’s over there in that corner, glinting like an enticing personal aside. Trust me: you don’t want to know. Or do you? Here's what you're missing:

The sexism: “The ritual of cooking meat on a spit is a man’s thing and it should probably stay that way!”

The embarrassing references to family members: “To make [Aussie meat pie] work, it needs a healthy dose of ‘dead horse,’ as my father used to call it – ketchup to you and me. He had a great little poem (if you could call it that) and he’d recite it when topping his pie: ‘Shake and shake and shake the bottle; none will come and then a lot’ll!”

The attempts to be relatable, despite continuous assertions that the book is written with professional chefs in mind: “This is called the ‘glace de viande,’ or glaze of meat—effectively it’s a bouillon cube. … I find the whole process satisfying but understand why some may think it’s a drag.”

Encouraging “cheating” is good—it’s unrealistic to expect home cooks to spend hours creating a glace de viande, but pretending they’re “effectively” interchangeable is the culinary equivalent of slapping up vinyl wood paneling and insisting it’s Walnut. But even with the grating attempts at relatable humor, it's hard to fault Torode for this effort. Beef makes me hungry, even when I’m full. And really, asking for more than that from a cookbook is just plain greedy.

–Kathleen Willcox

Recipe: Savory Meatballs

Reprinted from Beef: And Other Bovine Matters by John Torode
The offal does not overpower; instead, it compliments the earthiness and richness sought by meatball aficionados the world over

8 oz. ground pork
8 oz. veal kidneys
8 oz. calf’s liver
1 ½ oz. bacon
1 ½ oz. pork fatback
3 oz. foie gras (optional)
½ cup white bread crumbs
salt and pepper
2 Tbs. butter
2 onions, diced
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 egg
scant 1 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped
½ cup fresh tarragon, chopped
caul fat
handful of diced carrots
handful of diced leek
handful of diced celery
2 cups beef stock

Ask your butcher if he would grind all the meat together. Once ground, put in a large mixing bowl, mix well, beating it for a few minutes. Add bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the butter, three-quarters of the onions. Cook until soft, but not colored, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Stir the egg, sage and tarragon into the onions and garlic, then mix with the ground meat. Refrigerate.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Rinse the caul fat, then soak it in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Lay the caul fat out on a worktop and cut it into 5-inch squares. Roll the meat mixture into balls the size of a tennis ball and wrap each one in a piece of caul fat. Sprinkle the remaining onion and the other diced vegetables over the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place the meatballs on top and season them. Pour in the stock, then cover the pan with foil and seal the edges well.

Put the pan in the oven, reduce the heat to 350 degrees F, and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, increase the temperature to 425 degrees F and cook for 15 minutes longer.

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