By Edward Schneider
One of the best reasons to cook a big piece of meat is the leftovers, whether they be flesh or bones, and all the things you can do with them. Hence, one of the best reasons to boil a piece of beef is the subsequent ropa vieja: Cuban-inspired shredded meat with vegetables in a tomatoey sauce. And the subsequent miroton: onions in vinegary sauce layered with thinly sliced beef, topped with breadcrumbs and baked till brown and crisp.
As a kid I hated boiled beef (and boiled chicken too), but I have come round to it in a big way, thanks perhaps to exposure to bollito misto in Italy, though it could just be part of growing up, or at any rate growing older. (By the way, did anyone out there actually like boiled meat, other than corned beef, as a child? Italians needn’t answer: of course you liked boiled meat.)
Boiled beef, once cooked to tenderness, doesn’t get weird and tough when you re-heat it, which is one of the leftover-user’s secrets of success. It also, automatically, has its own broth – the liquid in which it had cooked – and this broth is the key to the next days’ dishes. It is the foundation of stock-based sauces for those who don’t keep beef or veal stock around the house.
Typically, Jackie and I eat flanken/short ribs when we want boiled beef, but from time to time a brisket finds its way into our refrigerator. We’ll use the thick, fattier part for a braise or, cut up, for stew, then we’ll freeze the thinner, pointy end – a little leaner, but, in a decent brisket, still richly marbled with intramuscular fat. When it comes out of the freezer, we might cut 12 ounces or so off for chopping into a couple of hamburgers (not the absolute best cut, but pretty good), then salt and pepper the rest, let it sit overnight and boil it with plenty of aromatic vegetables, some herbs and maybe spices, and a modest amount of salt. At a good simmer, this could take 90 minutes or it could take twice that, and patience is required: it really needs to be tender enough that a pot fork pierces it easily.
A couple of consecutive meals of boiled beef with all the trimmings – mustard, horseradish, the northern Italian bread sauce called pearà, whatever you like – is enough for anyone, so unless we’ve had six guests to dinner there’s plenty left over.
After a day or two of hiatus, the next stage is usually ropa vieja, or my version of it, anyway (no outraged comments from the grandchildren of Cuban grandmothers, please: I know hers was different and that it probably didn’t use brisket). First, make sure you have some cooked beans around, for the rice and beans. Make sure you have some rice, too – but how could any well-regulated household be out of rice?
Start an onion or two, sliced and salted, in a little lard or oil over low heat. And some chopped garlic, too, but not too much, just a clove. Put in some cumin and coriander seed, a clove or two, a tiny bit of cinnamon and a bay leaf, all freshly ground. If you really want to hear from Cuban grandchildren, add some Mexican oregano too. Slice a red bell pepper (one that tastes of red bell pepper, not one of those picture-perfect things from somewhere like Holland) and a poblano, and slice them thin: strips less than 1/8 inch in breadth. Stir these (and, optionally, half a stalk of celery similarly sliced) into the softened onions and let them start to wilt.
While this is happening, cut a thick chunk off your leftover boiled brisket – this could mean cutting the piece in half crosswise. Using your fingers, shred the meat, pulling at it as though you were eating one of those sticks of string cheese. Some of the shreds can be substantial, others may be only a few fibers in width – but they shouldn’t cross the line from shred to chunk.
Add to the vegetables half a cup or so of tomato sauce or a fresh tomato, chopped (the sauce is far better here), and a like amount of broth from the brisket. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the shredded beef and simmer for another few minutes. Add more tomato or broth if you think that’s a good idea. Add a good handful of pitted olives, coarsely chopped (green manzanilla olives are good here, but not the awful supermarket ones). Taste for seasoning. Turn off the heat and leave the pan alone for an hour or a day. Reheat, check the seasoning again, and serve with rice and beans or, in extremis, just rice. And, on the side, a toothpick or some (unflavored) dental floss for the meat shreds.
This is a high yield recipe, because when you shred the brisket it grows to five hundred times its original volume, or three times, anyway. But it is also a high-consumption dish: more-ish, as Jackie would say. Irresistible. You’ll pack away more of than you’d have thought possible.
You’ve got some meat and some broth left, right? Good, because tomorrow or the day after is Miroton Day.