Mmmm, beef fillet. Luxurious, indulgent, and not something you’d eat every day. Not, that is, unless you’ve been living here for the last few days. What began as a South African braai [or barbecue for the non-Afrikaans speaking] in honour of the world cup host nation has, mercifully given the price of fillet, metamorphosed into a medley of delicious dishes. But let’s start at the beginning…
‘Gemsbok fillet in red wine and soya sauce’ read the recipe, helpfully adding that in the absence of Gemsbok any South African antelope could be used. A trip to my local butchers however failed to turn up a single specie of antelope and the decision was soon taken to replace the prancing prince of the plains with a cow. ‘Enough for six’ I told Mr Armstrong and left with a hefty slab of the finest fillet [c. 1.5 kg] ready to submerge it in what I like to think of as a spa treatment for meat, a deep, dark marinade which the recipe said should be composed of the following:
- A bottle of Merlot [though I had an open Pinot Noir and used that instead]
- 125 ml soy sauce
- 125 ml olive oil
- A tablespoon of soft brown sugar
- 5 or 6 crushed garlic cloves
- A small thumb of grated ginger
- A small teaspoon of crushed coriander seeds
- 2 or 3 finely shredded chillies [I left the seeds in despite being told to do otherwise]
- And without being asked to do so by the recipe I couldn’t resist throwing in a couple of torn and fragrant bay leaves
Despite the South African provenance of the recipe there’s a clearly oriental bent to these aromatics which I have previously combined with red wine, Chinese five spice and honey when cooking duck, but the beef [as I’m sure would have the Gemsbok] appeared very much at home with its new playmates and became a darker ruby red with every turn over the next 8 hours.
Now it would seem from the recipe book [Cape Wine Braai Masters – free with 6 bottles of South African Wine!] that your average South African barbecues roughly three meals per day, but I’m British and with English summers being what they are I probably cook over coals that many times per year, and as such I think I lack the natural confidence with charcoal which comes from the life lived largely outdoors. So the fillet had its prescribed 20 minutes per side on the barbecue, with regular basting, but there was an oven waiting at 200˚C and off it popped for a further 20 minutes in there to be on what we Brits would call ‘the safe side’. Whilst the meat finished and rested I reduced the remaining marinade to a thick sauce which needed only a sparing drizzle over the thickly sliced meat. The result was meltingly tender meat, still rare at the core and with an intensely flavoured outer crust, but without knowing the exact temperature of the charcoal etc I can only suggest using the ‘poke test’ one would apply to a fillet on the grill to check when the meat is cooked to your liking.
The same book contains a great recipe for a simple but splendid tomato salad with mixed varieties of tomatoes [as many as you can find], diced red onion, finely chopped red chillies and basil with a lemony vinaigrette which eats very nicely with the beef on a warm summer evening.
Well received as the fillet was by the braai guests I was left with about half of the meat and a good quantity of the marinade / sauce. Perhaps I should have scaled to quantities to take account of the Sosatie marinated pork chops and the Bobotie spiced chicken [ostrich, it seems, is no easier to come by than Gemsbok]. Ah well, there are worse things to worry about in life than what to do with a hulking great chunk of steak and some intensely fragrant cooking liquors. And despite the summer heat I was inexorably drawn, wherever else I looked, in one direction. The direction — of cottage pie!
EPISODE TWO – THE PIE.
I do have an old fashioned hand cranked mincing machine, inherited from my mother, but it’s suction foot doesn’t suck properly anymore and the laborious job of feeding flesh into its gaping jaws and winding [and winding, and more winding!] the handle whilst trying to keep it in one place is actually nowhere near as much fun as mum made it look. So mincing by hand with a chef’s hatchet seemed the best way forward, first with, then across the grain of the meat. I have seen Chinese chefs do this to raw pork with a cleaver in each hand, but again it’s probably one of those things where a lifetime of practice pays dividends so I took the slow and steady route.
An onion was chopped and sweated, in went some more garlic, then some quartered button mushrooms [for some reason known only to The Shop Keeper we have a fridge FULL of mushrooms] and some finely diced carrot. And was that half a fennel bulb lurking in the salad drawer? Why not.
Next a good squeeze of tomato puree, a dash of umami paste, and a glug of fruity rose [also, ahem, open], which all cooked out for a few minutes more. Then in with the hand minced beef, the remaining marinade / sauce, a good quality tin of chopped tomatoes, and, as it looked a little thick, another good glug of wine. Oh and a couple more bay leaves from the neighbours’ garden. Then it’s simmering time. Gentle simmering that is, we are after all cooking with fillet steak and not boiling brisket.
And having tipped the result into a pie dish more than big enough for two – there’s still enough left over for another day! [see Episode Three]
I always let a cottage or shepherd’s pie filling cool before attempting the topping. The filling become firm when cold and as such it’s far easier to get a nice even coating of mash. And I wanted this mashed potato to be bold enough to hold its own against the richness beneath so added a generous grated handful of full bodied, meatily mature Comte which had somehow managed to squeeze into the fridge amongst all the mushrooms. So, mash on, top swirled with the tines of a fork, brush with melted butter and into the oven until golden on top and bubbling around the edges. At which point allow to the pie to sit and [literally] chill for a few minutes before serving. The taste buds of a scalded tongue would struggle to savour the delicate complexities of your creation.
There is an ongoing debate between The Shop Keeper and I as to the perfect accompaniment for such a pie, that being garden peas or baked beans. On a cold November Monday with an M&S cottage pie I’m quite happy to take the path of least resistance and open a can of Heinz, but for a pie of this refinement nothing less than the king of the greens will suffice. In case you’re wondering, we ate this one with peas.
EPISODE THREE – THE SKY […’s the limit? OK this is a really crap heading but I’m about to write about tortillas and nothing appropriate rhymes with ‘Braai’ and ‘Pie’]
Don’t forget, this beef is amongst other things, a spicy little number – remember all those chillies way back in the original marinade? They’ve mellowed somewhat by now, but they’re still there. And so the last hurrah for this saucy little cow is to be in a meaty tortilla.
This won’t be the traditional chilli filling but I’m looking forward to the rich and slightly spicy mixture wrapped in a warm flour tortilla, and topped with sliced avocado, a tomato, lime and chilli salsa, and a dollop of soured cream. There’s only one thing missing – the cheese. Luckily we didn’t use all of that Comte, and I think it’s about time that this fillet and that particular fromage were reunited…