Saturday, August 20, 2011

Penne with Beef Neck

I've noticed recently that I've been seeing more of the less popular cuts of meat at the local grocery stores, and that people have actually been buying them more frequently (someone beat me out to a big package of cheap pork trimmings on my last shopping trip!). The reality of the economic times we live in seems to be bringing back some of the tricks our parent's and grandparent's generations used to stretch their grocery dollar, and make the most out of the more readily available cheap cuts of meat rather than the massive luxury cuts that most people consider the norm today. With that in mind, I though of all the odd bits of unusual meats that would randomly turn up in mom's Sunday gravy from when I was a kid, so I grabbed a nice big package of beef neck bones, and started getting ideas on how to use it, and apply a few new tricks with a tried and true pasta dish.

I've got the Sunday gravy thing down by now, so I wanted to put together that old standby with an old school meat, and bring in a few newer ideas that have made their mark on the restaurant world lately. Two pasta dishes that have gained a lot of attention lately is Scott Conant's simple tomato and basil spaghetti from his restaurant Scarpetta, and Micheal White's Fusili with Baby Octopus and Bone Marrow from Marea (also in New York). The Conant recipe uses the idea of infusing some olive oil with your basil, pepper, and garlic flavors, and adding it to the sauce late in the cooking process. The recipe from Marea melts bone marrow right into the tomato sauce to add richness- similar to the way one would mount a traditional french sauce with butter to add a glossy finish and bring in rich flavor notes.

Using beef neck bones as the meat for my gravy seemed like just the way to tap into these ideas. The bones have a good amount of that tougher meat and a lot of collagen laden fat and connective tissue that lends itself to a long braising technique. A long cooking time will transform it from tough stringy meat into tender bits that practically melt. The bones and the connective tissues release tons of flavor, and help thicken the gravy as well. Finally, since these pieces have large chunky bones with lots of exposed marrow cavity, they will also release all those bits of marrow during cooking, and produce something rich with deep flavors.

The first task will be to get some color on those neck bones. We want to put a little sear on the meaty sections, and heat up the bones as well to help begin breaking down the marrow hiding inside it. Normally I would try to sear my meat in my gravy pot, but I opted to use my flat-top this time since these big chunky pieces of meat and bone would be a little hard to manage, perhaps I was wrong about that, perhaps not, either way, you'll want to sear all of your neck sections either in the pot or in a separate pan with a little olive oil for lubrication. You do not need to cook them through- they will be taking a very long bath soon enough. Just season them with a little salt and pepper, and give them enough time on a very hot surface to put color on all sides.

You're looking for that brown crust on as much of the surface as you can, and let the center stay raw for now. This is our first layer of flavor. If you sear your meat in your gravy pot, don't wipe out the brown bits on the bottom, that's the stuff you want to keep if you can. Set the meat aside for now, we'll come back to it soon enough when the base for our gravy is ready.

The base for the gravy follows the same basic idea as my normal Sunday gravy (except that I actually made this one on a Monday). The only thing I'm going to do different is when and how I add seasoning- and since I'm using very rich meat and cooking for even longer than normal, I'm not going to bother using tomato paste. For now, I'll only be using salt and pepper, I'll add the rest of the flavors later using the infused olive oil idea from the Scott Conant recipe. I'll start by warming up a little olive oil in my favorite big pot, and toss in one medium onion, chopped small seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Keep the onions moving around with a wooden spoon, until they turn translucent.

Next up are the tomatoes. I don't have fresh tomatoes today, but I did find two big cans of pre-skinned plumb tomatoes on sale, which is the next best thing, and saves me the trouble of skinning them. If you're going to use canned tomatoes, you can opt for the pre-crushed ones if you like, but the whole ones are just fun to crush with your hands. Hand crushing them actually produces good results- you'll be able to break them up into small enough bits that they'll break down into a gravy, but still leave some chunky bits for texture. Crush all your tomatoes, and add the juices from the cans as well. I'm not one to worry about the seeds, you can take the time to clean them if you wish, but personally, I don't find it necessary- especially for a gravy that you're going to cook for most of the day- the seed seem to break down enough that they become unnoticeable in the final product (and we're serving this to family instead of overly opinionated food critics anyway!).

You should have a nice soupy mix of onion, oil, tomato bits, and tomato liquid. Add a little more salt and pepper then heat for a few minutes so it warms up and begins to bubble. You'll want to taste your fledgling gravy now to get a good read on the tomatoes, see if you need more salt and pepper, and mainly see if the tomatoes have enough sweetness- every batch of tomatoes, fresh or otherwise, is a little different so don't think you can skip this part. If they seem a little too tart or acidic the most traditional way to adjust them is to drop in one or two bay leaves. They won't work their magic right away, but over time, they will temper the flavor in the right direction. Some people will even go so far as to add a few pinches of granulated sugar- but I consider this cheating. If you want to add a little wine or a small shot of something flavorful like balsamic vinegar, this is the time to do it- but with meat this fatty and rich, you probably don't need any extra help, so I'm opting out of that this time as well- I want to keep the flavor profile simple, and let the richness of the meat and bone marrow be the main event.

Now that we've made our base, we need to transform it from a tomato sauce into what most old-school Italian-Americans call gravy by adding our seared beef neck chunks. Reduce the heat down to low, and let it simmer for as long as possible- and I mean long! You may be able to get away with a "short" cooking time around two hours- but this meat has a lot of "stuff" that you need to cook out if you want to make the most of it. I started this pot of gravy around 10 or 11 in the morning, and let it go all day until dinner time- about five hours. That may be more than necessary, but you'll like the results. You'll want to stir the gravy every so often, and you'll notice that as time goes on, the sauce will take on a darker color, and eventually bits of the meat will start breaking off the bones- this is exactly what we want. If you think the gravy is getting too thick at any point, add a little water back in, and let it continue to cook down and reduce.

When it starts getting close to dinner time, that's when the action really starts. You'll want to get a pot of salted water on the stove for your pasta, and you'll want to use the 20 minutes or so it will take to come to a boil to good use. Grab a slotted spoon and fish out the bones and any chunks of meat that haven't completely broken up yet. You will probably find that most of the bones will come out clean, but don't be surprised if there are still some clingers left behind, or a few larger chunks of meat floating freely. Pull anything that looks too chunky out. You should be able to easily pull the clingers off the bones, and break up the bigger chunks with a fork. I had a knife ready for this part, but found that the meat was so tender that I didn't need a blade. The bones should have given up all their flavor, so they can go in the garbage. When you've broken up the meat bits to the size you like, you can put them back in the  pot.

Now we will start working on the rest of our seasoning. Take a handful of basil leaves, stems, and flowering parts, break them into manageable pieces, and put them in a small pot. Add a clove or two of chopped garlic, and a few pinches of crushed red pepper flakes. Add some olive oil, and put this pot on low heat- it doesn't need to cook for very long- 10 to 15 minutes is more than enough- once the basil leaves are wilted, you've probably gone lone enough. Set this pot aside and keep it on hand. We'll use it once you start cooking your pasta.

Once your pasta water is boiling, drop in your pasta. This much meat, and two cans of tomato probably makes enough gravy for 2 pounds of pasta (I only made one pound, but I like to freeze the leftover gravy to use again later in the week to make a quick pasta dinner, or to braise a pot roast, or even on pizza). I opted to use penne pasta this time- you are free to choose whatever style suits your taste. While the pasta cooks, grab a strainer and strain your basil oil into the gravy a little bit at a time. After each small pour of oil, stir and taste. When the basil flavor pops out to your liking stop, otherwise add a little more and repeat until you're happy. When the pasta is about halfway to al dente (firm but cooked) the pasta water should be cloudy from all the starch released from the pasta. take a ladle of this pasta water, and add it to the gravy. It will thin the gravy slight at first, but the starch will help re-thicken things, and help the gravy adhere to the pasta- you may want to increase the heat under the gravy a little to help speed this up- because the pasta is almost ready!

Just before the pasta is done, take a few more fresh basil leaves, and give them a rough chop, then add them to the gravy. Yes, we already added a good amount of basil flavor with our oil- but the fresh basil at the end helps give your dish a little color and adds a tiny bit of texture as well. Also drop in a small handful of grated parmesan, then stir. Once this is all melded together, you should have a nice thick gravy with a nice balance of chunky bits and smoothness- and of course have little pieces of meat throughout. The gravy should taste rich and dark, just the way we like it.

As soon as the pasta is cooked to a perfect al dente, take it off the heat and drain it. Do not rinse the pasta with water! This is a bad idea- you'll wash away the starches on the surface that helps the pasta latch onto the starch and the fats we infused into our gravy. While the pasta drains, put a ladle full of so of the gravy in the bottom of the (now empty) pasta pot to act as a base. You should notice that this gravy is fairly rich and thick looking, and has an almost brick-red  color from all the melted down marrow from the neck bones.

Put the drained pasta back in the pot, on top of that first ladle full of gravy, then add another ladle full of gravy on top. Start mixing/tossing the pasta with a wooden spoon, and add more gravy as needed. Traditionalists will want just enough gravy to coat the pasta, and more "americanized" people will want their pasta swimming in it. I prefer to go the more traditional route, since you can always add a little extra gravy to your plate, but you'll have a lot of trouble taking it out if you over-do it. Once you have the pasta sauced to your liking, serve it topped with a little grated parmesan or breadcrumbs -  or even add a little more red pepper on top if you happen to share my Sicilian preference for a surprise random burst of heat in some mouthfuls but not others. That's what I like to call a Sicilian Sense of Food Humor.

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