insalata di carne – beef salad

Just saying the words “beef salad” makes me feel better about the world, or at least better about salad. When I was a kid, the Sunday evening salad was possibly the meal that depressed me most. Sunday afternoon was depressing enough anyway, but finishing it off with limp lettuce, ice-cold flavour-free tomatoes and salad cream struck me as adding insult to injury, like having Vogon poetry read to you before being flung out of a moving spaceship. Salad cream, since we’re on the subject, is vile stuff, whose appeal I will never understand. What did mayonnaise ever do to deserve sugar, extra vinegar and a pourable consistency? You may have noticed that Big Mac sauce tastes like salad cream, which is of course another reason to treat it with the deep contempt it merits. About once a decade, I give the BM another chance, but immediately regret it. Big Macs do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, we are straying from the point. Salad. Food yes, technically speaking, but never really a satisfying meal unless pork pie with mustard made an appearance. Or, and this brings us to today’s dish, cold meat (gammon or beef for preference), and some good pungent horseradish.

Just as salad is technically food, today’s offering is technically salad, but only in the same way that vintage Champagne is fizzy grape juice. It’s a salad that will not make you feel like you’re in a Ryvita advert. It is, in short, a salad with attitude. It was also just what my carnivorous kids had been clamouring for. They were well beyond the mere whingeing phase, the cries of “not fish agaaaaain??!!”, and had begun eyeing the dog as if they were using a mental tape measure (“Reckon Ginger will fit in the oven, George?”). The gleam in their eye would have earned an appreciative nod from Hannibal Lecter.

This is not a dish that relies on delicate balance, but on a few distinct flavours and contrasting textures. So play around with quantities, proportions and optional extras to suit your personal tastes. Not everyone likes raw onions, for example, but try and get hold of the beautifully mild red ones from Tropea. I prefer this salad in its stripped down form, to show off the meat to the fore (if I was doing this for myself I would probably just eat the meat on its own, maybe munching on a tomato on the side to ward off feelings of guilt. Maybe). But of course, there are other things you can add. Some may like a touch of acidity in the form of lemon juice or vinegar. Just please, and I ask you this as a personal favour, do not reach for the balsamic. It shows exceptional manners with bitter greens such as rocket and radicchio, and just about acceptable behaviour with strawberries or tuna carpaccio, but tends to turn into an overpowering thug with anything else. Despite this, it has become so ubiquitous that I half expect to find myself standing at the bar next time I come back to England and hearing “Pint of Modena’s best riserva please, and a small cherry balsamic glaze for the lady wife”.

The beef, by the way, should not be too lean. You don’t want meat with thick swathes of fat, but you do want lots of intramuscular fat, i.e. marbling, which will keep your meat tender once it’s cooled down. Ask your butcher for the most appropriate cut. If it’s any help, I used a boneless cut from the hind leg. And talking of tender, this salad is best made at most a couple of hours before eating, since the beef should be left at room temperature. Once it has cooled down too much – or worse, has been refrigerated –, it tends to tighten up.

Serves 4:

  • 1kg stewing beef, cut into large pieces
  • 2 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, sliced into segments
  • 1 small mild red onion, halved crossways and then sliced into slivers lengthways
  • 2 sticks of celery, sliced
  • Half a head of crisp lettuce, such as cos, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Optional extras:

  • Lemon juice or red wine vinegar, to taste
  • Chopped parsley
  • Handful of salted capers, well rinsed
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the beef to the pan and cook covered at a low simmer until the beef is really tender (somewhere between 70 and 90 minutes should be ample). Take off the heat and leave the meat to cool slowly in the stock in the pan. This will keep it moist and tender. After about half an hour remove from the pan and when it is cool enough to handle, break it up into small pieces with your hands or using a couple of forks. Place in a bowl and dress generously with salt, pepper and olive oil.
  2. Mix the other salad ingredients, and spread over a large serving dish. Season lightly (or not at all if you prefer), with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. This is when to add the lemon juice or vinegar, if using.
  3. Scatter the beef over the salad and serve. Crusty rustic bread on the side, of course.

A light red wine, served slightly chilled, such as a Sicilian Frappato, with its summery raspberry notes, would be a perfect pairing. But then again, so would a pint of bitter. But not of balsamic.

P.S. Turns out that salad cream was invented in an attempt to create a cheap mayonnaise substitute during wartime rationing. I rest my case.

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