30 November 2012

Boiled beef?

Did you know that you can cook beef in boiling liquid and not cook it to death? In other words, the beef comes out rare — and it's delicious cooked and served that way.

Does this look like boiled beef to you? Well, it is...

In France, one traditional way of cooking lean beef in simmering water or stock is called « bœuf à la ficelle » — beef on a string. It requires a piece of very lean, tender beef that is rolled and tied with string into a neat round roast. And then the roast is hung by a string so that it cooks in simmering liquid without sinking to the bottom of the cooking pot. The idea is that it doesn't stick to the pot or cook in liquid that is too hot because it's too close to the heat source.

A very lean rolled beef roast, French-style

It's just the amount of time the beef roast stays in the simmering liquid — about 15 minutes per pound of meat for rare — that determines the degree of doneness. Of course.

Here's the beef roast after cooking for 20-minutes and resting for 10 minutes.

Yesterday I made the functional equivalent of bœuf à la ficelle, even though I didn't suspend the beef roast in the cooking liquid using a string. I just put a wire rack in the bottom of a pot of simmering stock so that the beef couldn't touch the hot bottom and cook too fast. The wire rack has feet on it, if you see what I mean.

And this wasn't a bœuf à la ficelle French-style. The broth was highly flavored and Asian-style, with soy sauce, ginger, onions, garlic, and hot red peppers, among other ingredients. I adapted a recipe that I saw a woman named Louise Denisot demonstrate on French Cuisine+ TV.

Here's an ingredient list for the cooking liquid:

1 liter beef broth
2 liters water
25 cl rice wine or sherry
25 cl dark (sweet) soy sauce
25 cl light (salty) soy sauce
1 heaping tablespoon of brown sugar
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 "finger" of fresh ginger
2 onions (or 4 shallots)
6 star anise "fruits"
2 cinnamon sticks
the zest of half an orange
3 dried hot red peppers

Cook all those ingredients together in a big pot for at least 30 minutes or as long as two hours, to make sure all the flavors blend. I have left the liquid measures in metric sizes — a liter is a quart, and 25 cl is a cup, so you end up with nearly 4 quarts (3.75 liters) of cooking liquid. All the quantities are approximate and adaptable to your taste.

Bœuf à la ficelle (sort of) with Asian spices and sauces

The important thing is to drop the lean beef roast into the simmering liquid and let it cook for 15 minutes a pound if you want it fairly rare. The roast I had weighed 650 grams, or about 1½ lbs. It cooked for 20 minutes, and then rested under aluminum foil and a kitchen towel for 10 minutes before I sliced and served it.

Stir-fried Swiss chard with soba noodles

If you over-cook this kind of extra lean beef from grass-fed cattle, it will get tough. So be careful. We made stir-fried Swiss chard and soba noodles as a side dish. Cook the noodles in boiling water, stir-fry the chard, combine them, and just flavor them with some of the liquid the beef cooked in. Serve sesame oil, soy sauce, and other condiments at the table.


  1. Now, that looks lovely! And you've got the basis for a number of soups from the leftover liquid.

    The British "Boiled Beef & Carrots" uses a good layer of chopped onion and whole carrots to keep the beef off the bottom... in the same way as a pot-roast.... but as you say, with the whole joint immersed. When the carrots are cooked, the beef is done.
    Please note the carrots must be the huge Autumn King type... not twiddly-little finger carrots!
    Then, while the beef is resting in a warm oven, sling in the sprouts, spuds, etc. and when they are done... dish it out. My mother used silver-side, normally the driest of meats... but it used to look like your photos and taste wonderful! And the soup the next day was good too... just the broth, with a few bits of chopped carrot, a few slivers of left-over beef and topped with a slice of Cheddar cheese on toast... yum!

  2. That beef you are talking about certainly doesn't come out of the pot rare. It's braised beef or pot roast. Pot au feu, daube de bœeuf, or bœuf mode, for example, in French. That's entirely different from what I am describing.

  3. No Ken, the way my mother did it was the way you describe... in a pot on the hob... the carrots were virtually cooked, but firm, at the point she removed the beef... and it was not a pot roast... the sprouts, sliced spuds, wedges of white cabbage were cooked in a further 10 to 15 mins.
    She would slice the meat thick and it was rare... she didn't not dare cook rare beef... my father would have exploded with anger.
    I've done it myself in the past with lumps of chuck [the cut under the silverside].
    My first mother-in-law used to do silverside as a pot roast in the oven every Christmas... and that was almost inedible... my thenwife used to liken it to shoe leather... I would use the term roof shingles, personally. The only saviour was that my first father-in-law was able to carve wafer-thin "edible" slices that teeth could almost get through... and the gravy helped lubricate it for swallowing.
    Thank the Lord it was ONLY at Christmas...

  4. Is the beef tender? What sort of roast is that? I may give this a try soon since I have half of an eye of round in the freezer right now.

  5. I meant to type "dare cook other than rare beef" but my fingers are slower than my brain and the thought process was further ahead... my father would have liked his beef at home like he had steak in restaurants... shown a flame, but not too close! My mother always put something tall between herself and his plate!

    The beef always seemed tender to me, but my mother knew her meat... and the butcher that she used was a butcher/grazier... so the meat was raised and sold by him [from a high-street shop, not a farm shop]. The only caveat is that "me teef" were better in those days!!

    I had the fortune to use a butcher/grazier when I had a house in Scotland... I asked how long the meat had been hung for and the reply was "It depends on the beastie." Further questioning let me know that that was not less than 14 days for a young animal to 30 or more for an old beast... so the tenderness depended on the hanging time of the slaughtered animal. And their meat was very good... as was the meat from the "Highland Cow" man on Leeds farmers market and who regularly won gold medals for his shaggy Highland cattle at the Yorkshire Show.
    Again, he was someone selling their own meat. That said, the meat we've bought over here from the supermarkets has tended to be very good... unless the label says "laitiére"... in which case the term "Rawhide" needs to be yelled and the meat be given a very long, slow cook.
    Also the butcher in Grand Pressigny is excellent anyway, so a joint like yours we'd most likely buy from him... least waste!

    Chuck was a cut from the "Highland Cow" man and he described it as the next cut up the hind leg, towards the rump, from the silverside. It is also, I think, called topside. Another cut I've used from him is clod [similar, but from the front quarter.]
    Looking them up in Prue Leith's "The Cook's Handbook" the topside equates to the area eye of round comes from... although she has roast for eye and boil or braise for topside... but there is only the arm steak [clod in English] on the American cuts that is marked as boil.
    NB: She shows "Chuck" as coming from the front quarter, just behind the clod and before the rib cuts... and is also a boiling meat.

    There is only paleron cut from the clod area in France and rumsteck is shown as being both from both silverside and topside areas... whereas rump steak is shown as the very top of the rumsteck and all the aiguillette areas.

  6. Goodness, Tim, I think I've found a subject you are interested in! I misunderstood what you meant when you said the beef was cooked when the carrots were done, since often it takes two hours or more to cook carrots to the tender stage.

    Evelyn, the beef roast I bought was called tende de tranche but I have no idea what that would be in the U.S. Tender loin or beef filet would be good. I'm out of touch with U.S. cuts of beef, I'm sorry (!) to say.

    Tim, English beef cuts are very different from American cuts, in name as well as in character. French are different still, so it's hard to compare different cuts. I like rumsteack and entrecôte and faux-filet in France.

  7. Evelyn, I just saw on a forum that tende de tranche is top round in the U.S. Is that that same thing as eye of round?

  8. Ken, everyday you are an inspiration!"Le boeuf a la ficelle" looks so tender and delicious!
    I bought a new cooking book : "Jerusalem" by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I love middle eastern food. Actually I love all kind of food.

  9. Yes Ken, aren't the cuts different.. Prue's book has a double page spread for each type of beast...
    English, French, the accompanying text for all three and then American.
    At the top of each nationality column stands the beast... with the cuts marked out and numbered.
    Underneath that are the named illustrations of different cuts as found, or prepared if tied, etc.
    The illustrations are numbered as to the position on the beast that they originate.
    I photocopied the English/French side of the spread for Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb and reduced them to A5 and laminated them... we used to take them around with us to compare the named French cut with what we knew.

    And yes, I am interested in meat... as well as veg, fruit, beers, archeology, natural history, architecture, trees, wood, books, wines, whisky, whiskey, wine making, brewing, 2CVs, classic cars, music.... etc., etc.,.... not necessarily in that order of priority.

  10. For a round roast-that is amazingly lean, Ken. Perhaps I haven't had the opportunity to go into really well-stocked meat departments-but I have never seen such a lean roast. The french are proud of their food choices.

    This is another recipe I must try. Just last night my gym partner said her french husband was preparing a dish with sauteed kale, onions, garlic and mushrooms with olive oil and soy sauce! That sweet/sour taste seems right for me tonight. Merci, encore.

  11. It looks sooooo good with the noodles!


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