This post is brought to you by my iron-deficient blood which periodically makes me crave red meat, like, sit-straight-up-in-bed-practically-slavering-for-an-8-ounce-steak-crave, if you know what I mean. (In German, anemia is also called Blutarmut, which translates to "blood poverty", which always makes me think of my poor little blood walking around with a kerchief on its head, like the Little Match Girl, asking for alms. But I digress!)
I was recently sent a copy of Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. It's a gorgeously photographed collection of recipes gathered from every corner of the sprawling wonder that is Rome. To be specific, as written in the introduction, [Rome's] "peripheral, graffiti-clad neighborhoods, patrician districts, archeological parks, neighborhood bakeries, artisanal gelato shops, dimly lit cocktail bars, chaotic markets, and innovative restaurants." While I hardly need another recipe for spaghetti cacio e pepe or my most beloved of Rome's recipes, rice-stuffed tomatoes, I am always, always, always interested in the other recipes, the ones I didn't grow up with or, even better, have never even heard of before. And on that count, as on many others, Tasting Rome totally delivers.
I love that Katie and Kristina include recipes from the Libyan Jewish community in Rome, like a dish of stewed fish with ample amounts of hot pepper, cumin and caraway, served over couscous, or chicken meatballs seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and pistachios. A book on Rome is of course not complete without recipes for offal and in Tasting Rome, a whole chapter is devoted to chicken gizzards, pork liver and tongue. The cocktails reflect contemporary Rome and its electric nightlife. The recipe for pizza bianca is accompanied by a photograph so fetching that I keep finding it difficult to not stick my hand through the page to get at the pizza.
If you need them, all the classics are covered (vignarola, carbonara, cacio e pepe, supplì and so forth). But the recipe I want to tell you about today is a slightly less exalted one, though no less delicious. Long-simmered beef is shredded and stewed in a spicy, oniony tomato sauce, then served in a soft white bun (move over, meatballs!) or ladled over a piece of nice sourdough bread. It's classic Rome food, really, making leftovers shine in a new and humble way. (Though it's a new one for me - and my mother, incidentally!) When I first saw the recipe, in all its beefy glory, my poor blood and I sat up a little straighter.
The recipe comes from the Mordi e Vai stand in Testaccio Market. You start with a piece of beef shin, but I actually ended up using a piece of brisket, because that's what the butcher had and it was perfect, too. You simmer it with some aromatics for a couple of hours. Alternatively, because this is a dish that is meant to recycle leftover beef, you could simply use leftover brisket or leftover pieces of beef from a previous meal. Either way, the meat must be shredded, and some of the soft carrots that you cooked with the beef, roughly chopped. Then you make a simple tomato sauce, flavored only with onions, marjoram and hot pepper. Once the spicy sauce has thickened, the shredded meat and carrots are stirred into it and simmer together until it's all one big, aromatic stew.
I loved making it from start to finish, salting the beef, the long and gentle simmer, the two-forked shredding, and the light stewing in tomato sauce. This is slow cooking at its best; simple and uncomplicated. And what is more satisfying than turning tough old cuts or sad leftovers into something juicy and irresistible?
If you had (or have!) a grandma whose specialty was brisket, like I did, let me tell you something. This dish tastes like Grandma's brisket died and went to heaven. The sum of the toothsome shredded beef with its soft little pockets of fat and connective tissue simmered into submission, the addictively spicy tomato sauce, and the sweet and tender carrots, not to mention how good the savory juices soaking into a nice piece of soft bread are, is actually more than I'm able to describe.
You can blame that on me being out of practice, I guess. Or blame it on the anemia! It makes me light-headed and a little woozy. I guess I'm just going to have to go make another batch.
Tasting Rome's Carne alla Picchiapò
Adapted from Tasting Rome
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound beef shin or brisket
1 cup dry white wine
10 black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram or 1/2 tablespoon dried
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1. Salt the beef all over and place on a plate. Refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours.
2. Place the beef in a large pot with water to cover. Over low heat, slowly bring the water to a very gentle simmer, skimming off any foam that rises to the top. Once the water simmers, add the wine, carrots, 2 of the onions, whole, the peppercorns and the cloves. Cook at a low simmer until the beef is fork tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Transfer the meat to a plate and shred it with two forks. Coarsely chop the carrots. The rest of the cooking liquid can either be discarded or reduced to a broth, if desired. It should be strained before serving.
3. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Meanwhile, dice the remaining onion. Cook the onion with a pinch of salt in the oil over medium-low heat until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the marjoram and hot pepper, stir a few times, then add the tomatoes. Cook until the sauce has thickened and reduced a bit, about 15 minutes.
4. Add the shredded beef and carrots to the tomato sauce and mix well. Cook for another 15 minutes. Serve immediately as a sandwich filling on soft bread, served over a slice of crusty bread, or as a stand-alone dish.