One’s kitchen productions are often described as “delicious,” “unusual,” even, occasionally, “better in concept.” However, I have never had a carefully prepared dish described as looking like something out of an Egyptian tomb. But that was the case with my attempt at collared beef, an English recipe featured in the 17th-century cookery book The Queen’s Closet. Actually, my husband said, as I removed the beef from the stove, halfway through the cooking instructions, “That looks like something out of a canopic jar.” Which was, admittedly, deflating, even though I knew precisely what he meant.
A recipe for potting meat and preserving it to some degree, the collared beef turned out to be really quite tasty, despite its unprepossessing looks. Simply put, it is a thin piece of flank steak, tightly rolled up, wrapped in cheesecloth, tied tightly, and simmered for hours in a broth of water infused with fragrant spices. After this, the meat, encased in its cheesecloth shroud, is removed from its bath and transferred to the refrigerator, where it is pressed with a heavy weight until it compresses and chills. (I placed an old cast-iron pot, filled with water, on top of it.)
Seemingly collared beef was all the rage way back when, and was, a writer observed, a “peculiarly English method of potting a cut of meat.” As the cookery book The Delectable Past notes, traditionally, collared meats (pork, beef, venison, boar, fish, rabbit, whatever) were pickled in brine doused with saltpetre, which reportedly gave the meat a delectable reddish tint when cooked.
Given how easy it is to make, and because of its curiosity factor, collared beef might want a 21st-century revival. “It was cold and good, and the horseradish sauce was terrific,” my husband observed. (It was simply Hellmann’s mayonnaise combined with liberal amounts of bottled horseradish.) Even our spice-averse daughter agreed. Once her plate was clean, she said, “Oh, please make that again. Collared beef is delicious.”
SOURCE: The Queen’s Closet Opened (1655), as adapted in The Delectable Past by Esther B. Aresty (Simon and Schuster, 1964)
3-to-4 pound flank steak
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
1/4 teaspoon each: thyme, peppercorns, powdered sage
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic (optional and only added for last hour of cooking)
Cut away all gristle and unwanted fat from the flank steak, sprinkle with salt and pepper, roll up tightly and tie with twine at each end and in the middle. Then wrap in 1 thickness of cheesecloth (this will keep the outside of the meat moist). Place in a stewing pot, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and remove all scum. Add the spices and herbs and allow to simmer 3 to 4 hours. Add garlic and 1-1/2 teaspoon salt for last hour of cooking.
Collared beef is delicious served cold. Hot, or cold, it should always be sliced fairly thin. (It may be pressed for several hours with a heavy weight before being sliced.) Served hot, it may be accompanied with carrots sprinkled with dill, and accompanied by scalloped potatoes. Since it is not a “gravy meat,” a dill or horseradish sauce goes nicely with it.