Going with the grain
Janet Wynne Evans, who retired earlier this year, shares her unrivalled missives on food and wine with members in this guest slot. Here she tells us how to make the most of skirt of beef, known as 'the butcher's cut', and polenta
A Waddington monopoly; father of the bride Alfred, in 1943, flanked by daughter Kay and son Geoffrey
My husband's maternal grandfather Alfred Waddington, a master-butcher, carved roast beef as one who perfectly understood the 'grain' of the meat and how to work with it. Add to this my mother-in-law, Kay's, (and her brother, uncle Geoffrey's) legendary Yorkshire puddings, tall, bronzed and crisp and served as is traditional – before the meat and not alongside it like a flying saucer without a satnav – and it's clear why I don't attempt a beef dinner at Château Evans. I never met Alfred, and though his daughter shared her pudding recipe and even bequeathed her well-tempered tins to me, I will never have that instinct for the perfect consistency of God's Own batter.
Get it right and it makes a sublime grilled steak. Get it wrong and you may well find yourself tucking into Fred Flintstone's drive-in dinosaur rib
Perhaps this is why skirt of beef is known as the 'butcher's cut. It's full of flavour and subtly marbled, but thinnish and flattish in shape and all too easily overcooked, at which point it goes from pleasantly chewy to tough. Get it right and it makes a sublime grilled steak. Get it wrong and you may well find yourself tucking into Fred Flintstone's drive-in dinosaur rib. Until recently, it was something I preferred to order in a restaurant, where the stress could be absorbed by a properly trained chef and a much more sophisticated grill than mine.
However, I had to woman up when I spotted an irresistible chunk of bavette the butcher hadn't purloined and thanks to rather a lot of online guidance it turned out surprisingly well. No marinade, just lots of seasoning and a searing hot char-grill pan for no more than two minutes a side, followed by a good long rest, wrapped in foil to catch the gorgeous juices that escaped from it. The real bonus, of course, was the leftovers, gently reheated in some red wine with a few wild mushrooms. With this much flavour, not much is required to pack as much of a punch as might have been obtained after many hours of cooking.
Bring on the polenta
The protein sorted, I turn to another kind of grain. I had my first taste of polenta many years ago at a bracing mountain retreat in northern Italy. It was unappealingly translated as 'softly grain porridge' and it was accompanied by a dark, deep venison stew, from which its striking golden colour shone through like a sumptuous brocade.
There is no need to be scared of cooking polenta (especially if you've had the better of a bit of skirt) but I was, and for many years. The ratio of liquid to grain seems to vary dramatically from packet to packet and then there's the dilemma, though it isn't much of one, of what kind to buy. For purists who like to knuckle down to proper polenta, this means toning their biceps with a good half-hour punctuated by brisk bursts of gymgrade stirring. Wimps like me head for the instant 'no-cook' (technically precotto) variety which takes about three minutes to thicken and may be done while the steak is resting.
Polenta is one of those magic ingredients that goes on giving once the stirring is over and nerves have calmed. I always make twice what I need and before I tuck into the warm and fluffy half, I pour the rest into a gratin dish brushed with butter or oil. In an hour or so it will have set to a pleasing firmness and may be stored in the fridge for a base for any number of delights – fish, chicken, Mediterranean vegetables or the most stylish ever mushrooms on 'toast'. I have no idea of what Alfred might have made of that, but I like to think the word 'grand' might have featured. From a Yorkshireman, of course, that is praise indeed.
Janet Wynne Evans
Read Janet Wynne Evans' recipe ideas for serving these two great ingredients in two great ways >