North Fork Chef: No place like home as a source of beef

JOHN ROSS PHOTO Russell McCall and several of his Charolais beef cattle at McCall Ranch in Cutchogue.

Most every kind and role of modern victuals have I tried,
Including roasted, fricasseed, broiled, toasted, stewed, and fried,
Your canvasbacks and papa-bottes and mutton-chops subese,
Your patties à la Turkey and your doughnuts à la grease;
I’ve whiled away dyspeptic hours with crabs in marble halls,
And in the lowly cottage I’ve experienced codfish balls;
But I’ve never found a viand that could so allay all grief
And soothe the cockles of the heart as rare roast beef.
excerpt from “Rare Roast Beef”
by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The McCall Ranch in Cutchogue brings a new dimension in local food to the North Fork. Russell McCall and his family own 108 acres of vineyard and farmland on Main Road. Twenty-one acres are planted in pinot noir and merlot grapes and much of the rest is devoted to pasture, alfalfa fields, woods and a small barn/tasting room. Currently there are 26 Charolais beef cattle grazing on this land.

The Charolais breed originated in France, where Russ McCall visited many times when he was an importer of French wines. He noticed that when he dined at famous Guide Michelin restaurants, they always seemed to feature Charolais beef on the menu. This inspired Russ to consider raising these big, white-haired cattle. His herd of Charolais is grass fed, free range and has never been given antibiotics, steroids or hormones. Because the cows are grass fed, the meat is lean with a richer flavor than most beef. It is also higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, and it has more vitamin E, vitamin A and beta-carotene than commercial beef.

Perhaps most importantly, Russell McCall is raising his cattle in a truly organic cycle, with the cattle feeding on pasture grass that is naturally fertilized and hay that is grown for the winter. The production is very small right now, but that will change as calves are born from the existing cattle.

Recently, I had the opportunity to cook a rib-eye roast from one of his steers. The result was a delicious meal full of flavor, with lean meat and an excellent natural sauce. I purchased a five-pound boneless rib-eye that was rolled and tied with butcher twine. I decided to coat it in a salt crust to preserve as much juice as possible in this extra-lean meat. Here is the recipe:

Salt Encrusted Rib-eye of Beef
Bring a rib-eye roast to room temperature and season it with 1 tablespoon butcher grind cracked black pepper. Pour one 3-pound box of kosher salt into a bowl and stir in 1 1/4 cups cold water. Stir the salt solution to form a thick paste. Line a sheet pan with foil and spread about one quarter of the salt solution in a rectangle the same size as the roast and 1/2 inch thick. Place the roast on this rectangle of salt and coat the entire roast with a 1/2-inch layer of salt. It will stick like cement.

Put the roast in a 300-degree oven and cook until the internal temperature reaches 115 degrees on an instant read thermometer (about 1 1/2 hours). Remove and let the roast sit at room temperature for a few minutes. Crack the salt crust with the back of a knife and it will break loose. Brush off all excess salt and throw it away. Turn the oven up to 425 degrees and brush 1 tablespoon butter over the roast. Place the roast back in the oven and let it brown for 15 minutes. It will develop a rich, dark color and the temperature will rise a little to about 125 degrees, or medium rare.
Cover the meat with foil and let it rest before serving. When the roast is very lean, cut thin slices with a sharp knife.

This same method of using coarse salt to hold in the juices can be applied to other cuts. I did a test using a 2 1/2-pound piece of eye of round, a very lean but not very tender cut. I placed 2 pounds of kosher salt in a bowl with 3/4 cup water. I mixed this slurry with a fork and spread a 1/4-inch-thick layer on a foil-lined sheet pan. After placing the beef on the salt, I coated the whole piece with the salt mixture. I then roasted it at 250 degrees for 2 hours. When sliced thin, it came out pretty tender and juicy.

To make it more palatable I sautéed 12 ounces of mushrooms in 2 tablespoons canola oil and added half of a sweet onion, sliced. When the onion became soft, I folded in 1 cup sour cream and 2 tablespoons fresh horseradish. I then sliced the eye of round and cut the slices into thin strips, folding them into the mushroom mixture. The result was a Russian style stroganoff dish that was delicious.
Serves 6.

Sauces and Relishes for Rib-eye

Sauce Espagnole: Chop 1 cup onion, 1/2 cup celery and 1/2 cup carrots to make a mirepoix. Sweat the mirepoix in 3 tablespoons butter until soft. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and raise the heat. Cook until flour begins to brown and stir in 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Continue to cook and whisk in 1/2 cup red wine and 4 cups good quality beef broth. Add 1 bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme along with six cracked peppercorns and simmer for 1 hour. Strain through a mesh sieve and check for seasoning. (A homemade beef stock is far superior to the commercial broth because of its gelatin content and subtle flavor.)

Creamy Horseradish Sauce with Watercress: Purchase a root of horseradish and cut off a 3-inch piece. Peel and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Place the diced horseradish in a food processor along with 1 tablespoon vinegar. Process until smooth and add 1 bunch of watercress with the stems removed. Add 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and process until smooth. Remove to a bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon mayonnaise and 1/2 cup sour cream. Taste for seasoning. Makes 1 cup.

Beet Relish with Horseradish: Trim and peel 2 medium beets. Grate using the large holes of a box grater into a bowl. Trim and grate 3 radishes into the bowl. Stir in 1/2 cup horseradish (as in previous recipe) or use prepared horseradish. Stir in 1 tablespoon red vinegar and 2 tablespoons canola oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Serve as is or purée in food processor if desired. Makes 1 cup.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].