I don't exaggerate when I say that I can count on one hand the number of times I have cooked beef. I've made a couple of beef stews; a gorgeous warming one with ale, carrots and onions on bonfire night a few years ago, which was the perfect antidote to standing around in the freezing cold to watch the pretty lights in the sky; this rather delicious tomato and pepper stew enriched with cinnamon and stirred into pasta ribbons; and a couple of weeks ago I made an improvised beef goulash for eighteen hungry Navy people. Tender cubes of lean stewing beef, in a rich tomato sauce with strips of red and green peppers, lashings of paprika and cayenne pepper, and dumplings. It was unexpectedly delicious, and inspired me to experiment a bit more with the humble cow. I don't know why I hardly ever cook beef; I think it's because it's a meat that you can't really experiment with, and by that I mean pair it with fruit. Anyone who's ever been cooked for by me will know that I adore the combination of fruit and meat, which is why I usually cook with lamb or pork. Beef doesn't really lend itself to such weird and wonderful combinations, so I usually assume it's 'boring' and steer clear.
However, having caught the beef 'bug' from the delicious goulash and a little bit of my boyfriend's roast at the pub the other day, I decided to give beef another go. Luckily, fate seemed to be on my side, as the butcher had an enormous piece of topside on offer. It was gigantic, over two feet long, weighing over three kilos, and a bit of a bargain. I struggled home with it and then had a think about recipes. Initially I had the idea of serving it very rare, thinly sliced, with truffle oil, parmesan and rocket, rather like the classic Italian beef tagliata. I was going to bake bread to accompany it, but eventually I couldn't be bothered and therefore the need arose for more carbohydrate. I was intent on using truffle oil somewhere in the dish, ever since I had an incredible starter of wild boar ham drizzled with the stuff in Italy in April. It goes very well with beef, I think - beef and mushrooms are a great combination, and truffle oil is just taking it one step (well, several steps) closer to gastronomic luxury; the earthiness of the truffles have a great affinity with the earthy, iron-rich flavour of good beef. Firmly set on an Italian interpretation, I decided to make some wet polenta infused with truffle oil, imagining that its richness and slightly grainy texture would match the tender meat perfectly.
I suppose the obvious thing to do with the topside would have been roast beef with all the usual trimmings, but we're nearing June now and the weather is (or was, at least) just too summery to start whipping up Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and thick, dark gravy. For that reason, I decided that some simple summer vegetables would be the perfect accompaniment; their flavour would bring freshness to the dish and their flavour wouldn't overpower the truffley aromas emanating from the polenta, or the richness of the beef. Tagliata and carpaccio usually pair very rare or even raw slices of beef (usually fillet) with a rocket salad; I decided to serve the meat with a peppery combination of rocket, watercress and spinach, to complement its deep flavours.
I roasted the topside on a bed of onions, sprinkled with a few thyme sprigs and some seasoning. It barely fit in my oven dish due to its enormous size, and there was something immensely satisfying about just sticking a huge piece of meat in the oven and forgetting about it, without having to slave over the hob for hours. The beef I just seasoned with coarse sea salt, black pepper and olive oil, rubbed into the skin. I read somewhere that patting the skin with flour helps it crisp up during cooking; it worked like a charm, resulting in the most incredibly delicious crunchy texture around the outside of the meat, with delicious little nuggets of sea salt. The best bit of all, though, was the 'gravy'. I didn't actually make gravy, just serving the beef with the roasting juices. All the fat rendered down from the meat into the onions in the roasting tin, turning them caramelised, sweet and tender. Spooned over the sliced beef they were absolutely incredible.
The only slight issue I had was with the cooking of the meat. I don't know what happened - I timed it perfectly to result in rare meat, and it came out closer to medium. I guess my oven just runs hotter than it should, because I left the beef in for really the shortest time possible. I love rare meat and wanted it still bloody in the middle, but instead it was just pink. I was assured it was delicious, but to this day I am still very grumpy about this mishap and intend to order a meat thermometer as soon as possible to avoid future incidents. I suppose generally people don't share my love of meat that is practically still breathing, so cooking it to this stage is probably more socially acceptable.
This is a fairly simple roast dinner, and a perfect way of bringing traditional roast beef into summer. If you're not taking on the mad task of making a roast for nine people, you could use a smaller piece of topside or another roasting joint - fillet would work well too, if you can afford it. Thin slices of pink beef topside, summer vegetables (carrots, asparagus, peas and green beans) dressed with a little garlic oil, a creamy mound of rich polenta drizzled with truffle oil, and a watercress and rocket salad. The finishing touch - a spoonful of meltingly sweet onions and roasting juices. It has all the satisfaction of a Sunday lunch, but feels slightly healthier and much more appropriate for summer weather. The earthy truffle polenta works perfectly with the meat and onions, and the sweet, crunchy vegetables and salad provide a nice freshness. Delicious.
Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables (serves 10):
3 kg beef topside joint, ready for roasting
5 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
A few sprigs of thyme
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
3 tbsp flour
500g quick-cook polenta
Salt and black pepper
50g grated parmesan
Vegetables, to serve (I used asparagus, green beans, peas and carrots)
Rocket and watercress, to serve
Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go.
First, prepare the beef. Sprinkle the onions into a large roasting tin, add the garlic and thyme, and season. Rub the olive oil, sea salt and pepper into the beef and place it on top of the onions. Pat the skin with the flour. Put the beef in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 170C and roast for half an hour per kilo - this should give you rare/medium-rare meat, but if you like it very rare try 20 minutes per kilo - you can always put it back in, and remember it continues to cook while resting.
When the time is up, remove the beef to a board and cover with foil and a tea towel. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
To make the polenta (do this just before serving), bring 2 litres of water to the boil. Add a little chicken stock cube for extra flavour, if you like. Gradually pour in the polenta, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Stir in a generous amount of seasoning, and the parmesan. Spoon big mounds of it onto the plates and drizzle generously with truffle oil. Top with several slices of beef, drizzle with more truffle oil, and spoon over some roasting juices and caramelised onions.
Serve with your choice of vegetables, dressed with a little garlic-infused olive oil, or butter and salt, and a pile of rocket and watercress salad.