The Opera of Bartholomeo Scappi
Recipe 11, book II
It took a few tries to get this one right. It didn’t so much fight me as surprise me, as it’s supposed to be simple braised meat. However, there are a number of small details which can lead to or detract from success.
First off, it calls for a lean loin of beef, as well as some fat and backbones. I did not find a short cut for this. Chuck did not work, cubes did not work. A lean bit of loin, some diced beef fat, and a couple of bits on the bone worked well enough, but even wrapped in fat, it did dry out. It did not get gristly, and was a bit chewy. For our own use, we intend to stick with short ribs or a similar braising cut. Select your cut of meat carefully.
The second concern was proportion of liquids and spices. Trying to balance them as a group did not work well, and being cautious was frankly a bad idea. Referring to my experiences making sauerbraten, I went bold. Once I went with liquid measures of 1 lbs meat, 1c liquid, 1T salt, it all got better.
Then on to the spices and liquids themselves. I had to consider the type of white vinegar to use, suss out whether historical Malmsey happened to be similar to what we have in the cabinet, and how to get rose vinegar.
I went with a white wine vinegar, and to make an ersatz rose vinegar, I added a small amount of rose water to more of the same white wine vinegar. It’s past the season in which I could make some, though next year when the roses bloom I will make a point to do so (be aware of your rose sources! Mine are not sprayed, and are a strain known to have been grown historically. You may be able to get cooking roses at an Indian market).
For the malmsey, I used what I have, which is a rather sweet dessert madiera.
In order to balance the proportions of sweet wines to sharp vinegars, I used equal parts and blended the liquids separately, until I was satisfied that I had a flavorful proportion.
The next hurdle was named “fennel flour” in my English translation. I was curious. Fennel pollen? Fennel seed? Powdered fronds? What part of fennel contributes the flour? It was exciting to consider that such a trendy, modern ingredient as fennel pollen could be represented in this book, but my research led me in a completely other direction.
According to the herbals I consulted, it seems that fennel flour may be another nomen ascribed to nigella sativa, which I have in my spice rack as kalonji seed. It’s the oniony peppery seeds on top of rye bread when seeded rye does not have caraway, and appears in some grocery brands of naan.
Now that I had everything in place, it was time to cook!
Unfortunately, there was another ingredient I did not account for. The cookpot itself had a lot to do with the success or failure of this dish
First, I made it in a dutch oven. There was too much space, not enough liquid, and the meat dried out.
In a crockpot, the bits on top also dried out, for the same reason; the pot was not self-basting. Next time, I will put some parchment paper directly on the surface to prevent this.
Finally, I switched to a tagine; a self-basting braiser. At long last, we had a dish worth sharing with you.
Please enjoy Braised Beef, Scappi Style!
2 lbs of beef loin, excess fat removed and reserved ( get something marbled, or it will be tough and dry)
2 ounces (plus or minus) of minced beef fat (trimmed from above)
1 lb beef neck or backbones, cubed, not trimmed of fat.
(or three pounds of short ribs or shanks)
½ c red wine
½ c white wine vinegar
1 TBS salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp coriander (seed) OR “fennel flour”, nigella sativa seed.
½ c “Greek Wine” or malmsey (dessert wine )
¼ c mustum (raisin flavored grape syrup used as a sweetener, sold at Italian and gourmet markets as Vin Cotto)
¼ c rose vinegar (2 tsp rose water to ¼ c white wine vinegar. Adjust by your own nose)
4 oz minced fresh pork fat
6 slice prosciutto (use a butchers’ end if you can get one, it’s for flavor not décor)
3 oz dried sour cherries
2 oz dried prunes, quartered.
Blend the whole spices, whizzing them in a spice grinder and set aside.
Blend the liquid ingredients using the measures above, and put them aside in a container. It will smell earthy, darkly sweet, and a little sharp.
Trim the beef of excess fat, cut meat into single portions of about 5-6 ounces.
Cut the beef fat.
Cut the pork and fat, reserve.
Place the beef, beef bones, and beef fat into the pot, then spice the meat with about 2/3 of the ground spices. Toss so it is reasonably well distributed.
Put a weighted bowl on top, and allow the meat to sit at cool room temperature for several hours to marinate. (Modern solution: zip bag and a good squeeze)
After the marination, put the meat neatly in the pot if it is not yet there, then add the pork fat, and lay the prosciutto carefully over the serving portions of beef to help baste them.
If the meat seems to call for it, add more of the spice blend.
Check liquid levels, be certain the pot will neither boil over nor dry out. You can either add proportionally more of the liquids, or keep an eye on the pot and add water if the levels deplete enough to concern.
Place the pot in a 300* oven, and let it cook for an hour.
Put the dried fruit in, make sure it is all submerged. Baste while you have the lid off.
Lower the temperature to 225.
Two hours later, remove the vessel from the oven, and permit it to cool to serving temperature.
The flavor is assertive, lively, and exciting. It’s not a boring quiet little dish in any way; it’s peppery, bright, and deep. Not too sweet from the mustum and the malmsey, not too sharp from the double dose of vinegar, and not too tannic from the wine, we both had to fight to stop going back for more broth.
There was not a whole lot of floating fat, which was a concern. It was just enough to protect the meat.
We loved it. It’s been requested as a regular.
I had some left over spice mix. which I braised some brussels sprouts in. They were also delightful.