The Case for Suet

Come October, after attending Sunday mass and returning home in the late afternoon from one of Dad’s excursions, we’d spread out into our own worlds to watch football, pretend to do homework or sulk in our rooms while the scent of roasting herb-encrusted beef slowly saturated the air.

Sunday’s dinner: Roast beef and potatoes.

Tuesday’s dinner: Leftover beef sliced thin and simmered in gravy, accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes, the top pressed with a deep well to hold butter and more gravy.

Thursday’s dinner: Remaining beef finely chopped and mixed with whatever kind of cooked potatoes were saved from the week all bound together by the last of the gravy, then patted into a skillet and cooked until a good brown crust formed a hash.

Erma Rombauer introduced her hash recipe in The Joy of Cooking with, “the Irish cook, praised for her hash, declared: Beef ain’t nothing. Onions ain’t nothing. Seasoning’s nothing. But when I throw myself into my hash, that’s hash!” It’s pretty safe to say Mom learned her series of roast beef recipes from her mother, a genuine Irish cook to a wealthy family in her younger days off the boat. But I find this quote quite annoying (and the grammar insulting) because it doesn’t at all reflect the care both women put into the initial preparations which ensured that Tuesday’s sandwich and Thursday’s hash remained just as delicious as Sunday’s roast.

Their secret was a thick slab of suet, the fat that surrounds the kidneys or cuts of beef that the butcher generally trims off. Mom would ask the butcher for an additional slice and he’d rummage through his trimmings to find a good piece for her. Come Sunday, she draped the pearly white fat over the top of the seasoned meat and then sprinkle it with more seasonings. For the two or so hours the meat roasted, the suet gently melted down the beef and spread over the bottom of the pan that would, in turn, transform the gravy into its own intensely flavorful dish.

The last time I asked for suet the butcher refused. “It’s illegal to sell in New York.”

A law forbidding the use of trans-fat in restaurants had just been instituted and the butcher wasn’t taking any chances by enabling household consumption no matter how his customer dissolved into a mixture of outrage and panic. But he did understand what I needed it for and refrained from trimming additional fat from the roast. I appreciated he was trying to accommodate me but I felt the breath of Mom’s and her mom’s chagrin that I hadn’t caused more of a ruckus.

My suet deprivation lasted for years. It’s possible no one else missed it. Nor did they notice when I resorted to using lard in Yorkshire pudding, meat pie crusts and Christmas desserts. But I quietly mourned how the absence of suet deprived me of the complete memory of a time when everyone in my family gathered around an evening meal, secure in knowing together what the rest of the week held for us.

So it brings joy to my heart and soul that suet has once more become widely available, a state of affairs in which I have to give rare praise to hipsters who are somehow getting away with ignoring that trans-fat ban. Along with their love of pork belly, smoked brisket, hand-cured bacon, barbecued or hand-crafted anything, fancy cupcakes and fried donuts, they’ve embraced suet as a prized ingredient to fool around with in ways the women in my family would find ridiculous but nevertheless appreciate.

This hunk of suet came from our Christmas dinner and presented to me by the first born, the one who a while back saved my blog ass with a recipe for Kansas style baby back ribs. He would want me to add a disclaimer that he is in no way a hipster. He’s merely a good cook who’s been taught that it’s impossible to roast Sunday dinner without a good piece of suet.

Start with the beef

Buy a good cut. For extravagant Sundays that would be a standing rib. For a normal budget week buy an eye roast or chuck, both of which benefit the most from suet which tenderizes them. I bought a 5 pound rib roast at Costco that I cut in half, one to freeze for later and the other for this post. It provided enough to feed a family of 4 and leftovers for the 80 pound dog. It cost $58 which breaks down to $9 for 6 meals.

A Roast Recipe

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season the meat all over with a liberal mixture of garlic and onion powders, thyme, rosemary, oregano, tarragon (if you like the taste), salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan or cast iron skillet and drape the suet over the top. Season that as well. Place in the oven and roast for about 2 hours for medium rare. Take out of the oven, cover with foil or a cloth to rest while you make the gravy. (Save the cooked suet to use later for making other sauces or frying bits of stale bread for croutons or toast points.)

Sue’s Gravy Recipe

Gravy is easy to mess up. Too much flour will rob it of flavor; too little time simmering will make it less luscious. I looked to my sister, Sue, for directions because she is the best gravy maker not only in the family but in my known world. She explains all to you:

Focus. [I added the bold to emphasis Sue’s most important tips. Italics indicate my additions.] After moving the roast to a platter, drain all but about 4 to 5 tablespoons of the good stuff [meaning suet drippings, bits of meat and seasonings] from the pan and place it on the stove. Turn up the heat until it is bubbling. Take a tablespoon or two¬†of flour–Wondra, if it’s still around, works best as a cheater–and work it into the drippings until you get a smooth paste. I use a large metal spoon to make sure you don’t get lumps. Once smooth, slowly add liquid, either water or stock if you have it [commercial brands of stocks have become pretty good. I’ll sometimes add a little red wine if a bottle is open], until you get the consistency [and the amount you will need to last through to Thursday’s hash] you want. Then add a couple shakes of Worcestershire [or, if you prefer, A-1] sauce, open up your spice rack and shake in some onion, garlic, celery powders and salt. Bring to a gentle simmering bubble. Need to stay on it–don’t forget it is there [Sue means drink your cocktail or glass of wine standing beside the stove instead of going off somewhere to relax]. If the liquid evaporates [or the gravy becomes too thick] just add more water slowly until you get it back to where you want.”

Sunday’s Dinner:

Let each diner chose their preferred amount of thinly sliced beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables. They will also want to pour over everything their favorite amount of gravy. Start eating and talking all at once.

Tuesday’s Dinner:

Cut thin slices of beef off the cold roast. Heat the gravy and add the slices. While the meat and gravy heats through, make mashed potatoes (boil potatoes until somewhere near soft, drain, add a huge pat of butter and mash). Arrange meat and potatoes on serving plate then pour gravy all over them. To stretch the amount of leftover beef you have for hash–or desire an additional layer of plain comfort–serve as a hot roast beef sandwich.

Thursday’s Dinner:

Cut the remaining beef into bits (I churn it in a food processor to the point where the meat is in small chunks) and add more seasoning if you wish (some people add grated onion or a couple of dashes of hot sauce). If the beef has dried out a little, mix in a tiny pieces of suet (not a lot, especially if you have a tender stomach or high cholesterol). Scrape the meat mixture into a hot, well-oiled (I use Pam) skillet and spread it evenly out. Cook over a low flame. When a crust forms on the bottom, carefully turn over to cook the other side. If you wish, right before the hash is done, crack a couple of eggs over the top and cook to your favored state. Serve with toast.