Boiled beef and dumplings

Fergus Henderson brings a little magic to a British dish that deserves a place in the culinary pantheon.
Boiled beef and dumplingsDean Wilmot
4H 30M

In Asterix in Britain, that great French critique of British culture, food-loving Obélix complains about the boiled offerings of meat in, I think, a rather harsh way. Shame on you, Goscinny and Uderzo! Boiled ham and parsley sauce, boiled mutton and caper sauce, and indeed boiled beef and dumplings are all fantastic dishes, as richly deserving of a place in the culinary pantheon as France’s pot-au-feu and Italy’s bollito misto, with which they share a common bond. Historically, we have brined meat out of necessity to preserve it, but it also helps it retain its moisture, and we have come to love the taste.

One of the most useful things my mother taught me in the kitchen was not to boil meat, but just to give it the gentlest of simmers. Imagine if you were dropped into a pot of boiling water. You would tense up, so why would you do this to your meat? Just picture yourself relaxing in a hot bath – we are meat too!

The beef is brisket, the dumplings are little suet clouds poached in the beef broth, as are carrots, leeks and onions. I can still see my dad’s dreamy look at seeing plated-up poached onions. The extras are wonderful: pickled walnuts and horseradish sauce. If you can manage to get a forkful with a bit of beef, a piece of dumpling, a pickled walnut and some horseradish sauce to boot, a magical moment will take place.

The other thing to remember with this dish is its possibilities the next day: you could make a beef sandwich, or simply serve the beef cold and thinly sliced with green sauce or horseradish sauce. Or you could make a hash. Hash is a very good dish if you are feeling a little dented, and is a fine and useful way of using up the remains of pot-roast brisket and boiled beef and dumplings alike. Another very delicious possibility is to fry off potatoes with some of the poached onions (use red onions if none are left over), some of the cold beef and a splash of the broth, simmer gently for a moment, add a huge handful of chopped parsley and serve. The suet clouds fry up nicely the next day, although they may not be quite so cloud-like.

To make your horseradish sauce, finely grate a peeled 13cm stick of horseradish (this can be quite an emotional experience and may bring tears to your eyes, but is very good for clearing the tubes), sprinkle it with the juice of half a lemon to prevent it discolouring, mix it gently through about 300ml of crème fraîche and season it to taste. It’s ready.

Green sauce is a wonderful thing, and goes with almost every meat (roast, boiled or cold), vegetables and some fish. Parsleys – half a bunch of curly, half a bunch of flat-leaf – are essential. The other herbs – half a bunch of mint, a quarter-bunch of dill, a small showing of tarragon (it has a habit of taking over if added in too large quantities) – are good additions; rejig the parsley if you’re not using any of them. Chop your herbs finely (but not too finely) and mix them with a handful of capers (roughly chopped or left whole if they’re very small) and a small tin of anchovy fillets and 12 peeled cloves of garlic, both finely chopped. Add extra-virgin olive oil to achieve a loose, still spoonable, but not runny or oily consistency. Taste and season with black pepper (the anchovies should negate any need for salt).

You can also use your brine to preserve many other meats – pork belly, pig’s head and ox tongue are just some that are improved by a spell in the brining bucket. Boiled brined pork belly goes beautifully with dour lentils, celebrating the not-quite-meat and not-quite-fat quality of belly, and it also roasts well. Boiled salted ox tongue, meanwhile, is particularly good with roast beetroot and horseradish sauce. Some recommend saltpetre instead of sea salt in the brine; I always feel it’s a little too ferocious, and as a result, I’m aware of it at the eating stage. Happy simmering.


Suet dumplings


1.For brine, bring all the ingredients and 4 litres water to the boil in a large pot over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Decant into a container and allow to cool.
2.Add the beef, making sure it is completely covered by brine; you may need to weight it with a plate. Cover and refrigerate (unless you live somewhere really cold) for 12 days.
3.When you’re ready to cook, rinse the beef well (discard brine) and place it into a large pot (remember, it has to be big enough to accommodate the vegetables as well), cover with water and bring it up to the boil over medium-high heat. Skim scum, add your herb bundle, celery, bay leaves and peppercorns, reduce the heat to low and very gently simmer (there should be barely any sign of movement in the water) for about 4 hours.
4.After the meat has been simmering for 2 hours, put in the onions, after 2½ hours, the carrots, and after 3 hours, the leeks. Keep an eye on your vegetables and make sure they don’t overcook – you can always remove them. However, this is a dish that demands well-cooked vegetables, no al dente here. Prod the beef with a knife to see how it feels; it should be giving but not collapsing. When everything is ready, transfer the vegetables and beef to a serving dish, add a splash of broth to moisten (reserve remainder) and keep warm.
5.Meanwhile, for the suet dumplings, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl then add enough cold water to form quite a sticky dough – 120ml should be enough. Shape the dough into walnut-sized balls and set them aside on a tray lined with baking paper.
6.Bring the broth to a rolling simmer over medium-high heat, add dumplings in batches and cook for 10 minutes. They should look like little suet clouds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper.
7.Serve brisket, dumplings and vegetables with horseradish sauce, green sauce and pickled walnuts.

Suet is available from select butchers. You may need to order it ahead. You’ll need to begin this recipe 12 days ahead if you’d like to brine the beef yourself, and a few more days for the brining process will not do any harm.


Related stories