Cherry, Let’s Bounce

Cherry season is nearly upon us, and although the Northwest is primarily known for the harvests of sweet Bings and Rainiers, we all know what to do with those: eat them. They make terrible pies and bland jam. They just can’t be cooked. The only uses I have for sweet cherries besides eating out of hand is fermentation (see Double Mountain’s delicious, but now outrageously expensive, krieks), pickling (in vinegar, sugar, and spice—to serve with charcuterie) and, too a much lesser extent, preserving in booze (to get drunk on, out of hand, in the depths of a moldering winter). Sour cherries though, I got an idea for those.

You’ve heard of cherry bounce, that often wretchedly sweet blend of eating cherries and brandy or bourbon. Well, that’s just some slop people call cherry bounce in the amnesiac age, where disruption is indisputably virtuous, and hacking means you’re doing it right. Well, we got neither patience nor palate for that mess. We’re going to make cherry bounce the right way, the old school way, the Sheila Hibben way.

Sheila is kind of my hero of depression-era food writing. Even back then, she could see that American gastronomy was being hijacked by the technological gee-whiz of the industrial revolution and she, like me, had no misgivings about letting people have the tongue lashing they so richly deserve: “refrigeration and good canning mean progress, but before now, in many fields, progress has upset the apple-cart of permanent and enduring standards.” Boom! How’s that disruption taste now, Rob Rheinhart, Mark Post, Frederic Tudor? Not as good as this is going to be…

Bella Organics on Sauvie Island, that riot of Ray Bans, BOB strollers, and microbrews has a secret stand of sour cherry trees that they don’t even know about. You have to climb up into these perilously tall trees with a fruit picker’s ladder, and drop the cherries down into the bucket below, because you’re going to be too busy fighting your way through the cherry branches to get to the cherries hidden inside to deal with a damn bucket. Get a lot, since this is the lowest tech, most primitive and simple preservation method you’ve yet heard of. You could probably slip a microchip in the process somewhere to make it “smart,” but that would be dumb.

sour cherries bounce

Watch your eyes!

Fill a gallon jar with the stemmed but whole sour cherries and pour a fifth of rye whiskey over the top. Put something over the fruit to weight it down. Let it sit for three months or until you get to it again. Dead simple.

Sheila wants you to pour off the booze (and reserve it, of course), mash the cherries, and take care to break some of the pits. This is important. When broken, cherry pits release benzaldehyde, a cyanide precursor, and a little cyanide. This benzaldehyde is the flavor of almond extract. I normally despise this flavor, but here it’s subtle, and goes nice with the cherries. Then she wants us to strain it all through a flannel bag. Old school flannel bag. Here’s where I use a modern convenience that I hope Sheila would be okay with: the food processor. My weak little 21st century arms find all this crushing and squeezing too taxing. I just want to sink down into the smart sofa with a tablet device and pretend to be doing something super primitive and manly like building fortifications or engaging in armed combat

So after we lug that heavy anachronism of a kitchen tool (food processor? Ugh, so not modern) back into the cabinet, we pour the slurry into a conical strainer and pound it through with a pestle or rolling pin or something. Alternatively, you could probably find an old flannel from the ’90’s and squeeze it through that, don’t mind the fake blood stain from your last GWAR show, or the scent of marijuana and Manic Panic. You could also just line a wire strainer with a couple layers of cheesecloth, pour the cherry slurry in, and let it drip through into a bowl overnight. To summarize: extract the liquid from the solids. Then mix the booze back in to the juice.

Sheila wants us to sweeten the booze with “1/2 pound of sugar” “for every quart” of booze. Although I, more than most, appreciate a grandmotherly hand with the sugar, here again we part ways. Make a simple syrup (with as little water as you can get away with) and sweeten the bounce to taste. To my taste, it should resemble a dry cherry lemonade, so maybe half as much sugar as Sheila wants. If you’ve done it right to this point—tricky considering that you’ve had only this block of text rather than a video or an app to guide you through the process—you’re going to want to drink it all right now to shut out the dystopian scenario that your home has become. Don’t do that. Put it in bottles, cork it, and let it sit in the basement for a few more months. Better yet, let it sit a few years until the robots come to take your job away. You can take it with you when the robot sheriff comes on behalf of Bryncorps Financial to evict you from your home, and drink it on the banks of the Sandy River, since that’s the only place the new gentry (the robotic robot designers, programmers, and engineers) will allow homeless humans to stay without fear of being sentenced to hard labor in the scrapyards

cherry bounce in the glass

Robots cannot appreciate this stuff.

While sitting there in the fading light of a perpetually smoggy day at the edge of a garbage-strewn, fluorescent orange river (robots have no need for environmental protections), you’ll have plenty of time to appreciate the ruby hue of the cherry bounce, while relaxing under the shelter of a beat-up old Arcteryx hardshell held up by a couple of ski poles; the color of a ruby port. The slightly oxidized aroma and fore-palate should remind you of that bygone era (right now) when dry sherries were all the rage. Finishing off a small glass will feel as refreshing as a lemonade did, back in the days when lemons were plentiful because the subtropics still had plenty of water, and agriculture was still an anthropocentric enterprise. That was before the robots turned vast tracts of arable land into canola and soybeans for biofuels and industrial lubricants, and forced humans to survive on algae and cicada gruel, with the occasional dollop of vegetable butter. Efficiencies.

The Roast Beef Roast

If you frequently hunger for roast beef sandwiches, you need to read this. If you cut meat behind a full-service meat counter, you probably also need to read this.

I adore a good roast beef sandwich. One with horseradish and mayo and lettuce and pickled beets, or sliced tomatoes, or hard-boiled eggs, shaved fennel, and pickled onions. But procuring the meat to make such a sandwich is way harder than it should be. I stand at the meat counter and shuffle my feet with indecision, hem and haw, wonder if I could just step back there for a brief minute, make a few deft gestures at the subprimal, and guide him through the process. But no. I just order, and wait, and hope for the best, and almost invariably end up disappointed. This last attempt was the very last straw. I am going to unleash the full power of the internet and Sketchbook to try to make sure that this never happens to me again. A three pound roast isn’t the same as just three pounds of meat. If that were the case, we would just let very primitive machines, built by a collaboration of General Motors and Microsoft, do all the work.

A dry-roasted round needs to be relatively free of major veins of connective tissue, needs to be tied well, and it needs to have the grain running the length. That last is the essential, elusive quality of any great roast because when the cook, the consumer, the customer upon which this entire retail paradigm depends, goes to slice the meat they need to have a fighting chance of getting it right.

Here’s how they’re not going to get it right:

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

That is a London Broil, possibly the worst cut of meat in the case. It’s actually a hate crime against cows. At least it will be when I’m called upon to fill the Attorney General position for the (Barney) Frank administration. It’s bad because it gives top round a bad name, while allowing supermarkets to move massive quantities of this unpopular cut. I imagine the reasoning is that the London Broil, being an enormous steak, appeals to the barbecue bro crowd. Roasts are stodgy.

This also isn’t going to cut it:

how-to-cook-a-top-round

I can’t even play like that, mail-order meat purveyor.

Especially not with your boner, mail-order butcher! The face of that looks like a craggy geological feature.

Uneven face aside, the main problem here is that the cut is diagonal to the grain, rather than directly perpendicular. Here’s what I would show him if I came behind the counter at the massive warehouse where he works in an enormous refrigerated room in Pittsburg:

How-to-cut-a-top-round.

This is your first lesson.

The curved line pointing down runs the direction of the grain. That’s where, if you want to make a roast, you should bisect it. The straight line that cuts across the perpendicular is the direction to run the knife. Preferably a bigger knife than that one.

Now, let’s look at another hideous example of roast-hate:

Another-bad-top-round-roast

Dont panic, its organic!

I’m not really sure why you would use this image to advertise your organic beef—it’s a terrifying frankenroast. First, it’s got two separate flaps of meat. With a roast, this isn’t what you want. So just leave that nasty old thing at the club. Not only is the grain running wrong, it’s running wrong on both pieces of meat, in two separate directions.

evil-hipster-roast

I gave it an evil hipster mustache.

See, to cut your cooked roast across the grain, you’ll need to start at an angle perpendicular to this line I’ve drawn. Does the average consumer know this? No, they do not. So it’s up to the meat purveyor to cut the roast so that it can be intuitively sliced against the grain. Most people look at a roast and they think, I should slice that across the short way. And they are absolutely right. It’s easier to slice it across the short width, and one isn’t left with a gigantic chunk that just flops over on the cutting board when you get halfway through it. Furthermore, as any roast beef aficionado can tell you, you need to slice it thinly, for maximum tenderness, and into reasonably-sized slices, to fit it onto the bread. Top round, as the bros-and-hoes-barbecue crowd can probably attest, ain’t the tenderest cut under less-than-perfect conditions. This is because there’s a lot of very thin connective tissue that… well let me show you:

muscle-fiber-anatomy-tender

I love learning with you guys! You’re the biology study buddies I never had!

See how the muscles’ connective tissues run the same direction as the fleshy muscle fibers? We want to cut those things with our tools, not wear out our teeth breaking them down into a digestible mass. When you slice the meat across the grain, you’re slicing the connective tissues as well. The thinner you slice, the smaller they get. This is how you can cook a top round of beef to an internal temperature of 130°,  perfect for rareish medium-rare roast beef, but far below the 160° threshold at which the connective tissues begin to melt, and still chew the damn thing. How will you slice your Flintstone steak across the grain? On a bias? Oh, good luck with that.

So when you head to the meat store, or to your job at the meat store, here’s what you need to know about cutting top round, and really all dry roasts:

  1. Get that thing down to one muscle mass. Management wants to save time and money by including that flap meat as part of the roast. Fuck that. Seam it out. Grind the rest or find some other use.
  2. Create a long piece of meat along which the grain runs. Sometimes this means bisecting it in the same direction as the grain.
  3. The first cut is often the best. The “front” of the top round, bottom round, and top sirloin are generally the densest in muscle fiber and sparest in connective tissues.

Here, I’ve used my newfound powers of graphic design to illustrate all of this in one handy image:

buying-a-good-roast

Print it out; take it to the store!

Wow! That is a beautiful image! The arrow shows the direction of the grain, and where the roast should be bisected. The lines crossing it show where most butchers like to cut, and where they actually should cut! Print it out, take it with you.

If all turns out well, and experience shows it rarely does, you’ll end up with something like this:Top-Round

Oh god, I’m sorry about that. I’m just really enthralled with this new drawing program. I’m also sorry to all the bloggers whose content I stole. But lets face it, you prolly stole it too.