I have made it a practice in life to listen to women who are smarter than me. Over the years the pattern became clear: Listen to them and things work out; ignore their input, bad things happen. I’ve had the opportunity to indulge this awareness on a nearly daily basis; it’s probably why I’m not sitting under a bridge right now, gulping MD 20-20 under a blanket of trash bags. So when not one but two women told me “you cannot write a ^#&@ing Tribune column on cooking horsemeat,” I folded like the Chicago Cubs.
Doesn’t mean I can’t run it on the blog. So, if you want to read about me recreating a thousand-year old recipe used to prepare horses that have passed on (then in battle, now in a farm accident), read on.
Raising the Stakes
I have very little interest in the reality tv-style antics of food shows like “Bizarre Foods” and “Man vs. Food.” Instead of learning about the culinary history of northern Italy, for instance, viewers (and there must be viewers, right?) are treated to the horrifying spectacle of a guy trying to down a 72 oz. steak in under an hour. Snake hearts, insects and the unmentionables of male sheep have all had their sordid fifteen minutes. The combination of revulsion and curiosity drives us to do many stupid things – the five interminable hours I spent at a Wagnerian opera comes to mind – but I prefer to keep the how-bad-can-it-get impulse as far from my food as possible.
Still, I got a recent offer from a friend that intrigued me. It seems a horse on a friend’s farm had recently been put down (after an injury, not illness) and rather than simply bury the thing or send it off to the landfill, they decided to try it out; as food. Now horse would qualify as a bizarre food to most Americans, but countries as close as Canada hold it in high regard. France and Italy have famous recipes dedicated to the subject. In Japan they serve it raw. So, yeah, I told him; I’ll take a little off your hands.
Then the real questions started. How, exactly, do you go about cooking a horse? One person who’d already had some leg from the animal said it smelled, well, like a horse. Nothing deeply offensive, but awkward when you’re trying to eat, taste being as reliant on smell as it is. I decided I needed something to offset the potential “gaminess” of the meat. Something strong, intense. Maybe a long marinade. In a stroke of luck I happened upon a recipe about that time on a New York Times food blog that seemed to fit. It was a 1,000 year-old preparation for horse, adapted for modern palate for use with good old, cow-derived rib-eyes. According to Mark Bittman, author of “How to Cook Everything” among other titles, it was transporting, medieval. It was perfect.
I prepared the marinade (recipe below) and placed it in the refrigerator to cool, then pulled out my cryovacked horse loin. It looked a bit like a smooth version of skirt steak; relatively thin, finely-grained and bright red. Nothing wrong so far, I thought, and cut the package open, again finding nothing amiss. It smelled pretty neutral, actually, and into the marinade it went.
Anecdote about its history in Italy
The United States is actually a world leader in the production of horses as meat animals; we just ship it abroad. And much of the opposition to serving horse – none other than Gordon Ramsey faced protests and public ridicule after serving the meat in his London restaurant – stems from the industry’s connection to inhumane treatment of racing horses in the years following their Belmont glory. Mine came from a nice farm, where it ostensibly got to frolic and do horse things. So that took care of one problem. Still, I’ll admit to a little squeamishness while firing up the grill last week and approaching the moment of truth.
The meat, having spent three days in what is essentially a mulled-wine marinade, was now deeply, almost distressingly purple. It smelled strongly of cloves and cinnamon and was noticeable softer. After two minutes on each side on a super-hot grill, the thin loins were charred around the edges and grill-marked: they could have been thin round steaks. Finally getting to the actually eating part, I was surprised to find the meat extremely neutral, almost a little bland, and while not tender, far less chewy than I expected. “Inoffensive,” we agreed on the meat, though the marinade was overpowering.
We agreed we’d be willing to try horse again where they know what to do with it. For now I’ll leave poor Flicka alone, but when in Rome…
(note in recipe length of marinating time, need to like cloves)
Really Old-Fashioned Marinated Rib-Eye
by Mark Bittman
Adapted from Frank DeCarlo
Time: About 20 minutes, plus marinating
1/2 bottle rich, full-bodied red wine, preferably Amarone
2 tablespoons sugar
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 8- to 12-ounce rib-eye steaks, about 1/2-inch thick
Salt and pepper.
1. Combine wine and sugar in a large pot and bring to boil; lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange zest, and remove pan from heat to cool.
2. Put steaks in a large baking dish and pour marinade over them. Marinate steaks in refrigerator for at least several hours and up to three days.
3. Take steaks out of the marinade, season with salt and pepper, and cook them in a very hot skillet, about 2 minutes each side for medium rare. (You can grill or broil them if you prefer.) Slice the meat about 1/4-inch thick and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.