The Cheat: Dark Arts
By SAM SIFTONThis week’s recipe is a raggedy Christmas number out of Venezuela called asado negro. It requires a fat roast of beef that is simmered for a long time in dark caramel, its sweetness tempered by vinegar. The result is sticky and unctuous beneath a cloak of peppers, onions and leeks. It looks mysterious and bold on the plate and at the start of a New York winter can conjure some degree of Latin American humidity and joy.
Asado negro has its primary home in Caracas, where it is often served during the holidays, alongside fried sweet plantains and white rice, with perhaps a tart green salad for contrast. The meat is napped in blackness that comes not from fire or smoke but from the absorption of all colors into one, a color as deep as space itself.
It is beef the color of a velvet dinner jacket seen across a dark lawn at midnight. It makes mockery of pot roast. And, as we shall see, it is exceedingly simple to make.
Hold on: blackened beef? I first had the dish at a restaurant called Mohedano, a flash place in Chacao, the relatively prosperous part of Caracas that is a stronghold of opposition to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. The neighborhood supports restaurants and shopping centers and has plenty of gated parking lots guarded by men with guns. It recalls Miami crossed with the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a few blocks of London and Mexico City thrown in for good measure.
Mohedano’s chef, Edgar Leal, runs the restaurant with his wife, Mariana Montero de Castro, with whom he has also had a restaurant in the United States. They served asado negro as part of a tasting menu designed to highlight the traditional flavors of cosmopolitan Venezuela.
Leal is an irrepressible figure in his restaurant, a ham who cooks with grace and precision, a character out of Stoppard, the gourmand existing within the privation of a repressive state. “It looks burned,” he said of his asado negro, laughing as he often does, as he placed the plate on a table. “But you see what you think.” Then he put on a stage whisper: “It’s not burned at all!”
The beef was cut thin, against the grain, and it glistened with moisture. The sauce cloaking it was dark and deep in flavor — with a strong, nutty sweetness, yes, but a bracing sort, far from cloying and leading only to the desire for more.
Leal cooks his asado negro with papelón, the solid block of unrefined cane sugar that is known by various names across Latin America (boiled sugar-cane pulp, essentially, formed into small blocks that can be broken into shards or grated into drinks or sauce). Papelón makes for excellent asado negro, and if you can find some at your local market — where you’ll most likely discover it listed as panela or piloncillo — go ahead and use it for your own.
But you can also cheat, which, as Chávez might say, is the way of our nation. Norman Van Aken, the Miami chef and restaurateur who has done much to bring the flavors of the Caribbean and South America to the United States, and who included a recipe for asado negro in his excellent 2003 cookbook, “New World Kitchen,” said in a telephone interview that the home cook could replicate some of the complexity of papelón by making a dark caramel out of plain white sugar and water, then adding a few teaspoons of brown sugar at the end.
“Asado negro is not a dish that’s centuries old,” Van Aken said. “As near as we could figure it in our research for the book, it goes back to the 1960s or ’70s. You can definitely mess around with it a little and make it your own.”
And so we begin with caramel, a chemistry-class lesson for the home. Sugar is dissolved in water and heated until the water evaporates and the sugar molecules break down, turning heavy and dark. Add to this sticky pool some vinegar and dry red wine, which impart savory, acidic notes to what will amount to a braising liquid, as well as some brown sugar for rustic depth. Pour the liquids carefully, for the caramel will spatter and hiss. Then allow the sauce to become whole again, stirring occasionally.
Now we sear the beef, creating a crust on the bottom of the pan that will add heft to our meal, a beefy intensity to counter the sugars and acids. Removing the meat from the pot for a moment, we sauté a great deal of garlic and onion, celery and leeks, then combine these with the seared beef and the caramel sauce under a swirl of sliced bell peppers, and push the covered whole into the oven for a few hours. Some crazy magic happens in there.
Plain white rice dressed only with a pat of butter is the best starch with which to pair this meal. You might try to locate some ripe plantains as well, to slice into coins and fry gently in oil until they turn the same golden brown as the caramel you started with. (In a pinch, you can use bananas, though they are a great deal more fragile and sweet than a ripe plantain, and require close attention in the pan, lest they turn to mush.)
Leal adds a rustic Venezuelan salad to the plate, with fresh hearts of palm, avocado and diced tomato. You might do the same, but at this time of the year, you would most likely disappoint yourself: December tomatoes in the United States are generally a grim affair, to say nothing of our canned hearts of palm and rock-hard avocados. Better to find some hothouse lettuces — Van Aken suggests something peppery in the area of watercress or arugula — and to dress these in a lime vinaigrette.
There’s a new Paul Simon song out, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” It’s all strummy guitar and thumping Delta blues, Simon’s muted trumpet of a voice singing about money and war, the pain of family and the release that comes to all of us somehow, religious or not, on Christmas Day. This would make a fine final accompaniment to the dinner itself, along with some dark beer or a strong zinfandel, slightly chilled.
The Dark Art of Beef - NYTimes.com