Several years ago I found an intriguing recipe for "Rendang: A Traditional West Sumatran Dish" in Siri Owen's excellent Homestyle Thai and Indonesian Cooking (The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA 1997). At the time I cooked beef once a decade, and didn't cook it, but I remembered Owen's description of the dish.
"Rendang is nothing like a curry," she writes. "A well-cooked one is brown, sometimes almost black. It should be chunky and dry, yet succulent, with the dryness of meat that has absorbed its own juices and its sauce during a long period of cooking." She follow with the kicker, Rendang "is unique, for it is the only dish I know of that passes from boiling to frying without any interruption." She ends, with something that I have never found to be an obstacle, "The cooking time is therefore very long."
Then, as happens so often -- along came Mark Bittman with a recipe that set off alarm bells, in the nicest possible way. Coconut Braised Beef (from "The Minimilist," NY Times, reprinted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 29, 2005) sounded familiar. Sure enough. Bittman made Rendang accessible and ridiculously easy.
This is stupid simple and requires three skills: chopping, stirring and opening a can. It demystifies the process of making your own chili paste, and the paste ingredients are infinitely flexible, so feel free to add more of everything. Coconut Braised Beef requires planning because it needs three hours to cook, but it will take care of itself. Like so many soups and stews, it benefits from a night in the refrigerator and it comes from the freezer intact. Your friends and buffets will love it.
I would not make this in a crock pot, because it needs to shed liquid. With all due respect, a crock pot's singular and often useful function -- boiling -- precludes it from allowing evaporation.
Coconut Braised Beef - adapted from Mark Bittman
1-1/2 pounds (or more) chuck roast which you will trim and cut into 1# cubes
For the chili paste
2 or more dried hot red chilis (break off the top with stem end)
3 (or more) garlic cloves
1 finger length (or more) fresh ginger, cut in quarter-sized pieces
1 T chili powder (I use Penzey's Ancho; do not use the Chile Powder that you put in a pot of chile.)
Juice and zest of two limes
2 T neutral oil (canola)
1 can of lowfat coconut milk* (or regular coconut milk -- NOT coconut cream)
Good knives -- get them sharpened (in the Twin Cities, go to Eversharp on Taft)
Microplane or other zester
Large oven-proof frying pan or casserole with a lid
Small food processor
1. Trim away as much of the visible fat. Cut the meat into 1# cubes. Pat them dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Put the chili paste ingredients in a small food processor and buzz until it looks like a sauce.
3. In a large oven proof frying pan with a lid, heat 2T oil, add the chili paste and stir until it is fragrant -- up to a minute.
4. Add the beef cubes and brown them on all sides. If you have doubled or tripled the recipe, you may have to brown the meat in batches. The goal is to BROWN the meat, so be patient and resist the temptation to dump all the meat into the pot and boil it.
5. Return the meat to the pan and add the coconut milk. If you have doubled or tripled the recipe, add 2 cans of coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a boil and then:
a. STOVETOP: reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for two hours. Remove the cover and let it cook for another 30-60 minutes until the sauce has reduced. Stir occasionally.
b. OVEN: cover and bake for two hours in a 300 degree oven. Remove the cover and bake an additional hour, until the sauce is thick and brown.
1. Serve over rice or noodles.
2. The best friend to this recipe is Thai-ish Cucumber Salad.
3. This benefits from spending the night in the refrigerator. The flavors meld and mellow, and you can remove visible fat before reheating.
4. You may freeze, thaw, recook and refreeze this dish.