When I was in London a few weeks ago, I fell madly, rapturously in love with an orange and almond mincemeat being sampled at Neal’s Yard Dairy in the Borough Market. I had planned to run back there after lunch, but after hours wandering the market and my brain dulled by a heavy meal, I completely forgot my errand. No worries: I’m a professional recipe developer, so I thought it would be fun to recreate this most delicious food memory.
When I was a kid, I have to admit I was seriously revolted by mincemeat. My great aunt always made a mincemeat pie for Christmas dinner, and it looked and smelled disgusting. Plus, the word mincemeat itself turned my stomach as I imagined chewy, gristly bits of meat chunked up with squishy raisins and doused with booze, all baked up in a pie crust. Back in the old days (like in the 1500s, smartasses, not the 1970s) cooks did include bits of meat in mincemeat because liquor, vinegar, and fermenting fruits helped preserve it — the technique was a great way to stretch the food dollar/pound, so to speak. These days, the only thing meaty in mincemeat is suet, which is the fat from around the cow’s kidneys. In the UK, you can purchase vegetarian suet; here in the U.S. I’ve never found it, and I’m not sure I want to because I’m positive it’s filled with all sorts of nasty, unpronounceable chemicals.
So if you want to make mincemeat here in the colonies, you’ll need to have some suet at the ready.
You can find suet in the meat aisle of most grocery stores. Grocers usually keep it near the chicken livers and ham hocks; it is also a seasonal ingredient, meaning it’s easier to find in the winter months. Not only do cooks use suet for mincemeat, animal lovers use suet to make bird food cakes for songbirds. Normally I buy organic suet from my butcher, but he didn’t have any — so it was off to Stop & Shop:
(Vegetarians/Vegans may want to stop reading.) What recipes don’t tell you is suet has to be prepared before you use it. You can’t just chop it up and throw it into your dish. Once you get the plastic off, you’ll see that not only is suet fatty, but it contains blood, connective tissue, and other nasty little bits that I certainly don’t want to eat. Do you? No, I didn’t think so. What you have to do now is render the fat so these unpleasant bits can be removed. Here’s how I do it.
First I chop the suet up a bit so that it can fit through the shredder attachment on my KitchenAid stand mixer. You want to get the fat shredded as finely as possible so it melts quickly, and a shredder makes short work of this. (Tip: freeze your small pieces of suet for a few minutes so that they don’t gob up your attachments.)
Here’s the suet going through the shredder:
I had a little over 2 lbs of suet here and once shredded, it filled up a 5-qt. mixing bowl. I set a 7-qt. enamel cast iron pot over low heat, added 1/4 cup water to the bottom, then added the shredded fat:
I let this cook/render down for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When you’re working with fat and fire, it’s never a good idea to leave the kitchen, so keep a close eye on it. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat to make the fat melt faster — low and slow is the way to go. Eventually, the solid fat will render down completely and you’ll be left with clear liquid fat with bits of brown stuff in it. That brown stuff is the blood, connective tissue, and other grizzlies you don’t want to eat. Now it’s time to sieve it out. I line my conical fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth and set it over a clean soup pot:
Then I ladle the fat into the sieve. Be careful — that fat is hot!
Et voila, lovely pure suet. Um, not quite. You’ll see that this clear liquid is starting to firm up. What I do is let it cool down a bit, then melt it over a low flame and re-sieve with clean cheesecloth to make sure every impurity is removed.
The purified suet gets poured into a container once cooled, labeled, then stored in the fridge. It looks like this when it’s done:
It has no smell at all, at least none I can discern with my sensitive schnozz. It also becomes quite hard when refrigerated, but when it’s added to mincemeat, it’ll melt into the base, giving it a rich flavor and mouthfeel – no meaty flavor at all. If you want to make mincemeat at home, don’t be tempted to try Crisco — it’ll just turn your recipe into a greasy mess.
OK, next up — orange and almond mincemeat. At least my fair approximation of what I tasted at Neal’s Yard Dairy last week.