To make a good tartare, you’ve got to have a good butcher — any time you’re eating raw meat (or raw fish, for that matter), you want the best you can get and you want to get it from a person you trust. How you deal with the beef once you get it home is up to you and pretty much up for grabs. You can have largish pieces of beef — last night’s tartare was at the limit (at least for me) of largeness with pieces about 1/2 inch on a side; or you can have mini cubes of beef. What you don’t want is ground beef or beef cut so fine that it’s mushy. Texture is important in a tartare; it’s not a dish for lazy eaters: You should have to chew the meat and that’s one of the dish’s delights.
When you see tartare on a menu in France, it will most often say that it’s been cut with a knife, meaning that it was hand-cut and not forced through a machine. And when you make it at home, you, too, should cut it with a knife, and cut it just before serving.
Once cut, the fun begins. Tartare is a do-it-yourself dish — you provide the mix-ins and seasonings and each guest fixes his or her own plate.
The traditional mix-ins for a beef tartare are capers, chopped raw onions and herbs — often you just get parsley with the dish, but I think parsley, tarragon and thyme make a great mix. Sometimes tartare is served with a raw egg or raw yolk. If you’re serving the egg or yolk, the prettiest presentation is to mound the beef, make an indentation in the center of the mound and break the egg into the little nest.
Next up: the seasonings. The classics include Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco or other hot sauce and, if you’d like, ketchup or a chili sauce. (Last night, there was ketchup on the table.) Salt and pepper, of course.
Just because these are the usual add-ins, doesn’t mean you can’t play around with the dish. Chopped up pickles would be delicious (cornichons would be best, but I’m wondering if good-old American sweet relish wouldn’t have its own charm), ditto anchovies, if you’re the anchovy type. Sun-dried tomatoes could be interesting, if a little Italianate. And, if you felt like it, you could drizzle the meat with olive oil or some hot-pepper oil.
As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about how similar the tartare is to my favorite hamburger, The Cafe Salle Pleyel Hamburger. I’d forgotten that that masterpiece of burgerdom was created with a tartare in mind. I’m also thinking about a restaurant in Paris — oh, if only I could remember its name — where the tartare was seared on the outside, making it more like a … like a … like a hamburger!
And did I mention that, just as with a burger, the side dish of choice with a tartare is frites, or French fries.
And so, with the Fourth of July just a few days away, and me just a few thousands miles away, I’m thinking that tartare might be the right thing to serve here in France in celebration of a America. A hamburger, kind of, made without a grill, for sure. Sounds perfect to me. Time to sharpen my knives.