I'm afraid I never tasted good roast beef until I was in college. As good as all the other food was in my household as I was growing up ... well, let's just say that the roast beef didn't really speak to me. It was dry-roasted until well-done, and I'd do anything rather than actually eat it (including smuggling it away from the table, secreted in folds in my clothing).

Then one day when I was over by my friend Dean's house, he said with great enthusiasm that his mother had just made some "roast beast". I gulped, silently. There was no way in hell that the abomination I came to know as roast beef would ever pass my lips, but I didn't want to be rude to my friend and his momma. I took a little bit to be polite ... and oh, my GAWD. It was phenomenal. Tender, almost buttery, and swimming in an intensely delicious gravy.

THIS, my friends, is why people in New Orleans rave about their roast beef poor boys. This is why places like Mother's are world-renowned for the quality and greatness of their roast beef, particularly for what they call "debris", little tiny shredded bits of beef in gravy. Heavenly.

I never learned how to make it myself, but thanks to the generosity of Wendy, a good Metry girl who sent me this recipe, we now have roast beast to share. Technically, you aren't roasting this roast beef, although you're using a cut of meat referred to as a "roast"; what you're doing is braising in the classic manner, with a little bit more liquid than is traditional, and then using that liquid to make the killer, killer gravy.

By the way, you can braise the beef in plain water, but if you use a homemade brown beef stock and red wine like the recipe calls for, the gravy will be 600,000 times better.

Of course, you don't have to serve this on a po-boy, you can just serve slices or chunks of it on a plate as well. But as many New Orleanians and visitors will tell you, there just ain't nothin' like a great roast beef po-boy when you take a bite and the gravy just runs down your chin ...

If you have any leftover gravy, you can use it to make the original poor boy sandwich -- fried potatoes and gravy on French, with mayonnaise. Use either good thick French fries or make brabant potatoes, slather them with rich roast beef gravy and dig in. It's unbelievably good, cheap and a carbohydrate rush so big it oughta be illegal.

Oh, and I have good news ... my momma nowadays makes a braised roast beef that's so good it'll make you weep.

Cut a pattern of incisions across the top of the roast every couple of inches, each long and deep enough to hold a slice of salt pork. Combine half the garlic, 1 cup of the onion (mince this finely), 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper, and push this mixture into the slits you've made for the salt pork. Press salt pork into the beef and tie it securely, trying to make the shape of the roast as even as possible for even cooking.

In a pot broad and deep enough to hold the roast with room to spare for all the braising liquid, melt the lard over medium heat. Brown the roast well all around, keeping the salt pork inside. Add all remaining seasonings, carrots, celery, parsley and thyme to the pot, cooking until the onions are limp. Add wine and enough hot beef stock or water to nearly cover beef. Add bones. Cover pot and simmer 4 hours, until beef is very tender.

Remove beef from pot to another dish that will hold dripping juices. Raise heat under liquid and boil hard, uncovered, 45 minutes. While boiling down the gravy, baste the roast so it doesn't dry out.

Remove salt pork strips from beef and slice it as best you can (it will fall into chunks and shreds; the smaller you shred it, the more it'll be like the legendary "debris" from Mother's), putting the pieces into a separate serving or storage dish. Strain the gravy, season it to taste with salt, freshly ground pepper and optionally a small pinch or two of cayenne and pour it over the beef. There should be about a quart of gravy. The resulting mixture should be sloppy, luscious and profoundly beefy.

Serve on fresh, crisp crusted New Orleans-style French bread -- average po-boy size is at least nine inches. Make sure the French bread (a good baguette will do) is not chewy. The bread must be crispy on the outside and light on the inside. Serve your roast beef po-boys dressed (with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, etc.) or with nuttin' on it, but "mynez" (mayonnaise, that is) really is a must. I like mixing plenty of horseradish into my mayonnaise, by the way. Optionally, you could serve this as a plate lunch or dinner with vegetables and potatoes as well.

YIELD: enough roast beef debris for about 10-12 good-sized poor boys.


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Chuck Taggart   (email Chuck)