Foodie Tuesday: Medium Rare

I know all thoughts hereabouts turn to turkey at this time of year, but not everybody (even the meat-eaters among us) craves turkey, whether they’re celebrating Thanksgiving or not. Why ever eat something that you’re not wild about or hungry for just because tradition seems to dictate it? You’re free to be just as thankful for a fabulous steak dinner as for a roasted turkey, especially if you consider how little our modern image of Thanksgiving turkey dinners probably resemble the original feast they’re meant to commemorate.

And a good steak needn’t be a terribly rare thing. I used to avoid serving it not out of dislike but because I was sure it was too hard to prepare it nicely. Somewhere along the line, fortunately, somebody set me straight on that. If I can heat a pan to just slightly over medium high heat and own a timer, there’s not much excuse for being fearful about it.Photo: Medium Rare

What I learned was so simple that it seems laughable, but then that’s how I operate in the kitchen. This self-educated cook has a doofus for her teacher. Here are the incredibly easy things I learned to do that make steak dinner—with a fairly perfectly medium rare steak in the midst of it—a possibility simple enough I don’t hesitate anymore.

Let the steak be the star. Get the nicest quality cut you can afford for the occasion, at best a well-marbled 1 to 1-1/2 inch (2-3 cm) thick grass-fed beauty; pat it dry, coat it liberally [no matter what your political leanings] with salt and coarsely ground black pepper, or a spice rub if that’s your wish, and let it sit a few minutes absorbing that seasoning while you heat up your heaviest skillet on a middling-hot flame or burner. I love my cast iron skillets best of all for doing steaks. Melt a big dollop of good fat to coat the already fabulously seasoned skillet, and when it’s rippling with heat (but not smoking), gently lay in those steaks. One massive one that almost fills the pan can of course be cut up afterward for sharing, or several smaller ones put in together; just make sure that whatever’s in there has room—if it’s crowded in the pan it’ll steam rather than sear. That would be sad.

When the skillet has been made hot enough for the fat to shimmer in it and the steak is in place, expect it to act like a slightly irritable cat: that steak and the frying fat will hiss and spit a little. You might want to stick a splatter screen on top if you’re fussy about stovetop cleanliness, but it’ll wash off easily enough later if you don’t care in the meantime. What fat should you use? Avocado oil is great, if you can get your hands on some, as it has a high smoke point; for straight-up beefy flavor, you can hardly beat clean beef tallow, but it’s not too common to have that on hand (I keep the skimmed fat from my bone broth for such things at times); bacon fat is a flavorful alternative. Ghee or clarified butter is probably my favorite. Whatever you choose, I recommend something with a high smoke point to give you the ability to get a good, caramelized sear on the exterior of the steak without turning the inside of your house into a smelly barbecue pit full of tarry smoke.

But enough about heat and smoke and fat! The steak, still, is your starring player. What to do with that loveliness? Not much. Leave it alone! When it’s in the skillet, let it sit and sizzle completely untouched for about 4 or 5 minutes. The bottom edge should show you just a hint of the beautiful dark brown crust building below, and you’ll flip it over and do the same thing. The next thing you do is: some more Nothing. When you get a whiff of that superb, incredibly tempting scent of beef perfection as both sides have browned gloriously, you will want to stick your fork right into it, but don’t. Wait. Take the steak out of the skillet and let it rest on a warm plate for at least five or ten minutes while it finishes cooking from residual heat, and reabsorbing the juices that will all run right out of it if you cut into it too soon.Photo: Skirt Steak

When you think you have suffered enough, wait thirty seconds more, and then you can pounce on that steak. While I’m waiting for my steak to be ready, I distract myself to prevent premature steak attacks. I deglaze the pan with a splash of Jack Daniel’s black label tastiness and a smack of salted butter, as often as not, to pour every bit of remaining goodness back onto the steak with a lagniappe of kindness. I make sure the salads, sides, and other accoutrements of the meal are all at table and all ready to play their supporting roles to the marquee meat. If all of that hasn’t kept me in check for quite long enough, I’ll just have to risk it, because I’ll have been sniffing the air like an unchained werewolf, and y’all had better get out of my way now and settle down to your own plates of steak and we’ll all be safe and happy, at least until the next full moon. Or steak dinnertime.

Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

Foodie Tuesday: Pears, Greens & Coolness

When the heat of late summer is dogging my heels and dragging me into doldrums, what I want to eat is something that can relieve that spiritual weight. Even a vegetarian delight can seem overly demanding of my metabolism and moods at such times, but that doesn’t stop me from being hungry. So, what to do that will be more satisfying nutritionally than eating an entire package of Popsicles? Create some inner relief with a light and juicy salad.Photo: Fresh Greens

My standard starting point for salad is generally some fresh green stuff. For a light and summery version, I love the sweet and fragile kinds of greens, perhaps some Bibb or butter or leaf lettuce, and even of those slightly meatier leaves that will give a bit of textural contrast and substance to the salad, I like the mild ones like mâche (lamb’s lettuce), chard (silverbeet), and beet greens. Some nice blend of several of those is refreshing and nutritious enough to make me feel virtuous but not overstuffed.Photo: Pretty Pears

I like to give the meal a little zip with some other green goodness, say some fresh mint and thinly sliced fennel bulb, sweet basil and chopped sugar snap peas. But I wouldn’t want to limit myself to entirely green things. I’d use some diced or sliced ripe, juicy pear as the starring feature of the dish, because that’s a favorite treat almost any time, any way. What goes nicely with a pear-green-refreshing salad? So many possible things. This time, I think, a melange of toasted pistachios, a chiffonade of garden-fresh pink rose petals (or day lilies  or a sprinkling of violets, borage, or lilac blossoms), and some finely shredded mildly nutty Jarlsberg cheese. Keeping in mind that the flowers must be chemical-free, of course. I’d dress this beauty up with a blend of avocado oil, sparkling Elderflower Pressé (I’m fond of Belvoir Fruit Farms‘ excellent elixir), lime juice, vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a dusting of cayenne pepper.

And then I’d stop sitting around, merely talking about it, and eat that salad. Appetite for light things or not, I get hungry.

Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!