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: Good Gravy, Man!

Things should never be made harder to accomplish than they already are. I am a fond aficionado of sauces and gravies and syrups of all sorts, but many of them are so famously hard-to-assemble in their rare and numerous ingredients and even harder to assemble in their finicky techniques that I am cowed into quitting before I even make the attempt.

Gravy shouldn’t fall into that category, but often, it does. If you’re like me and not superbly skilled at even the most basic tasks of cookery, making a perfect roux or incorporating any of the standard thickening agents into a fine meat sauce without outlandish and unseemly lumps and clumps is about as easy as it would’ve been getting 50-yard-line tickets to the Superbowl. Which, as you know, and as is also the case with the gravy perfection, I had no intention of ever attempting anyway.

But here’s the deal. If you find a technique that does work for you and requires little effort and no exotic ingredients and can be varied in a number of ways once you’ve mastered it, why on earth wouldn’t you go to that as the default recipe? I’ve found the little preheated-pan trick I learned from Cook’s Illustrated for roasting a chicken so nearly foolproof and so delicious that I use it every time, even though my oven is showing such signs of impending demise that the merest whiff of said pan in its vicinity gets the smoke billowing right out the oven door and the alarum bells a-yelling even when the oven is freshly spick-and-spanned. Now, you may say that it is not the recipe or even the oven that’s at fault but rather the idiot who is willing to risk life and limb to roast a chicken in a dying, antiquated oven, and you would be correct, but that’s not the point of this little exercise, now, is it? I’m merely highlighting for you the immense appeal and value of a tried-and-true, easy recipe.photoThe same can be said of using my much-appreciated sous vide cooker for a reliably fabulous roast beef, medium rare from edge to edge and tenderly moist in a bath of its own juices, salt and pepper and a knob of butter, so flavorful that it needs little more than a quick searing caramelization to be more than presentable at table. But while it requires nothing more, it is in no way harmed or insulted by the presence of side dishes, and with them, a fine gravy is a benevolent companion indeed. And as I am not one to be bothered with fussy preparations, the nicest way to make gravy in my kitchen is to pretty much let it make itself.

So when the roast is done hot-tubbing it sous vide, out it comes, gets a quick rest so that some of the juices that have emerged from it during its bath return to their appointed place in the roast before I cut the cooking bag open, and then I get the real sauce-sorcery underway. I pour the buttery juice from the bag into a microwave-proof container and nuke it until it cooks and coagulates, as meat juices will do. Sear the roast in a heavy pan and set it aside to rest again. To continue, deglaze the pan with a good dousing of whatever tasty red wine you happen to have handy, a cup or two if you can part with it from the drinks cupboard, and just let it reduce at a simmer until it thickens slightly all by its little ol’ self. In just a few minutes, it’ll be quite ready for the big, saucy finale: puree the clotted microwaved juices and the wine reduction together (use a stick blender, if you have one, so you can keep the ingredients hot without exploding your blender!) until they’re silky smooth. Adjust the seasoning if you like, but it’s already going to be mighty delicious, don’t you worry. Easy does it.photoIsn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Now, eat up, everybody.

P.S.—don’t think because you’re a vegetarian you’re off the hook with this one. This not-even-a-process works pretty easily with nearly any roasted vegetables too. Deglaze your roasting pan with wine or, of course, some fabulous alcohol free homemade vegetable broth or some apple juice, and reduce it a bit; the final thickening agent is in your pan of roasted vegetables. Just take a nicely roasted portion of the plant-born treats and puree that goodness right into the pan reduction and Bob, as one might say, is your parent’s sibling. Your gravy is done and ready to shine. Be saucy, my friends!

Foodie Tuesday: Culinary Iterations

You know that one of my favorite things in cooking is when one meal or dish is flexible enough for the leftovers to be transformed into a different version for the next meal or dish without too much difficulty. Cooking once for two or more meals is preferable! This time it was easy to use several parts of the meal and tweak them into a couple of different modes for the following days.

photoDay One’s version was a steak dinner. The beef steaks were cooked sous vide with plain butter, salt and pepper and then pan-seared for caramelization, the pan deglazed with red wine for jus. Asparagus was steamed and refrigerated before a quick last-minute sear in toasted sesame oil and soy sauce and tossed with a sprinkle of sesame seeds for serving. Russet and sweet potatoes were cubed and oven roasted in butter, salt and pepper. And a room-temperature salad of sweet kernel corn had crisped bacon bits, diced and seeded tomatoes, butter and lemon juice and lemon pepper seasoning it. Dessert was a soft lemon verbena custard (just eggs, cream steeped with a big handful of fresh verbena leaves from the patio plant, vanilla, honey and a pinch of salt) topped with fresh strawberries in honey.photo

Next morning’s iteration: chop the remaining asparagus into small pieces, mix it with the leftover corn salad, stir in two eggs, pour it all into a buttered microwave-proof bowl, put a couple of small squares of sharp cheddar cheese on top, cover it to prevent spatter, and microwave this instant-omelet on High for about 4-6 minutes (‘waves vary) until done. Fast and tasty. photoDessert, later that day: another dish of lemon verbena custard, stirred with a tot of almond extract and a little ground cardamom and topped with sliced almonds and peaches. The beef was all gone at the end of the first meal, but even a few roasted potatoes of both kinds were left and made a fine mash with just a little extra butter and cream, and kept in the fridge for another meal yet. All this from one main preparation. Food is good. When it’s good enough, even better to get second helpings with ease.

photo

Foodie Tuesday: Make Believe Meals

I’m generally in favor of good nutrition, in theory at least. But let’s be honest: I’m neither an actual nutritionist nor so dedicated to good health and sensible behavior that I will go to any particular lengths to insure that what I’m eating is always appropriate. You may, just possibly, have noticed that even before I stated it so shamelessly. Yeah, I’m a little kid.*

So if I can make entrees and side dishes that have any value as sustenance and taste enough like dessert so as to make myself feel I’m misbehaving a bit, so much the better. The particular good news in this is that with a whole lot of tasty ingredients, it’s not all that tough to accomplish the task. I mean, if you can take advantage of the Maillard reaction and make sweet caramelization happen to cruciferous vegetables and, yes, even meat, that’s proof enough for me that we are meant to enjoy dessert as any course of a meal. Sexy seared chops and steaks and fish filets, here I come! Succulent Brussels sprouts? But of course! Life is good.photoAnd why limit myself to drawing out the sugars in seemingly non-sugary foods when I can embrace the vitamins in vegetables and, what the heck, throw more sugar and spice on top just because I can. Rather delightful, if you ask me, to occasionally set aside the usual mashed potatoes in favor of what is essentially pie filling. So with those juicy sweet chops, I might give in to the urge to treat them and myself to a scoop of deconstructed dessert thus:

Sweet Potato Pie Mash

Take one peeled sweet potato or yam and an equal amount of carrots, and put both raw vegetables into a food processor or heavy-duty blender with a few friends and blend the whole concatenation into fluffy oneness. My choice last time of company for the two cups’ worth of aforementioned sweet spud and carrots: 2 tablespoons butter or coconut oil, half a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a splash of vanilla, one egg and, for added sugar, half a cup of ‘natural’ (handmade) small marshmallows. Because I had them around. Because I have a slight sweets addiction. Because, and I may have mentioned this before*, I’m a little kid. Last move with this mash is to heat it up–just bake or microwave it in a greased heat-proof dish long enough to heat it through fully, and it makes a delightful pie-like accompaniment to practically anything, including, well, a plain old spoon. Candy, I tell you. But chock full of vitamins. Or close enough to encourage me to absolve myself of any misdeeds until the next over-the-top meal.

photo

Yes indeedy, I *did* pour a little cream on the mash, too, because it tasted so much like pie. But then again, I have been known to put crisped bacon or (as here) chicken cracklings on top for a savory finish. Am I a dietary lost cause? Perhaps. But a happy one.