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: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Nearly Great Eating

Just because I’ll eat practically anything doesn’t mean I don’t care what I eat. I would far rather wait a bit longer between meals than eat something not entirely thrilling just to fill myself. On the other hand, if it’s dinnertime and something I was fixing didn’t come out entirely the way I planned it, I’m loath to let it go to waste. So while the skillet potatoes I put together for a recent meal weren’t quite what I had thought I was going to have, I ate them without much complaint, and so did the others at the table. I made them from thinly sliced raw russet potatoes, the peel still intact, and thought to create something between a country-fried potato dish and Hasselback potatoes and yet different, layering these on top of a handful of sliced almonds, seasoning the potatoes on top with salt and mixed pepper (my home grinder blend of pink, white, green and black peppercorns and whole cloves) and drizzling the whole dish with a small splash of almond extract and a very large splash of melted browned butter. The verdict after baking: good concept, poor execution. I liked the flavors very much but the texture will be far better next time when I add a good dose of broth to the pan to soften the potatoes into submission.photoBetter luck next time, I say to myself, but hedge my bet for the current meal by choosing a trusty standby for another part of the dinner. For vegetables, the range that will please my spouse is very narrow, and though I’m not averse to making separate things that I alone will eat, on a day when I wasn’t fully satisfied that one part of the meal was exactly as I’d planned it so we’d both enjoy it to the highest degree, I opted to keep on the ultra-safe side by using only the most uncomplicated and uncontroversial ingredients. So I just steamed some nice carrots and celery and baby corn (not pickled), buttered them up, and Lo, it was very good.photoWhen it was all plated up it didn’t look like a recipe fail day at all. And it was all perfectly edible, if some in more appealing ways than others.photoThe last part of the meal to get prepared was fairly quick and simple, and despite being an untried variation on my standard approach to a stir-fry of beef it wasn’t so far afield that I didn’t trust its outcome. So while the pan was heating up, I sliced a lovely grass-fed skirt steak and whizzed up the frying sauce of fresh ginger root (about two tablespoons of small-diced root that I preserved in vodka in the fridge, with just a dash of the vodka to help it blend), Tamari, lime juice, a tiny bit of honey, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Spicy but not fiery, and full of fresh ginger flavor.photoQuickly searing the beef and adding the sauce at the last so as to keep it from scorching while it could still caramelize a bit, I gave a shout to my dinner partner in the other room, and we piled up our plates. The potatoes were fine, if not exactly stellar; the vegetables were predictably comforting in their apologetic simplicity after the potato near-miss, and the beef was tender and zingy with ginger’s welcome tingling heat. I’d say I’m working my way up in the culinary world, gradually at least.

Foodie Tuesday: Wine, Dark & Light

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Close observation magnifies everything, both the good and the bad.

One day in the wine aisle of the local store I had occasion to observe a striking study in contrasts.

As I drifted along in search of a couple of bottles for an upcoming dinner party, I couldn’t avoid overhearing two twenty-something guys as one told the other quite volubly that he was hoping he could fine a lawyer good enough to negotiate him out of Resisting Arrest charges if he pleaded guilty to the Driving Under the Influence charge. There were a whole slew of reasons I was horrified to hear this conversation. First of all, it was yet another example of the loss of social inhibition that saddens and frustrates me these days; how is it acceptable to discuss personal, legal, private matters in normal tones and in great detail in a public place like a grocery store?

I was privy, however unwillingly, to details like the confessor’s noting his level of drunkenness as having been so profound that three hours later when he was having blood tests in the hospital he was still unable to speak clearly, and his friend’s commiseration for apparently having had a similar experience. What I did not overhear, not once, was any indication of regret, remorse or contrition. This was all discussed pretty much in the same manner as they might have recounted a tedious everyday hassle at the office. No sense anywhere in this that the guys themselves could’ve been killed or maimed, or property been damaged or destroyed, let alone that they had opted to put everyone in their proximity at the same risks by choosing to get behind the wheel.

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Of course, when seen so clearly, some things, and people, turn out to be just a bunch of drips.

Talk about, no pun intended, a sobering time.

But I drink alcohol, too. It’s just that I find the idea of drinking past where it’s for taste into where the drink starts making my decisions for me repugnant. I drink specifically to taste.

So it was a startling, and rather refreshing, change of pace when the offending fools finally vacated the aisle and I was approached by a very gracious young woman who asked me politely for advice to a neophyte on choosing red wines. Her adorable toddler daughter sat cheerily and peaceably in the shopping cart throughout what turned into a fairly lengthy conversation, because of course I was suddenly acutely aware of all sorts of questions I’d not considered in a long time. It seems that this lady had a companion who was encouraging her to broaden her horizons and join him in his enjoyment of red wines, and she was accustomed only to cocktail liquor. That’s admittedly a pretty big leap for a palate, whether you’re used to straight vodka or mixed drinks with it as an ingredient.

What could I say that would be of any use to her at all?

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Wine choosing is so hard to learn. Is it *true* that eggs and wine are *always* terrible companions?

Start, yes, with the idea that wines have enormous range in terms of flavors, intensities and affinities–there can be something for nearly every taste and occasion. This, coupled with the personality of wine being perhaps even more of an acquired taste than fruity, herbal or spicy cocktails even when those are made high-octane with something like vodka, is hugely intimidating. Wine snobs do nothing to dispel the fears, with their wacky vernacular of nose and legs, drinkable cement and tar and leather, and huffiness toward anyone drinking anything not Serious or trendy enough.

Finally I did think to tell her that the only really useful and non-terrifying way I’ve learned about red wines other than over a long, long time is to turn to that friendlier set of ‘experts’, those who have an interest in selling you wines. I rarely think of salespeople as my first choice for information resources, but in the (pun intended, this time) case of wine merchants, their vested interest in selling their wares and further, in making them appealing and accessible to a wide audience, makes them a bit more willing and artful educators on the subject than experts who have only themselves to please.

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I mean, sheesh, there are so many red wines; what on earth is my ideal one to drink with a grass-fed skirt steak?

That’s what moved me to tell the nice lady not to risk her hard-earned cash on bottle by bottle experimentation but to seek out the local venues that offer wine tastings. A series of sips, and any amount of snob-sanctioned spitting that it takes to keep sanely sober and free of swallowing swill, is a far quicker way to get a hint of what one actually likes than any other.

Get thee to a wine tasting! My palate is far from sophisticated, but I’ve learned enough over time about what I do and don’t enjoy in wines that I can choose–red or white or any other color, still or bubbly, dry or sweet, or distinct in any other way–with some confidence that I’ll enjoy what I taste. One good glass at a time. Meanwhile, don’t forget to read, too. Not only can articles and even wine labels themselves tell you a lot of useful stuff you might find helpful in your search for deliciousness, as any of you reading this blog would undoubtedly know, being veteran web researchers, there are now a huge number of online resources devoted to oenophilic wisdom.

Most importantly, trust yourself and do what suits you. You might find, after all of the effort and education, that wine is simply Not Your Thing. Why on earth waste time and money (and, potentially, healthy sobriety) on something that doesn’t suit you! You may very well find, if you do like wines that the wines you enjoy most aren’t those that the critics and suave sophisticates admire and tout. If so, feel free to come slumming with me. I’m sure I have a bottle or two in my tiny collection that would make any expert swoon with horror, yet I am more than content to keep sipping at what I like because I like it. And I have been through a few wine tastings, done a bit of reading, and spent plenty of adult years getting the experience that has taught me what I do like, and that it’s perfectly okay to like what wines I like and drink them, no matter what anyone else thinks. Including having a cocktail or beer instead, if that’s my mood.

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Two drink-related things I *am* pretty sure about involve salt: 1, avoid that hideous abomination purporting to be ‘cooking wine’ that is really just cheap vino with salt added to it (as wiser folk have admonished, if it ain’t worth drinking, it ain’t worth cooking with it); 2, salt can, conversely, be quite friendly with tequila or beer if applied properly. See also: Margaritas, Coronitas…