May 19, 2006
New York Steak with Stilton and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction:
This month, we have a combined WBW and IMBB entry, whose theme is (naturally) pairing food with wine. I took the easy way out this time, motivated largely by the fact that I had to prepare this meal on a weeknight and so didn't have the time to do anything more elaborate. Even so, I've been meaning to write this entry for a long time, in part due to the urgings of a friend of mine who has always wanted to know how I prepare steaks.
Cooking a good steak is easy. But the difference between a good steak and a great steak is not quite as easily to pin down. I try to make incremental improvements to my procedure when I can, and welcome any suggestions for further improvement.
Personally, I feel that the grill is the best place to cook a steak. Unfortunately, in my current apartment situation, I don't usually have access to one. And I know that in many parts of the world, cooking with a grill is impractical part of the year. Hence, I'll discuss the sear-roast method here.
The General Procedure
Turn on your oven to 450 degrees F. Salt and pepper both sides of your steaks thoroughly. Put the burner on medium-high and let your pan heat up. When it's hot (a few droplets of water sprinkled from your hand should sizzle away rapidly) pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into the pan and swirl it around. Put the pan back on the burner and wait until the oil starts to smoke.
Put the steaks in the pan. Let them develop a nice sear on the one side, which will probably happen in 2-3 minutes, but be mindful and check regularly until you know your stove and your pan fairly well. The surface of the meat should be a deep brown color, but no charring or burning should have taken place. When you see this, flip the steaks. Put a pat of butter on top of each, and slip them in the oven.
I've heard this called the sear-roast method. If you use just the pan, typically, you flip the steaks and turn the heat down to medium. What this often yeilds is a steak with a strong gradient. Cut down the middle, you'd find gray/brown at the surface gradually turning pink, and then turning dark pink in the center (assuming you've cooked it to medium-rare). The texture is highly varied. A steak cooked properly using the sear-roast method, however, will give you a very thin layer of gray/brown where the sear is, and an even dark pink throughout. I think this is much more professional and much tastier, as you get the entire steak at whatever temperature that you prefer, rather than just the center.
An Entirely Rational Discussion Of Steak Temperature
As far as steak temperature goes: flavor, texture, and tenderness are highly compromised if you cook a steak at anything above medium. Medium rare is, of course, generally considered optimal. Exactly what temperature is that, you may ask? Well, I thought we all agreed on what those terms meant. Then I found a couple of sites like this one who were spreading an entirely different gospel. Apostasy! All I have to say is this: if I'm in a restaurant and I'm paying you $35 for a steak, and I ask for it medium-rare, and you bring me something cooked to 150 degrees Farenheit, I'm sending it back to the kitchen, and spanking your ass on the way out. And not in a fun way.
So who is responsible for this heresy? I hope this doesn't make me sound like a wearer of tinfoil hats, but I think it's the government. No, seriously! A normal list starts with "Rare" and begins Medium-Rare squarely at 130 degrees F. But you'll notice that all these lists omit "Rare" entirely, and start Medium-Rare at 145 degrees, which is quite close to the temperatures at the core of the sun and may reduce your expensive two-inch thick grass-fed dry-aged USDA prime black Angus Porterhouse to a trapezoid of steaming charcoal. Medium Rare indeed! What is this, some sort of culinary newspeak? Clearly these government types are only interested in protecting your body. They care nothing for the safety of your soul, which is obviously in jeopardy if you're eating 150 degree steaks on a regular basis.
(Editors note: it turns out that up until the 1990's, the FDA had the same idea as everyone else regarding what was rare and what was medium. Then they decided to issue new guidelines in an effort to combat food-borne illnesses. Instead of just encouraging everyone to get their meat medium instead of medium-rare, however, they decided to change the scale, confusing everyone for no good reason. Your tax dollars at work!)
How to tell when your steak is done
There are four widely-recommended methods to tell when your steak is done.
- The color test: Cut into one of the steaks and judge by color. Plenty of sites will guide you in this method. The problem with it is that you must cut rather dramatically into the steak, which lets the juices escape. Don't let the juices escape.
- The finger test: This method has you poke the steak with your finger or with some other instrument. With some practice, you can tell whether or not it's done from the springiness of the meat. To give you some assistance, some proponents compare the feel of the steak to the springiness of certain parts of your body, e.g., parts of your arm or your hand. The disadvantage of this method is that it is somewhat inexact. Besides, it takes practice to get the hang of it, and in the meantime you'll be ruining a bunch of steaks.
- The meat thermometer: Clearly the easiest and most exact. The only disadvantage is that you do pierce the meat, so there is some juice loss.
- The USDA method: Use a portable mass spectrometer to confirm that the combustion process has removed all hydrogen and oxygen atoms from the meat, leaving only carbon atoms that can be safely consumed.
Personally, I use the finger method to get a rough idea of how a steak is doing, but a meat thermometer in the final minutes on one of the steaks to get a more exact reading. I'd recommend picking up a simple, instant-read, digital thermometer like this one or this one.
Remember that a piece of meat will continue to cook after it's pulled away from its heat source. Its temperature will continue to rise from 5 to 10 degrees afterward. So the tricky bit is to take it out just before it's done. This is easy enough if you're using the thermometer method, but a bit trickier otherwise.
Balsamic Vinegar Sauce:
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 frond rosemary, intact
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/3 cup beef or veal stock
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper
Put the vinegar, stock, and the rosemary in a small pot over medium heat until it begins to steam. Adjust the temperature so that it continues to steam, but not boil excessively. Let it reduce by half. Add the brown sugar and the salt and stir until they dissolve completely. Let the mix continue to reduce slowly until it begins to thicken; there should be less than 1/4 c of liquid left; perhaps as little as 1/8 c. Remove the rosemary frond and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat.
When you're ready to serve, bring the sauce back up to temperature. Break the butter up into 4-6 pieces and whisk them into the sauce. Serve immediately.
The reduction takes some time, so don't leave this until the very end. I usually try to have the reduction complete before I put the steaks on. Then, while the steaks are resting, I whisk in the butter.
Though extremely simple to make, this sauce is, I think, very delicious and quite professional in appearance. When done right, it's full-bodied and velvety, but neither vinegary nor overly sweet. It pairs well with intensely flavored meats such as lamb and venison, but I've had similar sauces at restaurants on more delicately flavored meats such as rabbit and chicken (links?), so don't be afraid to try that as well. I even use a variation of this sauce as a dressing for certain kinds of salads (e.g. here, under "Baked Goat Cheese Salad").
- Don't smother the steak in this (or any) sauce. A good steak is its own reward, and if it isn't, buy a different cut or from a different store. This sauce is intended to be dripped in small portions alongside the steak, and it should be thick enough that it doesn't just spread over the whole plate.
- After removing the steaks from the pan to let them rest, pour out any fat that remains in the pan. Put the pan back on the heat on top of the stove, and use a bit of white wine, red wine, or balsamic vinegar to degrease the pan, scraping up any bits left on the pan. After this reduces to a teaspoon or so of liquid, pour it into the sauce.
- After letting the steaks rest, whisk any juices that have escaped the steak into the sauce just before you whisk the butter in.
- Several useful variations: instead of stock, use pureed fruit or unsweetened fruit juice. I've used blueberries, blackberries, and even fresh strawberries in this role. If you use pureed fruit (as opposed to juice), the sauce won't appear quite as professional, but it will be fruitier. If you use juice, consider putting in a handful of the corresponding fresh fruit towards the end of the reduction phase.
And the wine is...
The featured wine for the evening is the 1999 Louis-Laval Cabernet Sauvignon. We have a special relationship to this wine, as Louis-Laval was the winery that Rebecca and I worked at for a few weeks while we were in Australia, before going to graduate school.
The pairing, of course, is a no-brainer to some degree (Cabernet with steak! Who'd have thought!), but there's more here than meets the eye. There's something about the dusty backpalate on our favorite Hunter Valley reds that marries particularly well with the sear on a good steak. In addition, the prominent acids we expected from this wine would mean, we hoped, that it would fare well against the sauce.
June 12, 2005
Reuben Sandwich Recipe
- Soppressata with aged pecorino, ripe roma tomatoes, mayonnaise and dijon mustard on ciabatta,
- Prosciutto, Stilton, and fig preserves baked into a sourdough round, and
- A Pastrami Reuben between thick slices of toasted pumpernickel.
These closely edge out Banh Mi Dac Biet, Muffaletta, and Croque Madame, which would probably be next on the list in that order. (Of course, if you ask me next week, that might all change.) This weekend, for my last meal cooking for friends in the Orange County area, I decided to whip up some Reubens.
The traditional Reuben sandwich consists of corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and swiss cheese on rye bread. Contemporary versions sometimes use Thousand Island instead of the closely related Russian dressing and pastrami instead of the closely related corned beef.
An incredible amount of lore surrounds the sandwich and its primary condiment. No less than three different creation stories exist for the sandwich itself. If you're interested in contemporary food folklore at all, take the time to check out this incredibly fascinating article by Jim Rader of Merriam-Webster that evaluates the credibility of these claims. The section on the Reuben begins about halfway down the page.
As far as why the dressing is called "Russian", it is asserted that it's because
- Early recipes included caviar [link].
- Early recipes included yogurt, which at the time was thought of as being a food that Russians consumed [link].
- it was pink, and in America at the time of the dressing's invention, Russian salads were thought of as having pink dressings [link].
The Reuben is most at home on dark Russian rye. Pumpernickel will do, though, and quite frankly I don't exactly know what the difference is. For this occasion, however, I decided to go in a non-traditional direction. I bought the meats and other ingredients at a grocery store that caters to a Middle Eastern clientele, and they bake gorgeous flatbreads and sell them to you straight out of the oven. As you can see in the picture above, I used these to wrap the Reuben filling, pinning it together with a toothpick. This worked out very well. The flatbread's flavor and texture worked spectacularly with the Reuben filling. Sacrilege? Maybe, but it's very tasty sacrilege.
- Pastrami (about 1/3 - 1/2 lb per sandwich)
- Gruyere or other Swiss cheese
There's no reason to use bottled Thousand Island dressing when you can make a much better Russian dressing at home in short order.
- 1 c mayonnaise
- 1/4 c sour cream
- 1/4 c ketchup
- 1 tbsp horseradish
- 2 tbsp good wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
- 1 tbsp celery seed or fennel seed
- 2 tbsp finely chopped dill pickle
- 2 tbsp finely chopped shallots (optional)
- 1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Makes about 1 1/2 cups of dressing, or enough for 6 sandwiches.
Normally, the sandwich is assembled, a little butter is put down on a hot pan, and the whole sandwich is grilled until the cheese melts and the bread is toasted. My procedure is quite different, partially due to my preferences, and partially due to the constraints provided by the wrap. I enjoyed the result immensely, though, so I may use this as the model for all of my future Reubens.
- Shred the Gruyere.
- Shred the Pastrami coarsely with your hands.
- Mix the Pastrami, the Gruyere, and half of the sauce together in a bowl.
- Microwave the mixture for 45 seconds per serving, or until the edges of the pastrami crisp.
- Squeeze all of the liquid out of the sauerkraut.
- Put down a thin layer of sauce on the bread. Add the pastrami mixture and top with sauerkraut.
- If you're using regular bread slices, grill the sandwich in a pan with a bit of butter.
Balsamic Strawberry Shortbread: an old standby, but it's quick and easy and sooo good. Which, one presumes, is why it's an old standby. Rebecca whipped up some shortbread, and between that and a little ice cream, you have a perfect dessert for company. (The ice cream is in the center below the strawberries in the picture.)
The procedure is simple enough:
- Slice 16 oz of fresh strawberries.
- Pour 1/4 cup of good balsamic vinegar over the slices.
- Add 2-3 tbsp of brown sugar and mix through.
- Let mixture sit for 45 minutes in the refrigerator, tossing the mixture every 15 minutes.
- Serve over ice cream, shortbread, puff pastry, cheesecake, or whatever you have lying around.
- Top with a dollop of whipped cream, sour cream, creme fraiche, or whatever you have lying around.
I'm not normally the "fresh fruit and dairy" type of dessert person; I prefer my sins to be heavier and more decadent. This is one simple dessert that is much greater than the sum of its parts, however.
- The Reuben Realm is a site devoted to reviews of the Reuben offerings from various restaurants. Most of the reviews so far are centered around Indiana, so if you're nearby (and like Reubens) it might prove to be a valuable resource.
- Snopes has an entertaining discussion on the etymology of the word "pumpernickel".
February 02, 2002
salsa virgin no more
Rebecca hates onions. No, she doesn't "dislike onions" or "prefer not to eat raw onions" or think they're fine as long as she can't taste them; Rebecca hates onions in all of their myriad forms, raw or cooked, whole or chopped, purple or sweet. Ditto scallions, shallots, and leeks.
Combine this with an indifference to tomatoes, a complete intolerance for spicy foods, and a complete and utter lack of respect for all things Mexican, and one can easily calculate the food that Rebecca is least likely to consume: Salsa.
So you can imagine my surprise when, last week Rebecca suggested that I make salsa.
I tried to make sense of it all. She has been warming up to the humble tomato over the past few months, I've noticed. And she figures that she can get me to omit the onions, and to not make it particularly spicy (sheesh!). Her personal sacrifice will be to ignore the Mexican Food Issue.
I threw together something on Saturday. I don't have an exact ingredients list, but I know it involved:
Fresh tomatoes Canned tomatoes Tomato paste Red bell peppers Poblano peppers Pineapple Pears Fresh cilantro Minced garlic Tabasco sauce Balsamic vinegar Honey Salt Roast the poblanos briefly using your oven's broiler until the sides char. Peel them. (I've heard that it helps to loosen the skin if you cool them in a resealable plastic bag.) Chop the tomatoes, tomato paste, cilantro, bell peppers, roasted poblanos, and fruit in a food processor or chopper. Add the garlic, vinegar, and honey, and mix. Add tabasco to taste. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Salt to taste.
This was my first attempt at making salsa. I was happy with the result. I tried to emphasize sweetness in this salsa, since I couldn't make it too hot. This may have proven to be a mistake, since my test subjects weren't expecting a sweet salsa -- I think they expected something more like "regular" salsa but without the onions. And without the spiciness. Which are two of the three things that make regular salsa worth eating.
But I'm not bitter. They seemed to like it pretty well anyhow.
I have enough tomatoes and cilantro to make another batch, so I may do it again soon. I'll have to figure out how to make it interesting without the fruit and the sweetness, especially given that the fresh tomatoes aren't all that good. Hmmm...