Monday, January 14, 2013

Fishy business

I'm constantly surprised by how many people around just don't like seafood. I'm in the South, so it's not exactly Kansas. Catfish, shrimp, and day-fresh catches from the gulf are kind of a common thing. Still, I run into lots of folks who just can't be bothered with seafood, or if they do, they only indulge if it's paired with that other southern past time - deep frying. I would never want to disparage a good piece of fried fish, especially some catfish fried in cornmeal with the tail fin included (it's the best part we keep from Yankees). With that said, let's level. Eat some fish. Get crazy. Live a little. It won't kill you, it's easier than you probably think it is, and the worst part is that you'll probably like it.

When I'm confronted by someone who claims they "don't like fish" and I eliminate vegetarianism/veganism from the possible reasons, the next one up is that "it's fishy". The smell, or the taste, it's just a tell-tale funk. The problem isn't the fish. Well it is, but it's not an unavoidable one. "Fishy" fish isn't fresh fish. That smell and taste is from fish that is either off or in the process of going off. Fish has a much shorter fuse than beef, poultry, pork, etc. You can't park it in a fridge on Monday with aspirations of a weekend menu. Just doesn't work the same way. Believe me, I thought I could get cute with a piece of sea bass a few years ago and bought two days before I was ready to use. What was a nice piece of fish then (and it was, paid out my nose for it from Whole Foods) was rank trash when I was ready to put it on a bed of risotto. Disaster!

Assume I'm talking nonsense. Go ahead. Do this if you're skeptical. Go to a Japanese restaurant with a friend who's into sushi. I assume if we're having this conversation you'll be having something else, but before you do, get a good whiff of their sushi. Whatever you smell, it's not going to be that low tide funk you're dreading. That's fresh. Sushi places can't fake it, and they can't push crap to you. Now ask yourself why you're afraid of that stink? Because there's a bunch of people who do push dodgy seafood on people, and too many people don't send it back, they just assume they don't like seafood.

There's a counter at the seafood section of your grocer for a reason. You need to be having some face time with the person who you're buying this stuff from. Ask them questions. When did they get their fish? From where? Most probably won't know the second question and unless you're really into locavore stuff you probably won't care, but you can certainly look at and smell the wares. If they won't let you or you can't get that kind of access, take your business elsewhere.

But seriously, eat some fish. Hell, I'll even give you an easy one:

When you find that honest fishmonger, look at their salmon. I'm gonna throw you a curveball now. Get the one with the skin. Fine, get all the "ewwwws" out of your system. It's silver and shiny and weird I know. Trust me. Get the skin-on salmon because that skin is fish bacon, and I'm gonna show you why you want it.

So make sure you have all this stuff:
  • Salmon, skin on, about a pound.
  • a dozen stalks of asparagus
  • Juice from a lemon
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped scallions
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • rice, couscous, pasta, quinoa, or whatever grain you want, I don't care go nuts here.
Preheat your oven to 350. Cut your salmon into meat cubes and lay them in a pyrex baking dish, skin-side up. Melt your butter and mix with the lemon juice, parsley, scallions, and garlic. Now lay your asparagus stalks between your fish and pour the butter mixture over that. This part's important here - don't pour the mixture over the skin. In fact, once you pour that over, blot the salmon skin dry with a paper towel and brush the olive oil on top, then apply salt and pepper to it. You don't want any water on that skin, because it's gonna get crispy. Bake that salmon about 8 minutes or so. When it's done, pop the dish under the broiler for another three or four.

Mix the pan juices and butter with your grains, then add your asparagus and fish to the plate. The skin will snap under your fork and crackle, like bacon or a perfect baked chicken skin. The meat under that skin will be absolutely tender and cleave along the grain with no effort at all.

That's about 30 minutes of work, if that. Best of all, you don't have to fuss with it to make it something it's not. It's exactly what it is, a perfectly cooked piece of fish. If you've sourced a good one, you'll knock this meal out of the park. While you can serve this to pretty much anybody with a pulse, I suggest making it a romantic dinner. I am a huge fan of impressing my wife without having to actually make any significant effort, and she was a big fan of this. It also pairs with chardonnay and I almost never drink that crap since I never have a good excuse, so go nuts.

I'll be putting up a few other seafood ideas here in the next few weeks, including stuff a little more casual than this. All I ask is that if you're on the fence and picky when it comes to fish and such, you give me the benefit of the doubt for at least one of 'em.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Since I didn't die in the Mayan Apocalypse I should probably blog more.

(Blows a thick layer of dust off my blog.)

Hello there!

So yeah, it's been a really really damn long time since I've actually blogged. Part of it is because the word blog sounds funny. Part of it is because I'm extremely lazy and its easier to photo-dump and food chat in facebook's echo chamber. That's made for a year of fairly low-content and high velocity food blurbs, and nothing particularly in depth. So I'm aiming to change all that. It's not going to be easy, man. Not at all. I'm fighting against a powerful lazy urge that is genetically written into my bones. Now, you might say "But Chuck, you do all of this cooking, surely you can't be lazy!"

You would be silly and wrong. I have to eat to live. I do not have to blog to live. So no matter how lazy I am, I do enjoy to eat food and be alive, so they're slightly different things, cooking and blogging about cooking.

But like I said, change is in the air. The Mayans didn't kill us with an ancient alien mecha doomsday whatever, so I feel a new lease on life, and as I've already established, that necessary life process that is cooking and eating food. So since I both love contradictions and abhor new year's resolutions, let me say with confidence that:

In the year 2013, I will blog no less than 52 entries, at least one blog entry per week!

If I succeed, I will buy myself a bottle of single malt scotch as a reward in 2014. If I lose, I will buy myself a bottle of single malt scotch to console my broken heart in 2014. I love a hedged bet.

And because not every week can be a journey into homemade charcuterie or doing a DIY food crawl of Indonesian street food, I'd also like to spend a portion of that time visiting, eating at, and writing about some of the fairly badass eating establishments in and around my home city of Birmingham, Alabama. Before my readers in NYC scoff (yes, I can feel you judging me) we may not have a food scene like that, but you take a city + metro of 1.5 million or less and compare it to us. We do pretty dadgum good down here, and I intend to spread the love around. Whether you like Lebanese chain gyro shops or chefs that make Bobby Flay look stupid on national TV (always a good thing), you'll find both in the 2-0-5.

And just to make sure I'm not no-content posting, here's what I made to ring in the New Year. I forgot to buy the usual traditional stuff like collards and black-eyed peas, but I did at least have a greasy breakfast on hand to offset any new years festivities.

Toast, some garlic rosemary and cheddar hash browns, and home-cured applewood rosemary bacon. My wife did the honors with the poached egg to make it all perfect.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food Vogue

I've said it plenty of times that food can be a medium to express art. This depends on both the artisan making it, and the person eating it to be discriminating enough to expect expression as well as nourishment. If you want to get really nerdy and pedantic about it, think of another form of art that stimulates all five senses. See your food, smell your food, taste your food, feel it's texture, and maybe even hear it crunch or sizzle. I'm not making some bid to make food more or less than it is, but even if we're not talking about haute cuisine, we can still have a dialogue about changing food trends.

Even for relatively young folks like myself, I can remember a time when eating a bit of strange involved three flavors: Italian (generic red sauce over a mound of spaghetti and...meatballs, remember them?) Chinese (chop suey and fortune cookies are as American as apple pie, guys), and Mexican (Hamburger meat and plastic cheese on a pre-formed Dorito). In relatively short term, we've evolved.

My God, have we evolved. Now we've got sushi available at almost any grocery store and college dining halls, my workplace cafeteria serves gyros, and my alma mater's strip of bars and restaurants adjacent to campus has the bizarre distinction of having a Thai restaurant across the street from - wait for it - another Thai restaurant. When was the first time you tried hommous? Now, it's arguably a bigger mover at grocery stores than the ubiquitous french onion dip. I tend to follow these things a bit and nerd out, so I'm hip to little trends like people putting strange foods in arrangements that look like tiny ice cream cones, which Thomas Keller pioneered. Two years ago, sliders became "in". Last year, everybody made fancy hamburgers. This year, it's predicted that hot dogs will be the next gussied up street food.

Sometimes I have to wonder whether it's awesome this is happening, or if I'm becoming a slave to fashion, just of another kind of fashion. Am I going to find myself in a cold sweat at 3AM trolling Urbanspoon for some new local restaurant to land on the scene? I don't want to be that guy. I'm no Patrick Bateman. Patrick Bateman was a serial killer, and that ain't cool. But this kind of stuff does interest me, and does find me wondering where the trends will go, and if they'll be worth following. You probably won't find me pulling hairs out over molecular gastronomy taking a shot at a Moroccan tagine, but you're kidding yourself if you don't think we'll be looking at an even more diverse food scene even in five years. Welcome to flavor country.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Making stock

Sometimes I'm glad I have a deep freeze.

Today would be just such a day.

You see, every once in a while, we roast a bird in our house. Usually a chicken, but sometimes the occasional turkey too. Once everything is carved out and parcelled into whatever dishes we're making, the bones are saved and put into dated freezer bags and tucked into the deep freeze, in anticipation of a backlog building up. Once I have enough (usually 4 chicken carcasses, or two chicken carcasses + 1 turkey carcass or 2 turkey carcasses, you get the idea!) I pull out the bones, arrange them on a baking sheet, and let them get toasty on 400 degrees for an hour, usually alongside a carrot and maybe half an onion. I take those out, cram them into my stock pot (sometimes violently, if it has trouble fitting) and pour about 12 cups of water in. My mom also got me a big mesh ball thing for putting herbs and aromatics into to flavor stocks, so I finally put that to use today as well. The stock I made will be used in pho, a Vietnamese noodle dish vaguely similar to ramen, so I flavored it with ginger, bay leaf, and green onions. When it's ready for showtime, it'll also get a little fish sauce and sugar, but that's for later.

I put my stock pot on a low simmer for a good two hours, all the while trying to press down the mass of bones a little farther down the pot, so everything is as submerged as possible. I kept the heat just under a boiling threshold, and after it was done, I carefully removed the small graveyard's worth of spent bones into a quadruple-bagged disposal, so I can keep it separate from our punk cats that just love to tear into neglected trash. The stock was then strained, skimmed repeatedly, and returned to the pot to reduce by a bit, until the flavor and seasoning were just right. After that, I poured the stock into a few storage tubs, and tucked them into the fridge for use later. The last thing I'll have to do before using them is to check tomorrow for the fat that will rise to the top and harden. After I remove that, I'll have a good ten cups of the best stock on earth, ready to do my bidding.

It's a bit of a ramble I guess, but if there's a moral to the story, you should probably be a miser with whatever kind of bones, shells, and stuff like that whenever possible. It's something that now comes natural to me and my wife, and when the payoff comes, it's always worth it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Adventures in the Asian Market

Last summer, a friend of mine piqued my curiosity with a trip down to one of our city's many Asian markets. I think what caught my attention was the big bin advertising live bullfrogs for sale in both English and Chinese. Now, as a self-respecting southerner of sorts, I've never had an aversion to eating frog, but the markets I get it at usually sell them, well, hacked off at the hind quarter, ostensibly ready to batter and fry, as a southerner is liable to do. I was intrigued. I had to go.

Trouble was, I'm an awful driver. Purely terrible, even with GPS holding my hand. I wound up at an Asian market, sure enough, but the wrong one. A small, forgotten little corner store tucked into a service road near one of those strange shaved ice shacks that somehow still manage to stay in business. Alas, no mysterious live bullfrogs. Not even any power in the shop, as the store owner was having a very heated one-way argument with an Alabama Power guy over what seemed to be a botched wiring job. I settled for some very affordable napa cabbage, a tall boy bottle of oyster sauce, and I went home defeated.

I moved on to other things, namely trying to find awesome carnicerias in whatever barrio I could uncover. Found myself a ready supply of the finer things in life, like beef tongue and tripe. For the moment, my attention was suitably diverted. I made tacos. Lots of tacos. Tacos for potluck events, tacos for friends, tacos for family. Sure, there were other things (the usual work week curries, to name one), but I think it's safe to say that a good chunk of 2010 was spent flipping corn tortillas.

Still, I'm loathe to stay on one trend for too long. The lure of the Asian market never left me. My wife got me into rolling our own sushi, and got me hooked on that for a good month. Seeing a good idea, she bought me a very nice sushi cookbook, and in a one-two punch, a Vietnamese cookbook. Being a sucker for regional-specific stuff like that, I tore through that book in a day. I was hooked. My wife and I made arrangements with my friend and his girlfriend for a little weekend excursion.

The Super Oriental Market was a strange sight when we first pulled up. It was in a building that, half a lifetime ago, used to be a Quincy's steakhouse. You know, the ones with the big yeast rolls, and the back quarter of the establishment set up as a sun room for whatever reason. The glass windows and doors leading in were nearly completely obfuscated with ads, fliers, and the sort of things you'd expect at any other corner store or bodega. Some bored-looking lady chain-smoked on a picnic bench outside while a couple of kids ran around and fussed. In the abandoned parking lot, a few green patches permitted a few scrawny exotic trees to grow, which looked a bit beaten-down by the nasty winter we'd so far endured.

Upon entering, it was dark, cluttered, and smelled of fish. When I say fish, I don't mean that off smell that you get from stuff that's been neglected for a day or two and is going south. I mean it smelled of nice, fresh fish. And sure enough, to our right there was a wall of delights from the sea. Live eels, live crabs, prawns, snails, conch (OMG), flounder, and lobsters. The lobsters (my wife's favorite) were both enormous and cheap. At $9 a pound, they completely undercut Publix's atrocious $15 / pound, and my wife picked one out that was nearly five pounds!

Adjacent to the lobster tank, I also spotted my holy grail:

Live bullfrogs! The staff was rather busy (and I couldn't quite justify buying any at that moment) so I saved any questions on preparation for another trip, but it was still awesome to see they had them. I'm sure I'll have them for another time. Besides, it was lunchtime, the gang was getting hungry, and the market just so happened to have an in-market restaurant, the Red Pearl. We decided to tuck in for a little strange.

This hot little number is "Crispy salted baby fish with peanuts". I wasn't sure what to expect (well, I was thinking maybe anchovies or something) but it sure wasn't this. Each one of the noodle-like things in that picture is some kind of fry, ie, literally a baby fish. You can't see it from the picture, but they're the whole fish, including the head, eyes, and all. The taste was a bit like a seafood version of a pork rind, and was mixed well with peanuts and very potent chili peppers. Tasty with rice, but a little on the dry side. Still, fun to dabble in.

My wife got a Szechwan style chitterling hot pot, which was a wonderful bit of comfort food. Hot pots have always reminded me of a slice of old school Americana, and the old fashioned sunday pot roast, just different. Very filling stuff.

After we ate, we decided to get back to shopping in earnest. Most of it was window shopping, since we could only afford to shop for a few things we'd be able to use immediately, and for things that would keep, that we could use for future cooking projects. I loaded up on the jarred and bottled necessities for further Asian cooking: fish sauce, japanese curry packets, oyster sauce, dried shrimp, bean sauce, noodles of all sorts, rice paper, and much more. We picked up a few things we were sure we could dispatch, like quail eggs (finally, I find somebody around here who sells them!), gio lua for making Vietnamese banh mi and a whole rabbit. We were tempted by this little guy, a la A Christmas Story, but decided to save the "smiling Chinese turkey" for another day.

We even dabbled in a few of the non-edible items. In the sun room section of the building, they had a dizzying assortment of serving dishes, utensils, and the like. I priced out their woks, which were too expensive for my liking, and gawked at some fantastic looking serving dishes that would probably have to wait for another day. I couldn't resist a $15 chinese cleaver that was very heavy, very sharp, and full tang. Total bargain on that one.

At the end of a good two hour shopping romp, we finally wrapped things up and checked out. In a random act of kindness, and I think as some consolation for a couple of wide-eyed idiots coming into the store and spending a hefty chunk of change, the lady at the register threw in a jar of chinese rice-coated peanuts (in "pizza flavor") for free. Totally unexpected and awesome.

Of all my discoveries of strange little markets in and around this city, I have to say this was the most fun trip to a market I've ever had. I'm well good and spent for this month, but I look forward to going there again next month, and hopefully many more times in the future.


Since I'm a little sleep deprived, I forgot to put the link to the market's website on here, so lemme correct that now:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

I don't believe in resolutions

What's it been? Seven months now?

Yeah, My bad.

I'd like to tell you I have some big excuse about why I haven't posted. Like, I was backpacking through Europe & the Middle East and didn't have a spare moment to write anything, or I moved to some faraway land without internet. Nothing so interesting. Mainly, I've been working like a dog, and when I do remember to write anything of note, I usually pull the ultimate lazy move and just put a picture and a blurb on Facebook. It would be awesome if I had some way to cross-pollinate from FB onto this blog and vice versa, and I'm sure there is, but in my old age I've become rather confused by modern technology. I was throwing pics from my iPhone onto Photobucket, but even that fell by the wayside.

The good news is that I'm getting back into the swing of things. New Year's resolution? Naw. I don't believe in them. Those usually go kaput by the time Valentine's Day rolls around anyway, so I'm not setting a goal for the sake of the new year. I am, however, redoubling my efforts in the kitchen, and while I may not have anything good to say every day, I figure I ought to have enough content to put something worth reading up every week. Maybe I go seven days a week, maybe I go one. Either way, once I get back in the habit of dumping recipes or just random food talk on here, it'll get easier I'm sure.

And to wet your appetite, here's something random from the months I've been away:

Mussels over lobster & saffron risotto. A tradition of sorts. My wife gets a lobster on her birthday, and I use the carapace to make stock for a little something the day after. First time cooking mussels, that was pretty fun.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Blues

Unless you're living under a rock, you all know by now about the BP Deep Water Horizon spill that's threatening essentially the entire Gulf of Mexico, if not the entire North Atlantic down the line. It's an environmental disaster, it's an economic disaster, it's a tourism disaster, it's a personal livelihood disaster. Let's face it, it's hard keeping up with the different sorts of disasters we have on our hands and will have for months and years.

Since this is a food blog and I try to stay on topic, a disaster that hits close to home is that I may be an old man before I'll ever have another gulf coast oyster again. That's tough to swallow. Tougher still when I remember what is probably the best dish of my life.

Last year on Mother's Day, I took my mom out to a nice little restaurant called Satterfield's. There were a few options for the special holiday prix fixe, but the starter I picked (paired with champagne) was a little flight of oysters.

The first oyster was a no-frills classic Oyster Rockefeller, with a touch of tarragon and rich creamy flavor that reminded me of every trip I've taken to New Orleans. The next oyster was a blue point, served raw on the half shell with shredded cucumber and a granita of passionfruit on top. Contrasted with the fatty Rockefeller, the brisk cold and acidity in that oyster completely wiped my palate clean and left me tasting the sea and sun all at once. The final oyster was such a bizarre presentation that I still smile thinking about it. A cordial glass was filled with a Bloody Mary, and nestled into the bottom of that glass was a raw gulf oyster, like the olive at the bottom of a martini. The salt and umami in the oyster really brought out the Worchestershire of the Bloody Mary, and the tart and the alcohol swept everything along as I chased it down. Three completely different directions with an oyster, and I was thrilled to be along for the ride.

I don't even really remember what else I ate that day. It obviously wasn't that important. But those oysters sure were, even as far away from the coast as we are in Birmingham. You see, even if we're not on the coast, the South relies on the gulf more than most people realize. It's our livelihood, sure, but it's also largely our culture. And with our culture involved, it certainly involves our food. The thought of a shrimp gumbo containing shrimp flash frozen from California or Mexico sickens me. The thought that I probably won't have another raw oyster unless I travel to some place with shores that aren't befouled by oil is almost unthinkable. It wasn't too long ago that I can remember being in the company of friends at a dive bar in New Orleans, down a few dozen bottles of Chimay and many more dozen empty half shells. I was a late bloomer liking those little things, and now that this has happened, I regret every day that's gone by that I didn't squeeze in an oyster or two. You just don't think about these things simply not being around anymore.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Strawberry Limeade Créme Brûlée

Yes, it sounds absurd, but you see I had a lot of strawberries and a lot of limes and my idiot brain is prone to run with hair-brained schemes.

As a cap-off to yesterday's Mother's Day spread (Steak Ducasse, thyme potatoes, haricot vert, baguettes, and red pepper pesto) I knew I would be making Créme Brûlée for dessert. Now, I'm not much of a dessert guy, so when I decide I'm even gonna bother, it's a moment of terror.

I've made Créme Brûlée before, so I know it's something I can do, but I didn't want to re-hash the same flavor. To top that off, we did get some very good fresh strawberries from Grow Alabama, and I had a general idea to top them on top of the sugar crust.

But...Créme Brûlée & berries alone is so played. It's the generic presentation. While there's something to be said of simplicity, I wanted to try it different than I've had it a million times over. That's when I remembered the limes we bought to make sparkling limeades (lime juice, carbonated water, sugar, mmmm), and I realized we had a ton left. Since both my wife and my mom are huge fans of Sonic's strawberry limeade drinks, it seemed like a sure thing. Most of this crap is a copy-paste with tweaks from my previous Créme Brûlée, so whatevs

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3/4 quart heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar + more for the top + more for macerating strawberries
  • zest of two limes
  • juice of two limes
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • About 6 strawberries, sliced
Begin by splitting and scraping your vanilla bean. You can do this with a good pointed knife by jamming it in the middle and pulling on it until it unzips, then turning it around to fully split it. Once split, scrape out the tarry inside of the bean.

Combine the bean and scrapings with heavy cream in your sauce pot. Bring this just to the threshold of a boi and remove from the heat. Cover and let cool completely. Remove the bean and discard. Whisk in the eggs and sugar, and add your lime zest to the cream.

Preheat the oven to 325. Get 4-6 ramekins and fill them with the cream. Put into a casserole dish and add hot water until it reaches halfway up the ramekin sides. Cover with foil. Bake for about 50 minutes or so, or until just barely set.

Cover and refrigerate a few hours, or up to a couple of days. About 30 minutes prior to eating, remove from the fridge. Dust enough sugar on the top to coat evenly. Using a blowtorch (you do have one, right? Get one!) start running the tip of the cone of blue flame around the surface of the ramekin. Turn as you apply heat. Avoid buring sugar. Keep your flame moving and your sugar moving. Work outside in.

When you're done, you should have a nice sheen of caramel-colored sugar armor on top of your custard.

From here, add sugar to the lime juice until it's fairly thick, then add your strawberry slices. This is called maceration. By putting your fruit into a very sugary mix, you will both soften the strawberries and also leach some of the strawberry juice into the sugar-lime syrup.

Last thing to do is to spoon some syrupy strawberry slices on top:

This was an awesome idea. The lime zest in the custard meets the lime juice on top and the strawberries and the acid punches through the fat in the custard. Feels very light.

It was a great end to the Mother's Day lunch. Mom loved it, and after that, we sat around enjoying some french pressed coffee and listened as my wife played some tunes on the piano. Happy Mother's Day, mom.

Steak, the Ducasse way

I've been eating a lot of steak lately.

Mind you, this isn't a backlash to my Lent days. You see, I'm on a mission to understand steak. I mean, I think most guys get the whole primal 'piece of meat, insert on grill here' thing. And yeah, that does produce a tasty steak when you're not using a crappy cut, cooked to medium or worse, and drowned in "steak sauce" (blech). But isn't there something else out there, man?

If you've been paying attention, you've seen the signs. I fiddled around with cast iron searing for those nice ribbon-thin italian steak salads (arugula mandatory, y'all). I've scourged my soul against the bottom of the barrel of French depravity with steak au poivre, and still I want more.

Enter Alain Ducasse, some French guy who cooks and apparently also likes steaks. Being French, he overcame his first instinct to surrender to the daunting challenge, and instead opted for the second instinct, which is to drown the hell out of a random thing with butter. Ahhh....buerre! Look, nobody said steak was a staple. If it's a staple for you, you're probably gonna die. Enjoy it as a treat, because it is a treat. And when you do, be EVIL. Seriously.

What Monsieur Ducasse does is two-fold. First off, hot fat (butter, also rendered beef fat) is a transport mechanism for flavor. You ever see those premium-priced flavor-infused olive oils? Well you're paying a premium for non extra-virgin oil that's basically heated with whatever it wants to taste like chucked into it. In that same respect, by adding aromatics and herbs into a pan with hot fat and cooking on a medium-low clip, you can pull the flavors out of those things into your delicious fat, which is...

...then basted over a steak in cast iron, cooking over a fairly low temperature. Why low? Doesn't this go against everything good and sacred in the Tome of Steak? Well...not really. For a thin steak (like, say, hanger steak), yes you want very very hot temperature on your grill, pan or whatever. That's because you want to spend as little time inducing the Maillard Reaction as possible.

Pause for a moment. Go up, click that link. The ideal crust for a steak is BROWN. Black is burnt. Black is carbon. Black is coal. You have gone too far. Unless you're a bad kid around Christmas, I don't imagine you have plans on eating coal, so STOP doing this to steak you spend your hard-earned money on, capice? There are grill-stripe fetishists out there and I guess y'all can toe the line if you must, but please don't overdo that stuff. Dry your steak off as completely as you can, season with salt and pepper, and you'll find that crust is easy to get, and you'll never look back.

Anyways, sorry for the segue. The gist is that brown is good, and makes us all happy campers. If you're keen on living on the wide open ranges of Flavor Country, you'll also want a little moo in your steak. I fully admit I used to be a medium to medium-well guy. I also fully admit I used to un-ironically listen to Chumbawamba. Bad choices only become mistakes if you don't learn from them, so I fully own up to being human. If you're an overdone steak afficionado and you're reading this, I've probably offended you. I'm not going to apologize for that, but I'm not going to prosthelytize either. You'll either try a little strange or you won't. I will tell you that if you're one of those weirdos, I've got to absolutely adore you as a friend or you've got to be a blood relative for me to overcook a steak for you. And even then, it kills me to do it these days.

So, let's assume here that we're all fans of that range between rare to medium-rare. To get that, and to get the Maillard crust, a thin steak has to be seared off fast, and is essentially over and done in maybe three or four minutes. I recommend even using it straight from the fridge so you've still got a bit of pent up chill for a cool center. For example, here's how my hanger steak turns out using that method:

Note both crust and center. That's about as money as it gets.

Now for a steak in the Ducasse style, we're basting the steak in that tasty flavored butter, right? Well to get the most flavor into that steak, we cook slow. We also do that so that we can cook a very thick steak and not have the outside a blackened mess and the inside still cold and raw (not to be confused with rare, y'all). I found most of my success to be with New York Strips. Here's the kicker, I would shoot for a cut that's two inches thick AT MINIMUM. This seems like madness, doesn't it? Well, at that thickness, I consider a cut of strip can be split to feed two people. Instead of imagining steak as some plate-covering thing, think of it instead as a fist of meat. Equal x, y, and z dimensions give or take. I highly recommend you get chatty with your local butcher if you can. Don't trust any place that just has meat out in shrink-wrapped packages and nobody to talk to. Talk to a butcher. Tell them you want some cow cut up the way you like it. That's why they're there.

With the steak being thick like that, you'll also want to bring it closer to room temp. How close is up to you. I've brought a steak all the way up to room temp and it was a bit too done through for my liking. I usually let it out of the fridge for an hour as a guess. The great thing about NY strips is that they also have this substantial strap of fat running along the back. After you rub both sides with salt and pepper, you can heat a dry cast iron pan and rest the steak on its side. This renders the fat off that strap and into your pan, so it contributes to your baste.

Once you slap a side down, DO NOT move it. Moving a steak, lifting it up to see "is it done yet?" is a great way to make sure you never get a crust at all. Busy your idle hands by putting herbs and aromatics into your skillet, then tabs of butter until you've got a liquid you can collect with a tilt of the pan, and can spoon over the top. Keep the steak where it is. If you must check on it, give the steak a prod on top. As a steak cooks, it will "tense up" a bit. Raw steak does not recover from a prod. As it cooks, it gradually gets more resilient. I'm loathe to throw out a real number of minutes to expect, but at a low gas setting on my burner, I usually keep a steak on each side for about ten minutes. Don't let this numerical estimate betray your instincts. Imagine I'm Ben Kenobi and you're Luke Skywalker, and there is a Steak Force. Use it.

Once you flip and repeat, all the while basting, you'll eventually be done with the task. I rest my steak on a cooling rack over a plate. Don't tuck into it immediately. I recommend resting it for about ten minutes after cooking to redistribute the juices inside. If you are a greedy pig and eat it piping hot, you'll leak all of the flavorful juice all over your plate and the rest will be a bit dry. The time it takes to rest will make for a better steak, trust me.

Something else to consider is that if you're like me and add shallots to your pan to flavor your butter (for mine, I ideally use rosemary, thyme, garlic, and shallots), you might be able to reserve a few of the now french-fried shallot rings as a tasty topper for your steak. I highly recommend it.

Here's a good idea of the finished product.

I made this one for my mom yesterday for Mother's Day, and it's a pretty solid medium rare. I'm happiest at the threshold between med-rare and rare, but it takes a bit of nuance to get consistency. If you've got a digital thermometer, you may want to consider catching a reading to see what is ideal, and then get used to the tell-tale signs of when you get there.

At any rate, I would highly recommend trying this method. It makes for one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Spring Potluck

Last week, we had the first of what I hope to be many season-oriented potlucks at my house. It was really awesome to have friends come over, bring either food or booze or both, and spend a night chatting about everything and nothing over some food and drink. The weather cooperated about as well as you can expect it to in Alabama; which is to say, it didn't rain but it was about 200% humidity all weekend and looked at any moment as if a hurricane would drop out of the sky. Nevermind, we mainly stayed indoors, but under the light of tiki torches my wife played grillardin and worked both of our grills to put out a never-ending flow of kebabs for hungry folks.

She also made me these delicious stinky sardines!

These ginormous Portugese sardines own incredibly hard. I gutted them and cleaned them, then marinated them in some sherry vinegar, olive oil, thyme, and salt & pepper, and the wife grilled 'em whole. Good in a focaccia sandwich with some aioli, or equally good to yank the head off on the spot and eat it with your hands, like a bear.

I spent a good chunk of the party being the fry slinger, which actually works because my station behind the kitchen island gives me clear view of the dining area and the living room so I can chit-chat, drink, and fry whatever I please. Mainly for this evening, it was Spanish Calamares.

Calamares are awesome, but I firmly believe you can't get a good batch at a restaurant because they use wheat flour batter and fry at too low a temp. By the time their batter's set, the squid inside is tough. Instead, my batter is based on rice flour, I ramp the fry temp to the max, and those things stay in oil for 45 seconds to a minute, TOPS. The result is a completely crisp batter coating that isn't too thick and obnoxious, and the meat inside is so tender you can cut it with the flat of your fork. That's perfect. I'm normally not a guy that plays in absolutes but I'd put my calamari against anyone's, and I expect to win. Especially with the pesto I made, which is from roasted red peppers.

I made other stuff too. You have to bear with me, it's all a blur at this point. It was mostly a tapas sort of thing. We had spanish almonds, chorizo & mushrooms in a red wine sauce, some chorizo empanadillas, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, hommous, pita bread, rosemary focaccia, etc. We also had tacos de lengua and chicken qandahari on deck, but it was plenty clear that by that time, we had no need to serve them. Our guests also came in full force, bringing tons of fantastic stuff. Lots of Leinenkeugel beer, Jefferson whisky, a fantastic fresh fruit parfait, and a Three Philosopher's beer cheese soup.

That being said, the food's only part of it. Here's the reason I love these events:

Spending hours upon hours with nothing on the agenda but hanging out, chatting about everything and nothing, and having a great time. Thanks once again to all our friends for coming out, and I hope that we can get our act together for another round of fun in the summer!