January 24, 2012

Blog the First: Steak Grilled Stove Top

A Rib-eye crosshatched
(with Potatoes Garlicky and Zucchini Herby)

So, what did I cook for myself today, this dark and cold Thursday of the long stretch of winter after the holidays?  Well, at the Graul’s they had nice steaks on sale, as they often do. They had filet mignon, but I hate filet mignon, first, because it has so little flavor that it requires the sophistical artifices of French sauces to give it any character—but my people don’t like such sauces for meat, most of our cooking being more or less elaborate forms of au jus cooking—and second, because it has an effete texture more suitable to gumming than chewing, but I still have teeth.  So I went without hesitation for the boneless rib-eye.  I always want fatty steak, and so do you.  (If you like lean meat, this is not the blog for you; go look for another blog with a name like the Skinny Glutton or something.)  Of course, I want delicate striations of fat evenly marbling my flesh, not globs or belts or knots of it.  It should also look bright and moist and appetizing.  Do I need to tell you, Gentle Reader, to eat with your eyes?

Grilling the Steak

I want my meat at room temperature when I cook it, so I took it out of the frig early.  With the handle of my chef’s knife I gently crushed a large garlic glove still in its skin just until I heard it crack; then I cut it in half so as to get the most exposed surface, and used each half to rub each side of the steak all over.  I generously salted each side, evenly all over; and ground black pepper over each side, evenly all over.  Then, sprinkling drops of regular olive oil here and there, I massage all the flavorings into the flesh.  I like massaging my steak with olive oil; I feel certain it likes it too.  Then I leave it to rest and warm up.

Salt is all important.  In the old Catholic rite of baptism, it signified wisdom.  Don’t be a fool and skimp on salt.  The thing you need not only to understand but also to believe, if you are ever to be a good cook, is that salt has the wondrous power of making things more themselves.  Other spices add flavor; salt brings it out.  The self-same salt, used in due measure, makes broccoli taste more like broccoli, and steak like steak, and potatoes like potatoes.  Salt is ready to do self-effacing service to one and all–its very humility merits its exaltation.  Its hidden action is not so much causal as causative, i.e., it does not do something, but causes something else to do something, namely, to taste delicious.  If something tastes salty, it means you have added too much salt (unless you meant it to, as with nuts and pretzels), but if something does not taste like itself, it likely needs the eductive agency of salt. 

There are naysayers who claim that they feel no need of salt on their food and that food always tastes salty to them when it has been added.  They are either liars, sophists, or the Last Man.  I have a friend who would not let me leave a container of salt behind in his vacation house after I bought and used it that weekend to cook in his kitchen for our friends.  That is not ignorance to be pitied; that is obduracy worthy of being its own just punishment.

But you, Gentle Reader, are not like that.  You will be sure to use salt, and to use salty salt.  Many brands that add dextrose to mask the iodide they also add thereby mask the salt’s saltiness (—which use of sugar is good to keep in mind if you want to mask accidental over-salting in your cooking).  Practice raising your container of salt high in the air and raining it down, like a salt-god, with even sweeping motions, in a gentle shower evenly across the whole surface of each piece of meat.  Learn to enjoy being able to do this. If at first you produce salt avalanches rather than salt showers—it’s not easy being a god—then practice with a salt shaker, until you find your balance and attain to your divinity.

When it's time to grill that steak, I heat that grill pan up well to cook the steak.  I cook it as Jacques Pepin tells me to, because my mother doesn’t know steak–our people come from the hills–we’re goat-people–eaters of sheep and swine, not the beef of the peoples of the plains.

So, I obey Jacques: I sear one side for a minute or so, to get those pretty char-lines; turn it for another minute or so, to get the pretty lines on the other side; turn it a second time, but this time rotating it one-quarter-turn to get cross-hatched lines (and a different distribution of heat); and finally turn it for a third time for another minute, to get the cross-hatched lines on the other side.

I like it done to the left of medium (which is to the right of medium-rare), so that the flesh is springy to both touch and tooth, almost crusty on the outside, but pink and moist throughout on the inside. I dislike it when it’s red in the middle and stringy to chew–makes me feel lupine. (My gourmet-friend likes it that way, which troubles me, since he otherwise seems such a civilized and gentle soul.)

Sautéeing the Potatoes

Okay, so what starch with the steak?  Well, potatoes are classic.  How about that garlicy, oily potato mash alla Saccatara mom’s people make that you sop up with crusty bread!  Let’s call them potatoes garlicy.  Grandma used to boil the potato whole, let it cool, then peel it by hand.  I was short on time, and hate to wait for it to cool enough to peel it by hand, and also hate getting my fingers sticky, so instead I peel a raw Russet (you can use an Idaho too, but not a water-retentive thin-skinned potato), I quarter it, bring salted water to the boil, put in the quarters, and in ten minutes or so, a fork goes all the way through the pieces with even resistance.  I drained the potatoes and left them in the sieve to release their steam before I chunk them crudely into a mash, and sprinkled them with salt and pepper (yes, more salt, even though I had salt in the boiling water).

I lightly crush two garlic cloves with the handle of my knife just until I hear them crack, cut a bit off each end to easily pull the peel off (thanks for that technique, Jacques), and I halve each clove.  I melt a wad of butter into a pool of extra virgin olive oil in a frying.  I add the garlic pieces and turn on the heat to medium.  When the oil heats up enough for the garlic to start sizzling—I cook with my ears too—I tip the pan, so that the garlic pieces float in the oil and cook evenly.

VERY IMPORTANT: I want the garlic to become gilded, not browned.  Browned garlic is so repulsive to my people that we always throw it out and start over if we accidentally brown the garlic, because its offensive pungency will infect everything else in the pot.  When the garlic is done right, the herbaceous and pungent scent of the raw garlic will transform into a sweet and diffusive aroma, just as the garlic turns from pale to golden yellow in color.  As soon as any of its edges begin to show gilding, you must act quickly to prevent browning by adding the mashed potatoes.  Flip the potatoes around with a spatula, both to mix them with the oil and also to bring all the garlic pieces on top, to keep them from browning on the bottom of the pan.

Then let the potatoes sizzle–not angrily, but happily, lively–and long enough that they show crusty browning when peeked under (peek and do not pester your potatoes! they need to lie still and sizzle long enough to crust over).  Then use the spatula to flip them over in batches, still keeping the garlic cloves off the bottom of the pan.  When you get tired of tracking the garlic cloves, fish them out and get rid of them.  My people use garlic so much, they don’t want always to be eating it; we often want only the savor and aroma of garlic in a dish, so we keep the pieces large enough to remove during cooking, or else to leave behind in the serving dish.  If you do elect to eat it, you’ll smell of it the next day, to others even if not to yourself; keep that in mind in making your choices.

The potatoes are ready when they look good to you (did I need to tell you that?).  I like them to be a golden lumpy mass mottled all over with caramelized crunchiness.  Taste and correct for salt and pepper.  Take it out of the pan with a slotted utensil, leaving excess oil behind.  My people often cook with more oil than they want in the dish.  You don’t want the food sitting in a pool of oil in the serving dish or dinner plate, as you did sizzling in the pan; you want only as much oil as clings to the food.

These garlic mashed potatoes need crusty bread.  I keep pieces of Italian bread handy in the freezer. I nuke them in the microwave for a minute, which turns them into a disgusting warm mushy mass, like a warm dinner roll wrapped in a napkin (Ugh, whose idea was that?), but ten minutes in a hot toaster oven at 400 degrees restores them to the crunchy state sive Deus sive natura intends for bread.  I find that even fresh bread needs such crisping.  But since my microwave is broken right now, I’ve been wrapping my frozen bread in foil and baking it in my electric oven for 20 minutes; then I unwrap it, and crisp it for 1 to 10 minutes, depending on the mettle of the bread.  Oh for the days when mom went to 18th Avenue Bakery a second time in the afternoon for bread, because the morning loaves we’d get for lunch were not crunchy enough for dinner! Crisping never crossed out minds in those days.

The Zucchini Herby

Okay, but I still need a vegetable, right?  Well, when I was in Jersey this weekend, my mother sent me home with some of her grilled zucchini.  What she does is slice the zucchini lengthwise into pieces something less than 1/4th  inch but more than 1/8th (of course I could have said 3/16th of an inch, but that would give a misleading impression of precision wholly alien to my people’s élan.).  Then you need a ridged stove-pot pan, preferably non-stick, to grill them indoors (unless you have someone, like my father, in the mood to do it for you on the outdoor grill in winter).  This stove-top grill-pan is an indispensable tool in our
New World kitchen.  In Brooklyn-of-old, we had a very heavy aluminum one, like cast iron in its natural stickfreeness.  I have made my mother very happy by buying her a square Calphalon non-stick ridged grill that cleans up beautifully after she char-grills these zucchini pieces dry, whereas it made a mess of her last pan (which she was putting into the dishwasher—even though I told her the manufacturers’ instructions said not to—and giving me a blank look of mock-dumbness whenever I reminded her.  No innocence there.)

So, you grill the zucchini slices dry, on each side, long enough to get them fork tender and also to get the sort of nice char lines you want on a steak.  As usual, you want the heat neither too low nor too high (isn’t that helpful?), but lively, to give the sound of happy sizzling, rather than angry searing.  (Are you listening to your food?)  Once the pieces are all grilled, you dress them with:  finely chopped garlic (when my people do chop and eat garlic, as here, we want it chopped fine enough that you’re never chewing on a piece of it, but not minced so Franco-fine that you don’t see it); chopped parsley and basil both (ditto on the sizing); both wine vinegar and lemon juice (they soften and sweeten one another, for some counter-intuitive chemical reason I can’t remember); and of course a generous amount of olive oil; my mother adds a sprinkling of oregano and salt, and I also add ground pepper (which she omits because Old Italians like my mother have an irrational belief that black pepper causes stones). 

My mother uses regular olive oil; she finds extra virgin too assertive; I do half and half, and would not object to your doing all extra-virgin oil.  (This is actually a recipe of my father’s people, for grilled eggplant, and he no doubt has strong opinions about which oil is right, but a man as opinionated as that doesn’t need an Aaron; he needs his own blog.)  Quantities are a matter of taste–not just any taste, of course, but good taste–and (good) taste is a matter of experience, and experience is a matter not only of trial but also of error.  In experimenting and erring, remember that you can more easily add than take away; but beware also of being cheap:  we are an expansive people, and so is our cooking.  The final product should glisten with oil and smell heady with herbs; it should brighten the eye, tickle the nostril, and warm the heart. 

I do proportion by eye.  I lay out the zucchini on a platter in one more or less overlapping layer.  Then I generously drizzle regular olive oil from on high, evenly all over the expanse of zucchini.  Then I judiciously sprinkle on the herbs and spices, evenly all over.  Then I cautiously sprinkle the two acids evenly all over.  Then I turn the dish a quarter-turn, and once again generously drizzle extra virgin olive oil from on high, evenly all over.  I call this layered dressing.  My mother gently turns these zucchini slices over and over, thereby both blending the dressing and imbuing the zucchini slices with it, and in this, the patience and t.l.c. of my mother puts me to shame.

The Wine, et alia!

Now, Gentle Reader, if you are an eater after my own heart, you are wondering what wine I drank with this dinner. 
My sautéed potatoes were scented with garlic and hot, while my zucchini was cool with fresh oil, garlic, and herbs.  These two complementary forms of oiliness set off the dry-roasted steak nicely.  The wine I drank was, no surprise a wine of my people:  an Aglianico di Campania from Mastroberardino which I got at Wegmann’s.  This red grape is an up-and-coming darling of the urbane Italophile (isn’t it charming when your ancient traditions become trendy?).  The grape is said to have been brought to south Italy by the ancient Greeks, when the land of my people went by the name of Magna Graecia–the grape name aglianico is thought to be a corruption of the adjective hellenico.  Another story says the name comes from aglio, meaning garlic, because the wine savors of such aromatics.  I like the Greek story better.

What I like about Aglianico is its herby-earthy-peppery character, its wild-fruits flavor, its tongue-feel, its cleansing nip and dryness.  The wines of a place are sibling to its terrain and cuisine, and Italian wines grew up with Italian food.   I get why, when other people think steak, they think California Cab or French Bordeaux.  But when I think California Cab, I think Bully that elbows his way to the head of the table and, like the Great Flood, obliterates all other flavors from your palate each time it washes over it.  As for French Bordeaux, I’ve read that the good stuff will not tolerate so much as a hint of garlic or tomato.  Well, that’s a non-starter for me.  Let
Bordeaux have its venison and California its chocolate, but tonight I want wine that likes olive oil, garlic, herbs, and lemon-vinegar.  I want the wine of my people.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that my father and his friends prefer California jug-wine to Italian wine.  He often won’t even try the Italian wine my brothers and I bring to a Sunday dinner, if he thinks the price of it too ridiculous.)

I had a third of a bottle of the Aglianico left over from a soiree the other night, and in retrospect I think that, lying just below the surface of my consciousness in Graul’s, it had even more to do with my treating myself to a steak on a weeknight than the sale on rib-eye.  I was particularly pleased by this bottle because it gratifies my chauvinism.  Although my people’s Campanian hills are the most famous for Aglianico (the most prestigious being from the area around Taurasi), I have until now preferred the Aglianico from further south, from Basilicata and Puglia, such as Bisceglia’s Aglianico del Vulture which I got from Bin 201 Wine Sellers.  The ones from Campania have seemed to me lighter and brighter, the ones from down south more earthy, more rustic, more manly.  But this Mastroberardino pleased me with cheese the other night, and again with steak tonight; it tasted at home and I was pleased with my own. (BTW, I have lots of complaints to share with you about the indecipherable ways those New Italians label their wines, but that rant will require a blog of its own.)  

So that was dinner – much less time to make and eat than to describe in this blog.  I’m exhausted.  I followed it up, as I always do, with a salad.  Tonight it was arugula with some sliced cucumber and sliced radish–I love that green, red, and white combo (and not just because I’m Italian).  After salad, I always have a piece of fruit, some apple tonight.  Having finished this blog, I’ll go back down now and make myself some decaf espresso, and pull out of the freezer one of those little amaretti I brought back from Villabate Bakery when I was in Brooklyn last, to savor the flavor of by-gone Sundays in Brooklyn, even of a Thursday evening in the land of my exile.