Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

Child’s Play, First Attempt

Late Saturday night, one of my neighbors cooked steak (or a related piece of meat), and its delicious aroma wafted into my apartment. I very nearly walked into the hallway in my pajamas and unkempt hair and started knocking on doors to demand a taste. Sunday night, the contestants on “The Celebrity Apprentice” were tasked with hawking Omaha Steaks. Clearly, the culinary deities were telling me something.

I didn’t just want to throw a hunk of meat into a hot pan and hope for the best. To be honest, I kind of suck at cooking meat straight up. While I like my meat cooked on the rare side of things, when I’m home, out of paranoia, I tend to overcook meat. So I need some guidance. But I didn’t want something intricate or heavily flavored. I wanted to taste the steak in all its glory, with a little help to enhance the flavor.

I thought this just might be the time to give “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” a test run, so I turned to Julia. And, unsurprisingly, she gave me just what I was looking for. After some initial discussion of French beef cuts versus American beef cuts, the first entry under the beef section was “Biftek Saute au Beurre (Pan-broiled steak).” “Pan-broiled steak is very French and also a very nice method for cooking small steaks,” Julia tells us. “None of the juice essences are lost, and it is easy to tell when the steak is done.”

I chose to use red wine (from a list that also included beef bouillon, dry white wine, dry white vermouth, or water, it was without doubt the most appealing option) to combine with butter for the sauce. To round out the meal, I would add a baked potato and oven roasted broccoli.

After reading through the recipe a couple of times (The book’s recipe orientation is a bit different than I’m used to. Rather than listing all the necessary ingredients, then the instructions, the ingredients are listed in the left column alongside the corresponding set of instructions. If you don’t look ahead, you might not notice an ingredient you need later in the recipe.), I gathered my ingredients and got started.

I was just going to run next door to Target and grab whatever decent-looking steak they had from among Julia’s approved list of cuts, but Adam convinced me that if I was going to do steak, I may as well do it well. So, a trip to Whole Foods was in store. After the unprecedented trip in which I picked up only what was on my list, I arrived home with a massive bone-in rib steak, lovingly wrapped in butcher paper (it is singularly thrilling to me to get meat in butcher paper–it’s so deliciously old school). I sliced off roughly half of the 1-1/2-pound behemoth, carefully wrapping it and placing it in the freezer. (Say what you want, but I can’t risk wasting food this pricey, and it’s unlikely I was going to consume the whole thing before it went bad.) The remainder (including the bone), I left on the counter to await the pan.

The side dishes are both easy. Baking a potato doesn’t take much effort, and the broccoli isn’t much more difficult. Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in the oven at 400 for about 15-20 minutes until the edges have crisped. Squeeze lemon juice over the top and serve. Perfection.

I approached cooking the steak with no shortage of trepidation. Did I say I suck at cooking meat? Yeah, I really do. And this wasn’t some pork chop I picked up on special from the Target meat case. This hunk of carnivorous decadence cost me a quarter of what I budget for a whole week. Destroying this would be a shame.

But I put my faith in Julia and my slowly-improving cooking skills and went for it. Upon first flip, I was a bit disheartened. The surface looked almost charred, and I was concerned that my molten burner had claimed another perfectly good meal. But it didn’t look carbonized, so I turned the burner down a bit and watched the second side a bit more carefully. Once done, side two had a similar seared crust, but did not look burned, so I decided to give it a taste before being disappointed.

A word of caution: When making the sauce, take caution around the reducing wine. Mine popped without warning, sending searing hot wine spatters toward my face. I opted to add 3 tablespoons of butter (Julia recommends 2-3), because, it’s hard to go wrong with more butter. I do not regret this decision.

I am disappointed to say that my timing didn’t line up just right, as the broccoli and potato needed a bit more time, and in the interim, the steak got a tad cold. Even so, it was a damn fine meal. It is, without doubt, the best steak I’ve ever cooked. It was, as I like to say, “gently mooing” (the rare end of medium rare), and will still be on the rare side of things when I reheat the remaining half. The sauce added just the right amount of flavor without overpowering the meat. The broccoli’s crispness and citrus flavor worked well with it. And instead of my usual sour cream, I simply topped the potato with butter and a sprinkling of Morton’s Nature’s Seasons. And at the risk of sounding utterly self-congratulatory, it was all delicious.

It wasn’t a perfect first foray into the world of Julia, but it was better than I expected. I wasn’t disappointed in anything and I didn’t over- or under-cook anything. Next time, I think I’ll try my cast iron skillet so more “bits” will stick to the pan for the sauce. And I think I’ll turn it down a bit more. The seared “crust” tasted better than I expected, but I think that had I not been paying as close attention, my steak would have ended up blackened.

I don’t expect many of Julia’s other recipes to be quite so straightforward, so this was a nice start. Here’s hoping the next attempt has results that are just as delicious.

For a visual account of the meal, click on our Flickr stream to the right.

-Michonne
Chicago

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