Steak secrets

Classic recipes for carnivores
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"What are you doing ordering steak? I can cook you that at home" is a complaint with a familiar ring to it. It is the wife's response when, yet again, Derek, or Bob, or Graham decides on steak for his dinner out.

"I can buy you a nice piece of rump from the butcher. And that nice Mr Stringer always keeps me some extra-specially well hung bits out the back. And look at the cost. It's four times the price to have it in a place like this. Have the chicken."

Well, the profit on breast of chicken in a cream sauce with four herbs and a chopped artichoke will be four times the profit on the rump - but what is of concern is that Deirdre, Betty or Gloria probably won't be able to buy and neatly trim, or cook, a steak as well as a restaurant kitchen will. This is not a sexist remark.

It's just that, well, the equipment and fine tuning for this deceptively simple chore may not be suited to the average domestic kitchen, whether it be Derek or Deirdre that finally dumps the rump on to the range. But why steak is seen as a "man's dish" beats me. Do men have stronger teeth?

One of the most important points when choosing steak is to see that it is nicely trimmed, elegantly marbled with Nile-delta-like veins of fat, and the same thickness all the way through. Check beadily through the supermarket film and reject any that slope away (supermarket butchers can be slapdash; just think of all the meat they have to cut up). Similarly, keep an eye on your local butcher when he slices away on his big, bad butcher's block where you can't see what he's doing because his big butcher's body is in the way. Insist on how you want the steak sliced; demand that it gets cut neatly. And don't say, "That's fine", when he slides four corrugated disasters on to the scales. Demand a recut.

Of course, the best way to get a good, thick steak is to ask for it thick in the first place. We have never been a huge nation of steak eaters, unlike the US. There, thick and juicy steaks are a way of life to man, woman and child. Admittedly, their butchery practices are unlike ours and the cuts have different nomenclature: New York strip, rib eye and "flaming yon" (filet mignon). It is equally frustrating in France, where faux filet, contre-filet, aiguillette, bavette and onglet can cause much confusion.

Onglet, is, sadly, a cut we do not take seriously over here. There has always been controversy as to what we actually call it, if anything. Skirt and feather steak are two names I have come across. But it is the most flavoursome of cuts, not necessarily tender (which is probably why it has never taken off here) . But the taste of a well hung piece of onglet is one of the finest I know. The best way of cooking onglet is to fry it fiercely and finish it off with plenty of chopped shallots, aka onglet saute aux echalotes.

To cut a steak story short, the following guidelines should apply when choosing your lump of protein.

1 If wanting utmost tenderness, but little flavour, a thick fillet steak is for you. It is the most expensive and leanest cut, and should be cooked no more than medium-rare for juiciest results.

2 A good, thick entrecote, or sirloin steak, is next down the list in terms of cost, but has much more flavour than fillet. Why not get your butcher to cut you a double-size steak (about 350-400g/12-14oz trimmed weight), including a thin layer of fat, and grill it on one of those cast- iron ribbed affairs until crusted on both sides? Finish off by laying it on its fatty side to crisp up. After resting the meat for five minutes, slice thickly down its length. Serve with sauce bearnaise or garlic butter.

3 The next is my favourite (apart from the curious onglet): rump. Here you come up against the will of the butcher as to how it is cut. Insist on neat portions, or search out the best looking bits in the supermarket cabinet, and always choose the thickest. This is best for the classic steak au poivre (see recipe and illustration).

4 Bavette, as above, is beginning to get more of a look in these days. My excellent and charming local man, Sid, does a good line in bavette. It is the classic for steak frites, found on cafe and brasserie menus the length and breadth of France. It should be sliced medium to thick and just be given moments on a very hot griddle. Do make sure it has been aged a little, though.

5 To salt or not to salt? I was taught that if you don't season meat before cooking, it won't taste of anything. But initial seasoning can allow juices to run out during cooking, so my latest ploy is to season halfway through, after the steak has been sealed on both sides.

6 Finally, one of the most important points is to allow either grill or frying pan to become as hot as you dare, before even thinking of adding the meat. Also, don't overcrowd the frying pan (steak is always best for just two people, anyway) and allow the first side of the steak to form a crust before turning over.

Here are two favourite recipes usually cooked in the professional kitchen - now (I hope) made easy for you at home. Perhaps he'll have the chicken next time.

Steak au poivre, serves 2

This is one of the very first dishes I learned to cook, at The Normandie Restaurant near Bury in Lancashire. It is a model of its kind: no cream or any of those silly little pink peppercorns, just much butter and Cognac.

1 tbsp white peppercorns

1 tbsp black peppercorns

2 x 175-g/6-oz thick rump steaks

a little salt

1 tbsp olive oil

55g/2oz butter, plus a little more if necessary

2 tbsp Cognac

1 tbsp reduced beef stock (optional)

Coarsely crush the peppercorns in a coffee grinder and put them into a sieve. Shake out the excess powder (this is important, as otherwise the powder will make the steaks too hot). Press the pepper into both sides of the steaks and push in well with your fingers. Sprinkle on a little salt now. Don't do this before adding the pepper, as the peppercorns have a tendency to fall off (salting steak au poivre before cooking seems to be OK, by the way).

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until smoking. Put in the steaks, leave untouched for a couple of minutes, then turn the heat down a little. Cook them for a further three minutes or so and then carefully turn over. Turn the heat up again and repeat on the other side. Add the butter and allow to foam.

Baste with the butter over a gentle heat until it has browned slightly. Remove the steaks and keep them warm in a low oven with the door ajar. Add Cognac and allow the contents of the pan to seethe. What you wish for now is that the Cognac and buttery juices will amalgamate to form an emulsion. Adding a little reduced beef stock will help here - or, failing that, even a splash of water. The use of a whisk will also help. Add more butter, too, if necessary. Check the sauce for salt and pour it over the steaks.

Onglet saute aux echalotes, serves 2

1 tbsp olive oil

freshly ground pepper

2 x 175g/6oz pieces onglet

40g/112oz butter

4 shallots, coarsely chopped

tiny squeeze lemon juice

2 tbsp white wine

salt, or 2 finely chopped anchovies (optional)

12 tbsp chopped parsley

In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat the olive oil until smoking. Pepper the onglet and quickly fry it for about two minutes on each side until seared deep brown (for rare). Put on to a plate and keep warm in a low oven with the door ajar.

Add the butter to the pan and allow to foam. Throw in the shallots and cook them gently until they are golden brown; this may take up to five minutes. Squeeze in the lemon juice and add the white wine. Allow to bubble until syrupy, then season. (The anchovies, by the way, are not as odd an addition as you may think; their salty, rather than fishy, flavour has always been well regarded when partnered with meat, particularly lamb.)

Stir in the parsley, pour the sauce over the meat and serve immediately

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