Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eating. steak for one.

Steak at home became one of the great pleasures of my life when I began living alone. I would experiment with different methods - broiling it in the oven, searing it in a cast-iron skillet or ridged grill pan, or frying it in the thinnest film of olive oil. (And there was the incident with the flaming whiskey which has yet to be repeated). I would rest the steak for an hour or so before dinner, letting the meat come to room temperature before laying it in the hot pan. Usually I would just season it with salt and pepper, but sometimes I would smash a few cloves of garlic and throw them in a zip-top bag with the steak and a few sloshes of olive oil, soy sauce, and perhaps a little Worcestershire sauce, marinating it for a few hours or overnight. With the steak I would have mashed potatoes or creamed spinach - never both, because making more than two dishes for one person is tedious, leaving the kitchen a disaster and the diner overstuffed - with the steak, usually enough for dinner that night and lunch the next day.

The difficult part of cooking steak at home is achieving the perfect balance between a crusty, well-browned exterior and a medium-rare (my preferred degree of doneness) interior. Many writers have written at length of the science of cooking meat, and they have all confused me. Then there is Jeffrey Steingarten, who warbles at length about marbling and different cuts and different animals and various steakhouses and wet-aging versus dry-aging and low heat and high heat and so forth. Which confused me even more. Not to mention I have no intention of trying to age my own beef at home. Also, I live in a condominium, and therefore his instructions on grilling a porterhouse steak over coal (there are three different recipes for a grilled steak in It Must've Been Something I Ate) are of no use to me. But then he includes a recipe for A PERFECTLY FINE UNGRILLED STEAK. This could be interesting.

My steak - a rib-eye this time - has been marinating overnight with olive oil seasoned with a splash of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, smashed garlic cloves, and sprigs of rosemary. I let it rest on the counter until I'm ready to start cooking. The rice is steaming away in its white plastic cooker. I'm starting to get hungry. Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe calls for lots of butter, six tablespoons, melted in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan. (I console myself with the fact that I am using a smaller pan, so I only use four tablespoons, and most of it stays in the pan. But I am probably only fooling myself). Actually my pan is a small, heavy non-stick frying pan that I use for omelets and pancakes. The butter melts, and just before it starts to brown I slide the steak into the foaming butter.

The smell of garlic and rosemary and browning butter and browning steak rises in the narrow kitchen. I take a spoon and baste the steak with the golden butter. As promised, a firm, dark brown crust begins to form on the bottom, although I keep the heat on just past medium heat, instead of medium-high. (My electric stove reacts a little differently than the gas range I learned to cook on, and I have had to relearn everything). I turn the steak over, continue cooking, continue spooning brown butter over the top. At last it is done, both sides with a fine, deep reddish-brown crust, the inside just on the rare side of medium-rare. I scoop some rice on a plate, add a piece of my steak, and settle in for dinner. It is perfect, with the flavors of garlic and rosemary and brown butter mingling with the richness of good beef. Who needs a grill when all you need is a little butter and a hot pan?

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