Archive for steak

Bistecca alla Pizzaiola

Posted in Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by restaurantouring

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So, in a previous entry that I wrote, I said that I was disappointed in a steak that I had ordered at an Italian restaurant.  I also said that I would make it at home myself, the implication being that I knew I could make it better.  This is normal for me.  I often think this about ordinary dishes from run-of-the-mill restaurants, not just because I think of myself as a decent cook, but because I am an asshole.

So, because the steak I had at Andrea’s restaurant in Metairie, Louisiana was so disappointing, I made my own bistecca alla pizzaiola for revenge.  The results were much improved, if I do say so myself.

For the record, I hope I’m not angering anyone out there, especially any Italians.  I’m not trying to be an asshole about these restaurants.  I’m just trying to pursue good food.

Anyway, for those who are interested in making this classic, rustic Italian dish at home, you will need:

– A heavy gauged pan, preferably a clad, stainless steel pan, although a well seasoned cast iron pan will do (A lot of people are afraid of cooking acidic foods in a cast iron pan.  As long as the cast iron is well seasoned, I don’t see any problem with occassionally cooking mildly acidic foods in it.  The flavor might be altered, but for this dish, it won’t be a very big deal)

– oil, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper

– a steak (Andrea’s used rib-eyes)

– tomatoes (fresh plum tomatoes are great when they are in season — summer to early autumn.  If they are out of season, it is best to use canned plum tomatoes rather than using the pale red, fresh, bland, flavorless, hydroponically grown tomatoes from Mexico or Canada.  Since it is November, I used the canned variety.)

– red chili flakes, 1 tbsp finely chopped onion or shallot, 1 tsp minced garlic, and some [preferably] fresh oregano, basil, and thyme.

– (optional) a shot of chicken stock and a shot of wine (red or white.  Doesn’t really matter.  Depends on your taste, and/or what you have on hand.)

You will also need to know how to properly sear a steak, and it wouldn’t hurt to understand why searing is important for your food.

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Begin by salting and properly searing the steak over medium-high heat.  Again, instructions for how to sear a steak can be found here.  Remove the steak to a plate, grind some black pepper onto it, and cover it with foil to keep the steak hot while you prepare the tomato sauce.

What a properly seared steak looks like

What a properly seared steak looks like

Turn the heat down to about medium-low to low.  Pour off any excess fat in the pan, add the onion or shallots first, followed by the garlic and red chili flakes (to taste.  Use your best judgment when dealing with spice).   Adding garlic after the onions can help prevent the garlic from burning and tinging the dish with the bitter disgustingness that is burnt garlic.

Sweat these aromatics for a couple of minutes until they turn translucent or until the pan is dry.  At this point, water, wine, or chicken stock may be added as needed if the pan gets too dry.  Otherwise, use the tomato.

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Add anywhere from 2 – 4 plum tomatoes, depending on how much you like tomato (dice them if they’re fresh.  Otherwise, canned tomatoes can be mashed with a wooden spoon or a spatula).  Turn the heat back up to medium, medium-high, and cook until the tomato mix has been reduced to a cohesive sauce-like consistency.  You don’t want your sauce to be runny and watery, since the flavors will be diluted.

Speaking of flavors, taste the tomato sauce and adjust for seasoning (you’ll probably need to add salt and some black pepper at this point).

Throw in the herbs shortly before you’re finished cooking the sauce.  You can chop, tear, or bruise the herbs — it doesn’t really matter.

Now, you can either return the steak to the pan to finish cooking (if you like your steak a little more done), or you can simply top the steak with the sauce if you like your steak on the rare side.

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That’s it.  Bistecca alla pizzaiola.  Simple, rustic, and you only need one pan.  I served mine with steamed broccoli and carrots, simply because I have too much of those two vegetables laying around.  At Andrea’s, I had a watery mound of spaghetti squash and I think some mashed potatoes.  John Mariani had his with a side of angel hair pasta with garlic and olive oil.  Whatever side you choose, this steak is a winner.

Cooking at home is great.  You save both time and money in this case, since this dish is so easy to make.  What more could you ask for?

A steak knife, perhaps.

How to Sear a Steak (or any piece of meat)

Posted in General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on November 15, 2008 by restaurantouring
The signs of a properly seared steak

The signs of a properly seared steak: even golden brown crust, no gray or dull spots, no black or burnt bits

This tutorial explains how to properly sear a steak (or any piece of meat, really).  Hopefully, this will help beginners who read this post to become better cooks.  For more information about some of the finer points of searing, please check this blog entry.

Lots of foods that are high in protein (a steak, for example) are better when they are seared.  This is not to say that this is the only way that these foods should be cooked, but searing results in a lot of great flavors.  Too much searing and you get burnt food, so care should be taken in avoiding this by paying attention, watching your food and flame, and by using your nose.

To sear:

1)  It is first necessary to ensure that the surface of the food is dry.  Wipe off any excess moisture from the food (especially if it has been washed or rinsed under running water) with a paper towel.

2)  Salt should be added for seasoning, but probably not pepper, since pepper can burn easily and create bad flavors.

3)  Prep a pan by placing it over medium-high heat for several minutes, depending on the pan*.  Cast iron pans are excellent for searing.  Clad pans are also excellent.  Otherwise, any heavy guage pans will do**.

4)  Add oil to either the hot pan or to the target food.  Rubbing oil to the outside of the food you are going to sear is probably the better choice***.

5)  Introduce the food to the pan.

6)  Don’t touch anything.

7)  Wait for about two minutes, depending on how hot the pan was, how cold the food was, etc.

8)  The food may stick to the pan if it has not finished searing yet.  Proteins love to stick, but as foods sear, proteins coagulate and release from the pan.  Check if you are unsure.  The surface should be a deep brown but never gray or dull.  If it is, or if there are parts that are not browned, proper searing has not been achieved (probably due to either water or the fact that the food has not had enough time to brown).

9)  Repeat the searing on all the sides you wish to sear by flipping your food with tongs.  Searing is best done on fresh metal, so flip onto a clean part of the pan if you can help it.

*  Cast iron is a pretty bad conductor in comparison to other common metals used in making pots and pans.  Thus it takes much longer to heat up than a clad pan.  The benefit of cast iron is that once it gets hot, it tends to stay hot.  Thus, it can dish out some serious hot loving to any steaks or fingers that touch it, so be careful — always use a dry side towel to grab hot pans.

**  Generally speaking, the heavier the pan is, the more heat the pan can hold onto.  This is very important in searing food, since as soon as the food hits the pan, it absorbs a ton of heat from the pan.  If the pan has a lot of heat to give, searing is enhanced, thus heavier pans produce better sears.

***  If oils heat up too much, they start to smoke and produce off flavors, since the chemical composition of the oil is compromised.  The “smoke points,” as they are called, of different fats vary from oil to oil and fat to fat.  In general, animal fats have a lower smoke point, so refined vegetable oils might be a better choice for high temperature searing.  Canola oil is a good and economical choice.

Andrea’s Carpaccio and Bistecca alla Pizzaiola

Posted in New Orleans Restaurants with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by restaurantouring

So a while back, I stumbled across an article written by John Mariani, from Esquire magazine, while browsing the interwebs. The article lists (according to Mariani) the top 20 steaks in America. Basically, he went around eating different kinds of steaks until he found what he considered the best steak of a particular style. When he found what he considered the best, he moved on to focus on a different style of preparing steak. So, if you click above and read the article, you’ll see that the kinds of steak vary from porterhouses to New York or Kansas City strip steaks to cheese steaks to Japanese, teppanyaki steak (hibachi).

I read the article, somewhat enthused, because I love me a good steak. Sometimes, it’s hard to find a good one, especially if you don’t live close to a really good steakhouse. I was excited when I saw that there was a restaurant in Metairie, Louisiana, on the list, because I frequently travel to New Orleans, Metairie, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi for work. I’ve been there so many times, and I’ve eaten in so many restaurants there that dealing with the omnivore’s dilemma (not the book, but the problem of trying to answer the question “what am I going to have for dinner tonight?”) has become very difficult. “Things will be different, next time,” I thought to myself. Andrea’s was now on my list.

About a month ago, I finally found myself back in New Orleans International, ready (more or less) for a monster of a business trip, where I would have to work anywhere from 12 to 17 hours a day, every day, for 3 weeks straight (Not that I mind all that much. As long as the time passes quickly, I consider it training for the long hours I will inevitably work when I eventually decide to switch careers from psychology and research to working on the line). I make my way over to Metairie with my co-worker, Florence, to try to find this restaurant — getting lost along the way (Andrea’s is on 19th Street, but the highway intersects 19th street. I was on the wrong side of 19th Street).

Andrea’s is a fancy Italian joint, right off of North Causeway Blvd. An old brick-and-mortar building, with gas lights, the building’s exterior is as elegant and charming as the interior’s bar, chandeliers, and refrigerated dessert display case. We were terribly under-dressed for the place (every other guy in the place had a jacket and tie, while the ladies wore nice dresses).

We started dinner by ordering wine; Florence had a decent glass of Merlot, while I had a somewhat flat-tasting pinot noir (a pitfall of ordering wines by-the-glass, I suppose. Too much oxidation). Additionally, we started by sharing a plate of carpaccio.

Beef carpaccio is a dish that was created to reflect the brilliant uses of the color red in Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings. Typically, beef carpaccio is made from thin slices of beef tenderloin, pounded wafer-thin, seasoned simply with some salt and freshly ground black pepper, and drizzled with some good extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Capers and minced parsley garnish the dish and add additional flavor. Personally, I prefer nonpareil capers (they’re smaller — the smallest capers, in fact — and more elegant). Also, I don’t think tenderloin has to be the default cut of beef, since the pounding already severely tenderizes meat, so as long as you’re using a lean piece of meat, you’re fine. Of course, if you’re breaking down your own pismo [piz-mo, phonetic for PSMO, butcher-speak for “peeled, side meat on”] of beef tenderloin, feel free to pound up the ends and trimmings for carpaccio. Of course, I’m not here to write a recipe for beef carpaccio (that’s another blog). I’m here to talk about Andrea’s.

Andrea’s version of carpaccio was a little bland, to be honest. The tenderloin was drizzled with white truffle oil (at least that’s what it said on the menu. I personally didn’t get any truffle flavor with the dish), served with a simple arugula salad, and garnished with some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Perhaps they forgot the salt? Alternatively, I could have used some acid — either fresh lemon or capers. Or both. That would have been nice.

No matter. I wasn’t there for the carpaccio, anyway.

After a bit of a wait, the crabmeat ravioli that Florence ordered came with my medium-rare bistecca alla pizzaiola. Unfortunately, both of us were disappointed. My steak was cooked to perfect doneness, but the flavors just weren’t there, contrary to John Mariani’s description of a steak seasoned with an “artist’s sense.” My rib-eye wasn’t seared properly. The bottom was a dull, unappetizing, brownish-gray color — a clear sign of a failed saute. The pizzaiola sauce was made with canned plum tomatoes that had been left mostly whole, and although I could distinctly see the minced garlic, I couldn’t really taste it. I couldn’t detect a hint of spice, unlike the description I enthusiastically read just a few weeks prior to this meal, and the weak parts definitely did not add up to an “unexpectedly powerful whole.” This was one of America’s best 20 steaks? I felt cheated.

Florence later told me that her crabmeat ravioli was “not that good,” and in fact that it was “kind of disgusting.” Harsh words, to be sure. All around, it was not a good experience, despite the higher-end feel of the place and people. With so many older people around, I was surprised that the food wasn’t more heavily seasoned, considering our sense of taste diminishes with age (no offense all you older folks out there).

I suppose the problem was really two-fold: 1) We were not John Mariani, and 2) the chef probably wasn’t the one doing the cooking that night. We were just two bums from off the street — under-dressed and clearly out of place in the restaurant that night. We had no reservations. Rubes, from the looks of it. And because we were under-dressed, no-reservation nobodies, it probably wasn’t terribly important to the kitchen staff that we were served the best food possible. This is wrong. Everyone should be treated equally, when it comes to a good meal, and I hate to settle for mediocrity, especially when I have to pay upwards of $50 for mediocrity. I’d rather cook for myself. At least I know how to properly sear a steak!

Since I highly doubt that I got the same steak as Mr. Mariani (and since I sincerely doubt that Mr. Mariani got the same steak that I got and simply thought it was the best), I’m going to come up with my own recipe for bistecca alla pizzaiola. It’s going to be awesome. I’ll be back when I’ve got it more-or-less down.