The Great American Steak, Part 1
by Steve Holzinger
In my first "eGGsalad" column, I said,
"Fonds de Cuisine mean stocks, like chicken stock and beef stock. It also means to me, in a larger sense, what Escoffier calls "Fundamental Elements of Cooking." These basic ideas and techniques are what I hope to write this column about, and so I begin with a quote from Escoffier which defines, for me, what good cooking is all about.
"Indeed, stock is everything in cooking, at least in French Cooking. Without it nothing can be done. If one's stock is good, what remains of the work is easy; if on the other hand, it is bad, or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory result. The cook mindful of success, therefore will naturally direct his attention to the faultless preparation of his stock......"
—The Escoffier Cookbook, A. Escoffier, Crown Publishers, 1941"
So this column is about the basic ideas and techniques of cooking, and how they can help you to become a better cook by increasing your understanding of cooking. This column is dedicated to a teacher of mine, Professor Myrtle Erickson, who taught me that, "If you want to cook well, you have to understand cooking."
Surely, steak, beefsteak, is the great American dish. This column is about the Great American Steak, and how you can have it in your own backyard. In Chicago, I ate at a restaurant that advertised that it was selected as the second best steak house in America, by some survey or other. A second best that was good enough for me, I can tell you. Charred dark grill marks on the outside, bright red inside, an inch thick, dripping with juice, the sirloin they served, all sixteen boneless ounces seemed to vanish from my plate with no effort on my part!
I grew up wanting to eat steak. Chuck steak, skirt steak, hanging tender, and best of all, rib steak, as long as it was red meat steak. My fondest boyhood memory in the 1940's is of my father taking me to a restaurant I remember being called "The Duchmans," or something like that, on Willis Avenue in the Bronx, around 140th Street. Does anyone else remember it? There was a vertical gas broiler in the window, and the steaks were broiled on both sides at the same time. If you wanted vegetables with your meal, they had French fried or baked potatoes, and for the effete who wanted a salad, coleslaw or iceberg lettuce and pale pink tomatoes. Every table sported a full bottle of Heinz Catsup. Lamb chops were on the appetizer menu! Porterhouses, T-bones, Club steaks....cherry red boneless sirloins, tenderloins, Chateaubriands, all were there, cut an inch thick and twice that too, well marbled beauties with crisp white rinds bearing the proud USDA PRIME legend. You might think that this was a sufficient draw to fill every table, but no, the steaks were not the main attraction. The real kicker was that the NewYork Yankees, the whole darn team, used to taxi down from 161st and Jerome Avenue where the Yankee Stadium was located. The Yankees, world champions, ate steak there regularly after the game. Wheaties may be the breakfast of champions, but the Great American Steak was surely the Dinner of Champions. You could see these guys, exultant after winning yet another game, wolfing down steaks, double steaks! Could there be any doubt in my young mind that steak is what REAL MEN eat?
In the late 1950's I got my first job as a Chef, in a little restaurant in the sportscar racing town of Watkins Glen, New York. I had a gas fired grill that used lava stones and gave a fierce heat and broiled beautifully. I suppose I should say grilled, as the heat came from below. In a broiler, the heat comes from above. The 50's and 60's were a great time for prime beef. Later on, as an instrument of national policy, the USDA lowered the standards for Prime down to what was previously the top half of the grade below, Choice. The steaks I was grilling in Watkins Glen were real USDA Prime, and I cut them, lovingly, myself. I even kept a bowl of ice-water next to the grill, dipped my hand in it and turned the steaks by hand, so as not to puncture them with a fork. Well, I was young and idealistic, with visions of sugarplums. I would do a medium rare steak one degree underdone (rare) and put it on a seasoned oak plank. Around it, using a pastry bag and star tube, I would pipe a border of Pomme Duchesse, with little spaces for glazed carrots and minted fresh peas, and pop it into a hot oven for five minutes for the potatoes to brown. Then I would fill the spaces with the veggies, and send it forth. I think the practice of finishing a thick steak on an oaken plank originated because a really thick steak, over two inches, does not do well in the broiler, as the outside burns before the inside is done, so you want to finish cooking it in a hot oven. In today's kitchen we use heavy aluminum plates, but I still like the look and feel of an oak plank. I rub the plank with walnut or olive oil, and bake it in a 200 F oven for 4 hours, and then at 250 F for 4 hours more. This makes it hard and waterproof. I use a plain plank, but someday, when I feel ambitious, I will round off the corners, and rout out a well and tree design on my plank to make it fancy looking. . I like to use a piece just under 18 inches, so it fits in the home oven. I work on the first 12 inches, and use the empty part to carve the steak on. When I carve, I put a damp towel under it to keep it from slipping.
To carve a Porterhouse, I use a fork to hold the bone down and use a boning knife to free the tenderloin and loin muscles from the bone. Then I slice the two muscles across the grain and serve some slices from each part to each guest. I like to use a well marbled Porterhouse of 20 to 24 ounces to serve two people. A well trimmed boneless sirloin of 24 ounces will serve three people in a generous way. A Chateaubriand, which is a 20 ounce steak cut 6 inches long, cut from the head of a Filet Mignon serves two. It should be well marked on the grill, planked in a 400 F oven for 15-20 minutes, and then remove it, pipe the potatoes around it, and return to the oven for 5 minutes to brown the potatoes.
I think that all steaks are improved in taste and appearance by brushing with soft butter just before serving. If you like garlic, soften some chopped garlic in butter, then add more butter. One of my favorites is a Marchand de Vin. Chop up a dozen or so large peeled shallots, and soften them in some butter in a pan on a slow fire. Do not brown them. Cover them with a hearty red wine and reduce to a glaze. Add a half a pound of butter and soften it, but don't melt. Add some chopped parsley, say a tablespoon or two, and some grinds of fresh black pepper. Mix well. Freeze the unused part.
Anyway, in part two of The Great American Steak, I'm going to tell you how to pick a steak at the butchers, and about the anatomy of steak, and what makes it tender, so you can always serve the Great American Steak at your table. I'll also tell you about Bearnaise Sauce and other unhealthy great foods. Don't bother to tell me, I know all about how beef and egg yolks and butter isn't good for you. Nonsense! I like brown rice and carrots as well as the next guy, but I'll take steak every chance I get. Color me Tyranasuarus Rex red, I'm a meat eater, and proud of it.
Steve's #7 Recipes
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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This page modified February 2007