Friday, March 30, 2007

A Real American Steak

Admiring the job we did cleaning this bone made me feel like an archaeologist after a discovery -- not only was it possible to buy good beef in Boston circa 2000 AD, it was even possible to make a fabulous steak on the grill.

For the past year, I have been in denial about the the fact that I have not been able to produce a great American steak. After all, I am no longer afraid of cooking meat -- even big roasts -- but a good steakhouse style steak still makes me nervous. Don't get me wrong -- I can quite successfully put a slab of beef on the grill and cook it to medium-rare. But just like a good burger, a good American steak is a much more elusive art than most people give it credit for.

First, there is the meat. None of my favorite cuts that are perfect for French bistro style steak -- hanger, skirt, or flat iron -- make a proper American steak. Oh no. For American steak, you need a thick and even cut of meat. Ideally, NY strip, Rib-eye, or Porterhouse (combination of a NY strip and tenderloin with a bone in the middle). These are all expensive cuts, so you'd expect them to be the most tender. But somehow, whenever I've tried to buy NY strip or rib-eye before, they've ended up grizzly and chewy.

Then there is the doneness issue. Not all medium-rare is created equal.

Medium-rare style 1: 20% of the steak is really well-done (the outside), then a 30% layer of medium-well, then a 30% layer of medium, and finally a 20% layer of medium-rare with maybe even a bit of completely rare thrown in right at the center.

Medium-rare style 2: 80% of the steak is evenly medium-rare and 20% on the outside is a quick transition from well to medium-rare.

I am a medium-rare style 2 person, and about a year ago, I learned to achieve that with my pan-fried steaks and large roasts: quick sear, followed by a rest period, followed by a long finish in a 250F oven.

In this method, the juices accumulating during the resting period and the long finish soften the outside crust. This makes a nice base for a quick pan sauce, and produces a wonderful sauced steak that will transport you to a bistro in Paris, but not to a ranch in Texas. For most food related things, I'd rather be in Paris, but when it comes to steak, I don't think any country does it quite as well as the US. So this week, I decided to go into completely unfamiliar territory -- I bought a porterhouse and grilled it.

I think I am slowly developing a real relationship with a butcher. Boston is not a meat town. There are many great places to get fish. But when it comes to meat, the pickings are slim. I've tried every place from a regular supermarket to the most expensive butchers, and I just couldn't seem to find a place that could put me at ease about meat until I discovered the Fresh Pond Market. It's a little neighborhood grocer that I wrote about recently. I've been having such good luck with their lamb and cheaper cuts of beef that I decided to stop chickening out and finally got one of those serious steaks.

Of course, the most reasonable thing to do with an unfamiliar cut of meat is to use a tried and true technique, but some strange and powerful force was telling me to preheat the grill even though it was a rainy, 40 degree day. I dried of my steak, sprinkled generously this almost 2 inch thick hunk of meat with salt and pepper, and took it to the grill that was preheated to high.

The plan was to imitate the "sear on high, finish on low" technique I use indoors, but now using a grill. As soon as the steak hit the grill, I covered it and waited 5 minutes before flipping (I did rotate it 45 degees after the first 3 minutes to make criss-cross grill marks). After flipping the steak, I turned the grill to the lowest possible setting and left it uncovered for 5-7 minutes to cool it off as much as possible. Then I covered the grill again, turned up the temperature just a tad and waited another 3-4 minutes. To test for doneness, I made a little cut around the center of the steak, but not too close to the bone, and peeked inside. It looked a perfect medium-rare, so I took it off the grill, drizzled with a little lemon juice and olive oil, and let it rest about 5 minutes.

Did it work?

"Mmm... this steak is as good as in Tulsa," moaned Jason when he took a bite of the strip part.

I couldn't dream of a higher praise. Being born in Texas and having grown up in Tulsa, Jason knows his steak and likes to complain about how hard it is to find in Boston.

In spite of the steak's weird shape and a combination of two totally different muscles (strip loin and tenderloin) being joined by a bone and forced to cook the same amount of time, the steak came out perfectly medium-rare in every single bite and almost rare at the bone. The strip had a good bite to it and tremendous flavor, but no chew. The tenderloin just melted in the mouth. Both muscles were bursting with juices. Half way through devouring our steak, I realized that here was yet another great dish I didn't bother to photograph. "Let's do it now," said Jason. I grabbed the camera, and snatched a few quick pictures while there was still some meat left.

When we got everything off the bone with a fork and a knife, we switched to teeth until we polished off the bone. There is really no better carnal pleasure than sinking your teeth into a perfectly grilled steak.


Anonymous said...

God, I want a steak right now! Sounds fabulous. Because a Porterhouse is actually two different kinds of muscle, as you said, some recipes call for removing the meat from the bone after cooking and slicing it so each diner can have some of both.

Kelly said...

Great technique, but I have one qualm. My father makes the best steak I have ever had, and he is a yankee turned Texan. We never salt the steak before cooking it. The salt will pull moisture out of the meat, and in getting a good sear it is vital to have a dry surface. On a room temperature T-bone, we put black pepper and garlic on one side, nothing on the other, and throw the plain, freshly patted dry side down on a crazy hot grill. I had a weber B that was natural gas fueled so I really cranked it. Since we also like our meat very rare, i cooked it about 3 minutes, then rotated and moved it to a new part of my grill for 2 minutes, then flipped it to a new part of the grill for 2-3 minutes. Resting the meat before eating, then i might salt it, but usually not. Daddy is also a health nut, so he basically does not have salt. We eat ours with a spicy dijon or horseradish.