Monday, May 30, 2011

Sometimes, What Seems like A Good Idea At The Time, Really Is One

There’s an awful lot of steak in my freezer right now.

Is that a problem?

Well, yes…because it’s CSA steak.

For the most part, I’ve been very happy with the meat we’ve gotten from our CSA. I really do think it tastes better (the chicken tastes more like chicken!), I totally support the farming methods that they use, and I feel good about feeding their stuff to my boys. But for me, the steaks have been, um, tricky to deal with.

I read somewhere (probably on the CSA’s website) that pasture-raised beef is leaner and therefore cooks quicker than supermarket beef. So you need to be careful to not overcook your steaks. No problem, I thought: I love medium rare steak. Getting that perfect medium rare, however, was tricky: my first few victims were sadly overdone (ugh). To be fair to the CSA, it was my lack of experience with beefy behavior; I simply needed enough practice to recognize when the goods were cooked right.

So now I have a plan: when I pull a sirloin from the freezer, it gets a bulgogi-style marinade (i.e. soy sauce, lots of crushed garlic, a bit of sugar, sesame oil, and some chopped scallions) for at least half a day. I get a cast-iron skillet screaming hot, sear the steak on each side for about 3 minutes, then transfer it to a baking sheet (with sides: don’t want to spill tasty beef juices all over my oven). The steaks are usually thick (more than one inch) so they need an extra ten minutes or so in a 350 degree oven to finish cooking. After a brief post-oven rest they are a beautiful medium-rare. I finally feel like I can handle the sirloin.

But one of the quirks of a CSA is that you don’t get to choose the cuts – you take what you get. A couple of months ago, we got a London Broil in our cooler. I eyed it every time I went down to the freezer; having conquered the sirloin so recently, was I ready to tackle another cut? Tonight, I decided, was the night.

In the fridge, I had some gorgonzola cheese and romaine lettuce: a steak salad came to mind. Then I remembered the loaf of bread in the bread box (yes, I actually have AND use a bread box) and envisioned an open-face steak salad-sandwich sort of thing. So I marinated the steak, using this recipe from Emeril Lagasse instead of my usual marinade, because I though the mustard would be good with the gorgonzola. I seared it in the cast-iron skillet but skipped the oven-baking step, since the London Broil was only an inch thick (but I still let the steak rest after cooking). Sliced thin and arranged over cheese and bread, it tasted just as good as I imagined it would. Which doesn’t happen everyday, you know…my imagination has pretty high expectations.

Open-Faced Steak Sandwich (for four servings)

About 1 lb London broil steak
Steak marinade of your choice
Some country-style bread with big holes, lightly toasted (I used Trader Joe’s Tuscan Pane, which has a slight sourdough flavor)
Gorgonzola or other bleu cheese, sliced thin or crumbled
Romaine or other lettuce, or argula, or spinach, washed and sliced into strips
Cucumber, peeled and sliced thin, or some roasted red bell peppers or both
Salt and pepper

Prepare the marinade and place it in a plastic bag, along with the steak. Put it in the refrigerator for 4 hours up to overnight, turning it over once or twice.

About 30 minutes before cooking the steak, take it out of the refrigerator. Heat a heavy skillert (preferably cast iron) over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until very hot. Remove the steak from the marinade and wipe off the excess. Place the steak in the hot skillet and sear for about 3 minutes. Turn the steak over and sear on the other side for another 3 minutes, or until medium-rare. Transfer the steak to a plate or cutting board and cover (I used the lid to a large stockpot) and let rest for 10 minutes. Transfer the steak onto a cutting board, reserving any juices that have accumulated on the plate, and cut it into thin slices (1/4’ thick or less).

Lightly toast one or two slices of bread per person and place them on a plate. Drizzle some of the reserved steak juices over the bread. Arrange some of the Gorgonzola cheese on top, followed by a few slices of steak, then the romaine lettuce or other greens. Add the red bell peppers (if using). Arrange the cucumber slices on top of everything and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Eat with a knife and fork!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Flavor Thesaurus

Last weekend, I was browsing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston store after seeing the Dale Chihuly exhibit (breath-taking!). I naturally gravitated to the cookbook section, when I came across a relatively new (2010) book by UK author Niki Segnit called The Flavor Thesaurus. At first glance, I didn't get what it was about, but something made me take a second look and I ended up buying it.

Segnit was motivated by a desire to gain a deeper understanding of how flavors work together and, ultimately, become a better, more improvisational cook. She identifies 99 flavors, from Almond to White Fish, that she organizes around a "flavor wheel" classified by categories she calls "flavor families" such as Fresh Fruity and Sulphurous. You can look up a family, or a flavor within a family and get a list of pairings. For example, looking up cauliflower (grouped under Sulphurous), I find pairings with ingredients as diverse as anchovies, chocolate, and saffron! The entries include descriptions about the combinations. Some entries include recipes. In the back of the book are a bibliography and several helpful indices: a recipe index, a general index, and a pairings index. The latter lists the 99 flavors alphabetically as headings, and then the pairings underneath. BTW, it must have been "translated" to American English, because she talks of eggplant and zucchini, not aubergine and courgette.

Although, based on research of combinations commonly used in different cultures' cuisines and those used successfully by innovative chefs, there is also an element of subjectivity, which she explains forthrightly in the introduction. For example, she does not include one of my favorites, zucchini, because it is not a favorite of hers. (You can find it in the general index, in a pasta recipe under "Basil & Mint,") Nor did I sees spinach or chard and kale gets only a passing mention. But you can always look for something close or browse the flavor family and go from there.

I'm hoping this book will serve as an inspiration, especially as I struggle to deal with the impending bounty of my veggie CSA. I will keep you posted (no pun intended)!