25 February 2011

Cooking the beef nicely

February, wait up! Wait up, I say!

Gentle Reader, my confusion knows no end. I gave up understanding why those 24 hours that we all know equal a day go rampant and unruly when all you need from them is that they walk beside you, steps measured and in accord with yours. But no. They are like a pack of hunting dogs, unstoppable in their pursuit of whatever. Oh lay, what would you do with this rushing time, so eager to leave you behind, so capable to speed up on and on. I've been thinking a lot about it lately. That and about meat – steak, in particular.

Let me explain.

I'm not a vegetarian. I like a beautifully cooked piece of meat (sustainably and humanely grown, of course) as much as a plate of chickpeas. Yet I scarcely got to eat meat. Mainly because I didn't know how to cook it without turning it into an unswallow-able substance -- sometimes charred, always dried-out. For a while I used to be sure that the cooking of meat is a men's domain. My logic rested on the bones of a fact that generally the man's usual food of choice is a sizzling steak and that, by extension, meant to me that men understand meat better than we women do. Cooking steak is a gender thing, I assumed. Until I made friends with men who, despite their taste devotion to meat, didn't exactly excel at making an edible steak themselves. That unscientific observation of mine triggered a desire in me to find out what it is to be held accountable for a botched steak.

I consider it my fortune to have a chef among Anthony’s and mine friends. It’s a double fortune that this chef friend of ours, Jan-Willem Teunis, is a member of the Irish Beef Club. Meat is no doubt taken seriously in this establishment and so in an effort to stop my steak jinx, I asked Jan-Willem to please teach me the basics of cooking the beef nicely.

Even before attempting, I knew that the path to a mean steak is through the right temperature. Yes, I knew that already. What I wasn’t aware of was the way the heat should get through the meat. This has to happen slowly – and in short intervals.

Here is how to achieve it. The first thing to do is pre-heat the oven to 220 C. Second, bring the piece of sirloin, filet mignon, what have you to room temperature. This step is important, for if the meat is put in the heated pan too cold or frozen, the temperature of the pan will drop. When your beef cut of choice is good to go, the next step will be to “seal” the future steak (to give it color) by cooking it in a thoroughly pre-heated frying pan to which a few generous glugs of olive oil were added. When the oil turns transparent and thin, you add the meat and let it frizzle on each side, broad and narrow, until it takes on deep golden brown hue. As a finishing touch at this stage, throw in a knob of butter, for flavor. While you pour the liquid (use a soup spoon) that accumulates in the pan over the meat, you could take a quick moment to reflect upon the loud sizzling relationship that you see between heat, fat and muscle. The whole step takes no longer than about three or four minutes. At this moment, the steak is rare.

Next, place the meat in a vessel fit for the oven – a casserole dish, or a stainless steel tray, or a small cast-iron pan -- and leave it to rest for a couple of minutes in a warm place (if you used cast-iron pan for the searing, don’t use the same one now: at this point you don’t want the meat to continue cooking, which it will from the heat of the pan). This is done to let the meat relax first before the successive bouts of heat.

Finally, you send the steak in the oven. Two minutes in, four minutes out. Two minutes in, four minutes out. Two minutes in, four minutes out. Two minutes in, four minutes out. Alternating the cooking and resting times ensures that the heat won’t get in the beef faster than needed and that the meat stays soft and juicy throughout. Feel your steak now: if it springs back the way the flesh between your thumb and index finger does when poked, the steak is medium rare. If you want it medium or well-done, continue cooking it in said intervals up to seven or eight times. My last steak was done medium-well already after the fifth time in the oven. Be watchful and careful here, is all I’m saying. Poke the meat as you go, it shouldn’t feel shoe-sole-like to the touch. But of course you know that. Some salt and pepper and a small pour of fragrant olive oil over the finished steak – and you are in business now.

One of the things I find admirable about food is that once you’ve had a meal you thoroughly enjoyed, with dear friends or all by yourself, it is able to envelop and seal the fleeting moment into a cherished memory, a memory of laughs shared, of bites relished, of knowledge passed on.