Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Sizzle AND the Steak

There's an old saw in marketing and advertising that you "sell the sizzle, not the steak," and it's true enough in that world.

But in the real world of steak eating, both are important, and the steak itself is the key. The Poppycock's have been enjoying a steak on average once a week for almost our entire married life. We've been through various phases of preference and purchasing strategies.

There are three aspects to having a great steak at home: what you buy, how you prep it, and how you cook it. I will address all three.

First, buying. In a prior life, when neighborhood butchers still existed, the owner would custom age top sirloin for us, which for years was our preferred primal cut. I'd buy the cut up section from him and freeze the individual portions. I can still remember that shop very well, with the father/owner and three of his sons or so working behind the counter.

Over the years, we've gravitated towards the "rib-eye" as our preferred cut. It's just a slice of the roast normally sold as "prime rib," or more correctly, a standing rib roast. I don't remember when or why we made the switch. It may well have been because of one of those virtually extinct species in life, the neighborhood market. They're akin to Frosty's Donuts, a true original, whose future is certainly limited.

While Paul Tetreault was operating his neighborhood market on Union Street, we regularly stopped by his shop on the way home from Saturday breakfast out to buy that nights steak out of his meat case. A practiced eye would often spot a rib-eye or two with near prime grade marbling, and old P. C. became quite expert at "cherry picking" from those on display, or if none met the standard, asking Paul to look in his frig for a new one to cut into. How we miss that great little market and how it helped you hold onto a taste of what life once was like, and the personal touch it involved.

I was born in a house three doors away from the corner store my Grandfather operated. I remember the candy case, with rock candy, those little dots on white paper that you bought by the inch, and other treats of a bygone era. If you wanted a chicken, they went out in the backyard to grab one, and after the deed was done, it got dunked in very hot water to make it easier to pluck. Now that's fresh. My grandparents lived upstairs. In the same neighborhood, working men would head to the local tavern with their little pots, and get them filled with draft beer. They'd walk back home and sit on the porch and drink it (from glasses.)

But I digress.

We still have a few local butchers. Bissons, in Topsham, unfortunately, is not on the way to or from anything, so we don't visit as often as we should. Bow Street Market in Freeport is, and their butcher counter is a first rate operation, with a great selection on steaks, including Wolfe's Neck Farm beef, if you feel like splurging. In my experience, that choice is superb, but I rarely feel the cost is justified, especially when you see well marbled steaks in the case at a far lower price. Hannafords, while not a "neighborhood market," occasionally has steak sales or "managers special" markdowns that can be very good.

After all these years, I have settled on one very reliable source for our steak, and that is BJ's on Warren Avenue in Portland. They package the ribeyes in threes, and the price per pound is generally less than you can buy it anywhere else, and more important, the way they cut it and the quality are better than anywhere else I've found. This particular BJ's cuts them nice and thick; a package of three typically weighs between three pounds and close to four pounds, meaning that each steak is large and thick. One steak is more than enough for the two of us, especially if you carve it after cooking, rather than serving a "chunk" on each plate. Somehow, slicing makes it go further.

The thickness is important if you like a steak well charred on the outside, but medium rare on the inside (or medium, I suppose) on the inside. This BJ's cuts them thick enough to work well at this, but I know from experience that not all BJ's cut them as thick. I typically look through all their packages on display, focusing on marbling and the amount of outer fat. I pick the ones that look best. If we are out and they have only one that meets the test, that's all I buy. On the other hand, if they have two or three packages that are well marbled, heading towards the prime area, I will buy they all, and individually wrap and freeze them at home. I have come to understand that in today's meat packing and distribution world, "choice" really means choice or better.

For preparation, the first thing you need to do is let the steak come to room temperature. If it is frozen, you can thaw it quickly by setting it in a heavy frying pan or other mass of metal. You'll be amazed at how such a trick will thaw such things.

I usually trim the thawed ribeye of major white fat or suet, which this cut naturally includes. Leave some on for flavor, but cut away the stuff that is 1/4" thick or more. Then pour a bit of extra virgin olive oil on both sides and let it sit for a bit.

Seasoning is next. We've been through all the approaches. Season it before cooking, during cooking, after cooking, etc. After years of experience, I've settled on the latter. Seasoning it with salt before cooking draws too much moisture out of the steak. During cooking is a challenge because of the heat and the smoke; most of the seasoning doesn't hit the meat.

Here's what I do. When the steak is cooked long enough, I bring it in on a warmed plate and season it generously with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. I don't think anything else is needed on a good steak. If you cooked it right, the juices on the surface of the steak will immediately be infused with the salt and the pepper, and the result will be a superbly flavored steak eating experience. Let it sit for 3-5 minutes before serving/slicing.

This point is really important: if you follow my suggestions, you will be removing the steak from the cooking surface before it is done to your liking. The cooking will finish while it is sitting on the warm plate with the kosher salt and black pepper elevating the flavor.

So what do you cook it on? I don't think anything beats grilling. Purists prefer charcoal grills, and I have no doubt that they are truly the epitome of such cooking. But they are a lot of work, not particularly predictable, and a real pain in the butt during bad weather, or even worse, winter. So I'll take the gas grill because it is just the opposite.

I think we've owned about six or so of these critters, of varying cost and quality. A few years back, we bought a Weber gas grill, at considerable expense. It has been worth it; it is simply the best, hottest, and most consistent we have every owned. I don't regret buying it one bit.

It makes cooking steak as we like it very easy and very consistent. I heat it up on high; not much more than 5-7 minutes is required to get it at maximum temperature. I take the room temperature, thick cut and unseasoned ribeye on the grill, and hear the immediate sizzle, always a good sign. Close the lid, cook two minutes. Turn over, close the grill, cook another two minutes. Then, if it is average thickness, cook another 30-60 seconds on each side, depending on thickness and outside temperature.

Remove from the grill, bring inside, and immediately season generously with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Let rest for five minutes or so while you eat your salad, and then serve and enjoy.

Follow these instructions carefully, and you will have a major steak success. And you will have steak juices on your plate that will prove a real challenge to your manners. Is it ok to slurp steak juices from a dinner plate or not? Perhaps Ms. Manners will chime in on the rules. As for me, I'll leave it up to you; I know what we do here.

Or maybe not. As it turns out, just after typing most of this post, I threw a gorgeous ribeye on my Weber gas grill, following all the directions outlined above. After letting it rest, I wen to cut it in half for serving, and immediately knew it was rare, not medium-rare. So I relit the grill, which was still quite hot, and cooked it for another minute on each side. Perfect.

Enjoy one way or another. And if you have any questions, you know where to find me.

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