This is the eighteenth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.
Today: Tom shares his life lessons in cooking the perfect steak (hint: butter is the key), with recipes for Pan-seared Porterhouse Steaks with Maitre d' Butter, Long-Cooked Romano Beans with Pancetta, and Jamie Oliver's Genius Smoked Beets.
On a half-sheet tray sits ten pounds of butter, gently softening on a cold stovetop next to the warm convection oven.
The kitchen is old, but then so is the classic French restaurant that fronts the dingy and worn-out heart of the place. To most it probably looks dirty, but the kitchen isn't. It is just worn from hard work.
Friday night after Friday night for twenty five years, this kitchen turned out the best food in town. It is in this kitchen that I cut my teeth. It is the kitchen where I learned the most about cooking. It is where I learned about maître d'hôtel butter, the luxurious green stuff we made by the bucket.
Maître d'hôtel butter is a workhorse of the old school French kitchen. It is a compound butter made of parsley, shallots, garlic, and lemon juice, and it goes into or on almost everything. There is more butter than escargot in the classic snail dish. Steaks get a big glob, right out of the big broiler that is hotter than a blast furnace. A spoonful in assorted sautéed wild mushrooms, or into a hot pan of seared, crispy-edged, and browned jumbo sea scallops makes the world go round.
We used maître d' butter like it was salt.
I stand on a chair so I can reach the top of the meat grinding attachment that attaches to the very tall commercial stand mixer in the same way the grinder hooks to a KitchenAid on your counter at home. I feed the auger two cups of whole peeled shallots, a cup of garlic cloves, and 12 bunches of parsley. It grinds them into a grisly stew and drizzles the mix out into a heavy-gauge mixing bowl. I connect the paddle attachment and add the ten pounds of butter. I turn the mixer to low.
The pure yellow butter smears with green steaks, like vanilla frosting when green dye is added, then it all comes together in one homogenous mass. I add salt and white pepper to the mix, and a touch of lemon juice. I can smell the garlic and shallots. It gets divided between three stainless steel bain maries for the three cook's stations that will use it, and then I put it into the walk-in.
I am sure people assume that when you work in a restaurant, you get to try all the food. That is a myth. I actually contend that most people who work in restaurants not only do not get to eat the food, but they don't really like to cook. It is a mere job, and they prefer not to bring their job home with them.
As for myself, I made maitre d' butter for months at my job before one Sunday at home, with a couple of big fat steaks in the fridge, I decided I would give it a whirl.
It is the same Sunday I decided I needed to learn how to cook great steaks -- not just cooking the steaks, but how to treat them once I got them home from the store, what was the best method, what were good practices.
I studied, tried, failed, and triumphed, but in the end I think this steak is as good as any I have had.
I started by using what I have come to call the Rodgers technique. Judy Rodgers, owner of Zuni Cafe, is right: salting meat and letting it sit in the fridge overnight, uncovered, might just be the one, and most important, thing you can do in preparing a good steak (or for that matter any animal protein). Not only does it get rid of excess moisture, kind of like reducing a stock and intensifying the flavor, but it also absorbs the salt and dries the exterior so you can really caramelize the meat without making for a dry steak.
Second is letting the steak rest after its initial cook time. I can't imagine cooking a steak without letting it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before I put it back on the grill or into the oven to finish cooking it.
I have found it does matter where you buy your meat -- the old compliment, which I always found to be an insult, "Oh that was so, so good, where do you buy your meat?" is at least a little bit true. I have tried free-range beef, I have tried dry-aged beef, but what I like most is the local Indiana producer who raises his or her cattle responsibly on natural grass, finishes them on grain, and sends them to a local processor when they reach weight. I have found the flavor of this beef to be the best; it is what I want beef to be. This is a decision you have to make for yourself for what tastes best to you.
I like steaks on the grill or broiled, but my favorite way to cook a steak is in a cast iron skillet. I like the way it caramelizes, the control, and the simplicity.
And finally, I like them best with maître d'hôtel butter and I like to finish them in the oven like they do at Peter Luger's Steakhouse in New York City. After letting the steak rest, you slice and then rewarm it under the broiler, melting the butter into all the cuts and cracks and making the steak rich and tasty beyond words.
It is how I like my steaks. It took practice. It took some learning, some reading, and eating some overcooked meat, but eventually it all paid off.
Pan-seared Porterhouse Steaks with Maitre d' Butter
2 porterhouse steaks, 1 pound each
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon shallot, minced
fresh ground white pepper
half a fresh lemon
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Long-Cooked Romano Beans with Pancetta
1 pound Romano beans
3 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
fresh ground black pepper
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Jamie Oliver's Genius Smoked Beets
8 small beets, with greens if possible
1 small bunch fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped
1 small bunch fresh tarragon or basil, leaves picked and roughly chopped
4 heaped tablespoons cottage cheese
juice and zest from 1/2 lemon, plus more to taste
A few sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves pickedSee the full recipe (and save and print it) here.