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Cuban-Style Skirt Steak + 5 Tips for a Better Sear

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Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.  

Today: The secret to the perfect pan-seared steak? It's all about the sizzle.

I won't lie to you -- I like steak. To be specific, I like pan-seared steak. It’s the roar of the hood fan as it comes up to speed; the exhilaration and anticipation of the pop, crackle, and sizzle of red meat on a hot pan; and the wisps of white smoke curling around the steak's edges, like a passionate embrace that gently kisses the bits of ground black peppercorn and fat. And, as always, the resulting taste of the brown butter against the crispy-edged meat. This kind of carnivorous zeal should be illegal.

Something as simple as pan-seared steak doesn’t need much adornment -- think of a classic Steak Diane, an Au Poivre, or one topped with a sauce Bearnaise or a simple compound butter. If you are anything like me, a mess of caramelized onions is about as good as it gets.

More: Try topping your steak with Tom's maitre d'hotel butter.

Nevertheless, I am always looking to improve on a good thing. And, as always, I am surprised at some of the places where you can discover improvement. Like when I sat down to a table at a mom-and-pop joint, a Cuban restaurant called El Siboney, while visiting Key West not long ago. I ordered something I normally wouldn’t when eating at a Cuban restaurant: a steak.

It must have been fate. To make a long story short, after devouring the sizzling hot skirt steak marinated in mojo and speckled with bits of onion tossed with parsley, I vowed to learn this steak’s secrets. As with most things Floribbean, when I can’t figure it out myself, I defer to one chef: Norman Van Aken. I cracked open one of his many cookbooks, New World Kitchen, and went directly to his recipe for Bistec de Palomillo. Just as I figured, the answers to my questions were there on the pages laid out before me.

Not one to leave well enough alone, I contacted Chef Van Aken. The answers begged more questions: What was the difference between Bistec de Palomillo and Bistec Encebollado? It turns out the first uses sirloin that is pounded thin, and the other uses skirt steak. As all great chefs do, he had some updates for those willing to stray from tradition, like using a chipotle vinegar in his mojo, and topping with cebollas fritas (fried egg-battered onions).

For my purposes here -- at least for today -- I am sticking to tradition: to the taste of quickly seared minced red onion and the mystery of a good mojo that rings true to what I tasted in Key West. For the latter, I already know that there is none better than Chef Van Akens' Classic Sour Orange Mojo.

Five tips for better pan searing:

1. Use the right skillet. I personally like cast iron, but I also know that any heavy-bottomed pan -- like stainless steel -- will suffice. You need something that will distribute the heat evenly.

2. Make sure the pan is hot enough, but not too hot. I can't stress this enough -- practice makes perfect. To me the ideal temperature is just before the oil starts to smoke. If I drop something into the oiled pan and it sizzles immediately (with vigor but not violently), then I am ready to sear my steak.

3. I always -- even if I am going to marinate -- salt and then air dry my steaks, chicken breasts, or pork chops in the refrigerator for at least 2 to 4 hours, and most of the time overnight. Drying out the surface in this manner will allow for good caramelization that merely patting dry never will.

4. Butter and beef are great together. If you clarify butter, it is a great fat for searing. If you can't be bothered, use a high-heat oil, like grapeseed. Toward the end of the sear, add a couple of teaspoons of butter and baste the steak with the butter-oil mixture. Be careful not to let the butter burn.

5. Even though you are pan-searing, it is very important to let the cooked steak rest, just as if you were grilling. For me, I like the fact that a steak needs a rest because it gives me time to wrap up and get the side dishes to the table. Look at the rest time as a positive, not a bother. 

Cuban-Style Skirt Steak with Classic Sour Orange Mojo

Serves 4

For the mojo:

6 garlic cloves
1 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 to 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup equal parts lime and orange juice (or 1/3 cup sour orange juice)
1 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the steak:

1 1/2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed
1 cup red onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
Grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 lime, quartered 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

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Tags: Meat, Onion, Steak, Tips & Techniques