Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Guys’ Night = Steak Night


I’ll admit, this week’s menu was none too creative.  It’s ultra-typical actually.  Kind of plain old boring even.  Take a look and see for yourself…

Winter Salad with Dried Tart Cherries, Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans, 
Sliced Red Onions and Crumbled Blue Cheese

       Skillet-Seared Strip Steak with Parmesan-Creamed Spinach and French-Fried        Yukon Gold Potatoes 

          Brownie Sundaes with Hot Fudge Sauce, Whipped Cream, Toasted Walnuts,                and a Cherry on Top

See what I mean.  It could come straight from any steak house in America.  Certainly not Haute Cuisine.  It sure doesn’t take a professional chef to think up this kind of stuff. 

But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this menu.  Because I have to tell you, this dinner was Good with a capital G.  Darn Good.  And you know why?  Well, because I didn’t just make plain-old steak, creamed spinach and french fries.  I made the best ever steak, creamed spinach and french fries.  And the same with the salad and dessert too.  The best ever vinaigrette, the best ever brownies, the best ever hot fudge. 

So while a bit on the boring side on paper, on the plate this meal was nothing short of spectacular.  Trust me when I say this:  You’re going to want to pay attention to these recipes.  Each and every last one is a complete winner.  A must try.


And now that I sound one-hundred percent full of myself, I’d like to make clear one thing.  Many of these recipes here today are not even my own.  A few are, but most are pretty thoroughly adapted from other chefs’ recipes.  So again, I’m none too original this week.   But I don’t care at all.  Because sometimes, for the sake of eating yummy food, you have to swallow your pride and follow a recipe or two (or five).  Even when you’re a so called professional :). 

Now, let’s set the stage.  This week we had another quite exceptional guest of honor, Ramón, an old friend of Ben’s, who’s from Spain, but has lived in Australia for the past ten years, and was once upon a time a foreign exchange student living with Ben’s family in Geneseo, NY.  So, it was this worldly guy whom we shared our dinner table with last Thursday.  Though I’d heard plenty about Ramón, we’d never met before.  But I liked him right away.  He was full of fun ideas, was gracious and warm, and was super-enthusiastic about everything.  In short, he was a blast to have over for dinner, and I can definitely see why he and Ben have been friends for so long. 

And so, to celebrate Ben’s guy friend, we wanted to have a guy-ish sort of meal.  And that meant steak, plain and simple.  So now let’s talk about the food.

And let’s start with the salad.  Now, people have been tossing salads just like this for at least a decade or so.  Blue cheese, spiced pecans, dried cherries.  It’s a common theme among salads, but one I have little interest in composing variations to.  You know why?  Because it works.  It worked then, it works now, and it always will work.  The salty, pungent, creamy blue cheese, the tart and chewy cherries, the warm and spicy-sweet crunchy pecans.  I’m obsessed with each of these ingredients just on their own.  But man, when you put them together, what a combination!  And they’re pretty as anything, all together too. Oh, and the vinaigrette that goes with it is just perfect.  For nearly any salad I ever make, I use the same basic ratio, and just sub in different vinegars and seasonings.  Check out the recipe.  It’s seriously good.  Based on a typical French vinaigrette, it’s one of my very own best evers.  


Okay, I’m gonna let you in on a big secret here.  Really, a real secret.  I’m embarrassed to tell you even.  Really, I don’t know why I’m admitting this.  I don’t want to lose credibility with you all, especially so early on in this blogging relationship.  Please don’t think any less of me as a chef, when I tell you that… well, here goes… I had to get a little extra help when it came to cooking the steaks. It doesn’t get any more basic than that.  Pan-searing is a technique I learned in my Cooking Skills 101 class at culinary school.  And I’d grilled about a hundred million steaks in a handful of restaurants, before ever even going to school.  So this was something I should have been perfectly capable of doing all by myself.  But the sad truth is, I wasn’t. 

It’s just that these were really nice NY Strip steaks.  Really nice.  They came from grass-fed cows, they were dry aged, and were twice as expensive as anything else in the meat case at Whole Foods.  (Side note: We only eat steak like once a year or so, so we decided a splurge like this was worthwhile.)  So I really didn’t want to mess up and overcook the steaks.  And this flashback from few years back when we’d splurged on steaks and I overcooked ‘em kept popping into my head.  And earlier in the week, when I was flipping through the pages of an old Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, looking for my favorite buttermilk pancake recipe, I happened to come across an article called The Secrets of Pan-frying Steak.  Well, of course I had to read it.  And of course, I had to try it too. 

You see, I inherently trust every last word from Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s my favorite magazine out there.  For those of you who don’t know too much about it, here’s Cook’s Illustrated in a nutshell.  They take classic recipes, say like Strawberry Shortcake or Eggs Benedict or yeah, Buttermilk Pancakes, and use the scientific method to perfect them.  They’ll attempt a single recipe dozens and dozens (sometimes hundreds) of times, tweaking and fine-tuning at every attempt, until they arrive at absolute perfection.  And what’s really cool, each of the articles describes this whole process they went through to reach this ultimate recipe.  Everything I’ve ever made from this magazine has been spot on.  And anytime I want to make something classic, say like brownies or spiced nuts or hot fudge (yep, I relied pretty heavily on the Cook’s Illustrated this week), I usually at least check out what they have to say.  Really, I have to attribute the sheer magnificence of this week’s dinner to Cook’s Illustrated.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

So, I followed The Secrets of Pan-frying Steak directions to the T, and then threw in a step of my own and poured melted butter all over them.  And believe me when I tell you (you really should trust me by now, after all that honesty I just laid out on the table) these steaks were unbelievably, insanely good.  The method is failsafe, and it’s the one I’m going to follow from now on, forever. 

Okay, onto the sides.  The creamed spinach to be exact.  Now I’m sure Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for this – this is just their kinda thing.  But I went with my own for this one, because over the last few years, I’ve made creamed spinach enough times myself, that I think I’ve reached perfection all on my own.  The whole thing is just, well, exactly right.  Emerald green ribbons of tender baby spinach wrapped in a cozy blanket of creamy sauce.  Mmmmm.  Each ingredient plays an important part, but none is too obvious.  It’s these subtle touches that make this such a sweetly humble, but utterly delicious dish. 


Now the french fries.  They’re not only the best ever french fries.  They’re the official best ever french fries.  Seriously.  It’s been officially proven by the Alicia Foundation (a food science research institute in Catalonia, and the place where I was lucky enough to work for a while last year), that these are the best french fries in all of creation.  In true Cook’s Illustrated fashion, Alicia took a scientific approach to creating the perfect fry.  And what they came up with really, truly is the best.  It’s a revolutionary method, but one that’s easy enough to pull off at home.  I won’t blab on about it now.  I’ve done enough of that already today, and plus, the recipe speaks for itself.  Go check it out.  Oh, but I should tell you a bit about the fries themselves, because the recipe alone can’t begin to relay the vast scope of their staggering deliciousness.  Let me just say, they’re like these rich and creamy sticks of mashed potato, oh so gently enclosed in the most delicate, web-like crust of golden crispiness. You’ve never had French fries like these before.  They’re beyond perfect.

On to dessert.  Brownie sundaes are Ben’s favorite dessert, I think.  At least, they’re the one he asks for most often.  Not that I blame him.  Really, what’s better than this combination?  Cold and rich vanilla ice cream, warm and chewy chocolate brownies, fluffy clouds of whipped cream,  studs of toasty walnuts and thick, gooey hot fudge oozing over everything.  Oh, and let’s not forget the cherry!

The Cook’s Illustrated (oh my gosh, I’m such a broken record!) brownies have been in my arsenal for a few years now, and I’ve more recently been introduced to their stellar hot fudge sauce.  The hot fudge does that thing where it gets a little bit chewy when you pour it over cold ice cream, which to be honest, has always been my favorite thing about hot fudge.  And the brownies are simply awesome.  After making these the first time, I knew I’d never follow another brownie recipe for as long as I live.  Now like with any cookie, everyone has their own opinion of what makes the best brownie.  In my version of the best, it’s a brownie that’s chewy but not exactly fudgy, tender on the insides, but not, definitely not cakey, and with a crisp and crackly top crust and really, really chewy sides.  If you too like brownies just like these, do go and try this recipe.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed at all!


Well, that’s all for now.  Thanks for putting up with all my insecurities regarding my huge lack of creativity this week.  I do feel like a bit of an imposter when I follow anyone else’s recipe too closely, but like I said before, it can’t be such a bad thing, if it’s done in the name of yummy-ness.  And this entire menu was nothing if not for yummy-ness. 

Green  Salad with All My Favorite Fixin’s 
Serves 4 

I can’t say enough how important it is to season your salads at the very end with salt & pepper.  Be liberal with both, and you’ll turn a pretty good salad into something sensational, something so amazingly tasty you’ll want to forsake good manners and just shovel it into your mouth. 


For the vinaigrette:
1 egg yolk *
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 small clove garlic, peeled & finely minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or any mildly-flavored oil, like canola or grape seed)
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste 

For the rest of the salad:
mixed greens (such as baby spinach, butter lettuce or radicchio), torn into
    bite-sized pieces, enough for four people
a good handful of cinnamon-spiced pecans (see recipe just below)
a good handful of dried cherries
half a small red onion, very thinly sliced and soaked in cool H2O for 15 min **
about 6 oz good blue cheese, crumbled
1 small pear, thinly sliced (which I completely forgot to add, but I think would
    still be a pretty good addition)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

First make the vinaigrette:  Combine the egg yolk, mustard, vinegar, thyme, minced garlic, a good pinch of salt and a good few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  This can be made ahead (but only by about a day, thanks to the raw yolk) and stored in an airtight container until needed.

Next, assemble the salad: Combine the greens, and most of the spiced pecans, dried cherries, sliced onion, crumbled blue cheese and sliced pear in a large bowl.  (I say most of the pecans, cherries, etc. because you’ll want to keep a little bit left over to top the salads.  It’s always nice to have some of the pretty stuff right on top.) Drizzle a bit of the vinaigrette on top.  Don’t use it all here, just enough to thinly coat everything to your liking, and save the rest for a nice salad tomorrow.  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Toss to coat thoroughly, and place onto salad plates.  Top with the rest of the pecans, cherries, onion, blue cheese and pear.  Serve immediately.

*  I know some of you may be sketched out but the raw yolk here.  I’m usually pretty courageous about things like this, but certainly Salmonella is nothing to flirt with.  I always, always make sure to use the freshest eggs possible - organic and free-range eggs wouldn’t hurt at all.  Of course, you can always omit the yolk altogether, and make a perfectly good vinaigrette.  But I love the addition of the yolk.  It really helps the emulsion, and lends a creamy smooth texture to the vinaigrette.

** A lot of people are wary of raw onions.  But I love what they can add to a salad – a pretty pink color, a nice crunch, and truly, a great flavor.  So most times when I use raw onions, I take this extra step: I place the sliced/chopped/diced onions in a small container and cover them with cool water.  I let them soak in the water at least fifteen minutes and then drain them.  This takes the pungent edge off, and lets the onions serve as a nice addition to the overall dish, rather than taking over and being super obvious. 

Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Holiday Entertaining 2009
Makes 1 cup

These are so good you’ll want to ‘test’ a few, you know, just to make sure they’re not poisonous or anything.  Maybe do yourself a favor, and plan to make extras.


1 cup pecan halves
2 Tbl sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbl rum (but only if you have it on hand; otherwise you can just use water)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp dark brown sugar
1 Tbl butter

First toast the pecans.  Preheat the oven to 350°F, line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the pecans across the paper.  Toast for five minutes, turn the pan, and continue to toast until you can smell the nice nutty aroma and the color of the nuts has deepened a bit, about 10-15 minutes total.  Remove from the oven and reserve the nuts.

Next, combine the sugar, kosher salt and ground cinnamon in a medium bowl.  Stir together and set aside. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the rum, vanilla, brown sugar and butter.  Stir to combine and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.  When it comes to a boil, add the toasted pecans.  Stir to completely coat the nuts with the glaze.  Continue to cook, stirring constantly until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.  Immediately transfer the glazed pecans to the bowl with the sugar mixture and toss to completely coat the nuts with the sugar.  Transfer the coated nuts back to the parchment-lined sheet tray.  Allow to sit until cooled to room temperature, and then store in an air-tight container.  These will last about a week. 

Skillet-Seared Strip Steak
Method adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, May/June 1997
Serves 4


Just look at that beautiful pink center!  Is that perfection or what?!  Seriously, the method I describe below is failsafe.  I still can’t quite get over it. 

4 boneless strip steaks, about 1-1 1/2 inch thick and 10-12 oz each
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbl vegetable or canola oil
1/2 stick butter (4 Tbl), melted

Allow the steaks to sit at room temperature for at least an hour or so before you cook them – it’s always best not to work with super cold meat.  

Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for 10 minutes over medium-high heat.  After 10 minutes, thoroughly dry the steaks by patting with paper towels, then season them liberally on both sides with salt and pepper. (Wait until the last minute to season, because in order to get a good sear, you’ll want the meat as dry as possible, and salt will cause juices to come to the surface of the steaks.) 

Add oil to the pan and swirl to coat the bottom.  Add the steaks to the pan, cover with a splatter screen.  You’ll definitely want to use a splatter screen!  And while you’re at it, turn on the fan over the stove, and maybe even open all your windows :). 

Cook the steaks for five minutes, then flip them over and cook for 3 more minutes for rare (120°F on the inside), 4 more minutes for medium rare (125°F), 5 more minutes for medium (130-135°F), and please, if you want them any more done than that, don’t bother with steak at all ;).  But if you must… If you’re after medium-well (150°F), cook 6 minutes on the first side and another six minutes on the flip side.  Cook 7-8 minutes on each side for well (160°F).  Remove the steaks from the pan and allow to rest on a plate for 5-10 minutes, covered with tin foil, before serving.  (Resist the urge to check the doneness by slicing into one of the steaks.  That will just cause you to lose out on tons of flavorful juice.  Just trust me - This method will give you a perfect steak, done just to your liking.  If you simply must check the doneness, do it with an instant thermometer.)

Now, to bring these steaks completely over the top, pour a tablespoon of melted butter over each one, and then serve immediately. 

Parmesan Creamed Spinach
Serves 4

For the ease of throwing a dinner party, I like to make this dish in a few steps, over the course of 24 hours.  I wilt the spinach the day before and keep it covered overnight in the refrigerator.  I prep all the other ingredients and go through the rest of the steps right before the guests come.  Then I just keep the creamed spinach in its pan, out of the way at the back of the stove, and reheat it over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, at the last minute.  It couldn’t be easier this way, and you’d never know you made it ahead.  It tastes perfectly fresh.  And really, really fabulous.

1 # baby spinach, stems removed
2 Tbl butter
3 Tbl finely chopped shallot
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 Tbl flour
3/4 cup whole milk, warm
1/4 cup cream, warm
1/4 cup grated parmesan
pinch nutmeg
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Add the spinach and about 2 Tbl water to a large pot.  Place over medium heat, and stir constantly as the spinach thoroughly wilts.  Remove from the heat, and allow to cool a few minutes.  When cool enough to handle, squeeze the spinach with your hands to press out as much water as possible.  At this point, the spinach can be covered and refrigerated until needed (overnight, even). 

In a medium sauté pan, melt the butter over low-medium heat.  Add the shallot and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Sweat the shallots until they just turn translucent and then add the garlic and cook about one minute more, until fragrant but not browned.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, about two minutes, until nutty smelling.  Slowly add the warmed milk, whisking as you pour, about a 1/4 cup at a time, whisking until it is thoroughly incorporated into the flour mixture.  Then add the warmed cream and whisk to thoroughly combine.  Add the parmesan and a pinch of nutmeg, and season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Bring to a simmer and cook for about two minutes.  Add the wilted spinach and mix to thoroughly coat the spinach with the sauce.  Taste and season with more salt and pepper if needed.  Either keep on heat about two more minutes, stirring frequently, until heated through, and serve immediately.  Or set aside for a little while, and reheat when ready to serve.  Also, this is perfectly good, stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, and re-heated for leftovers.

‘The Best’ French Fried Potatoes
Recipe of the Alicia Foundation
Serves 4

Be prepared here: These need an over-night freezing, so you’ve got to start this a day ahead.  But trust me, it’s worth the wait!


36 oz Yukon gold potatoes
fry oil (vegetable or canola or peanut), as needed
kosher salt, to taste

Peel the potatoes, slice them into half-inch batons and keep them submerged under cool water until ready to cook.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the sliced potatoes and adjust the heat so that the water says at the very barest simmer, so that only a few little bubbles escape each second.  Be very gently with the potatoes, stirring only occasionally to make sure they don’t stick the bottom of the pan.  Continue cooking at a gentle, gentle simmer until the potatoes are cooked through, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and gently lay the potatoes on a sheet pan covered with bed of paper towels, arranging them in a single layer.  Allow to dry and cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. 

If you don’t have a deep fryer, prepare a makeshift one.  Fill a medium pot with about 4-6 inches of oil (making sure to leave at least another 4-6 inches of room at the top, so that it won’t boil over when you add the potatoes).  Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, bring the oil to 350°F.  Add about a third of the sliced frozen potatoes.  Stir once gently with a slotted spoon, just to make sure they don’t stick to each other or the sides of the pan.  Keep an eye on the temperature and keep adjusting the heat to maintain the 350°F.  Fry until crisp and perfectly golden.  Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a bed of paper towels.  Sprinkle with kosher salt.  Repeat twice more with the remaining two-thirds of potatoes.  Serve immediately.  Seriously, these fries must be fried at the very last minute!!  It’s absolutely key.  And everything hinges on this.  But have no fear, a meal like this sets itself up perfectly for last-minute frying.  As you rest your meat (which is an essential step, for the sake of juiciness), you’ll have the perfect amount of time to fry your fries.  What could be more convenient?

Brownie Sundaes
Serves 4


4 large brownies (see recipe below)
4 big scoops great-quality vanilla ice cream
hot fudge sauce, as needed (see recipe below)
toasted walnuts, as needed (following the same method as described above for
    toasting the pecans)
whipped cream, as needed (see recipe just below)
4 maraschino cherries

Reheat brownies (just cheat and use the microwave) and place one each in the bottom of four bowls.  Top each brownie with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Cover with a good douse of hot fudge, and then with a good dollop of whipped cream.  Sprinkle with a handful of toasted walnuts, top it all off with a cherry, and dig in.

For the whipped cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whip cream to soft peaks. Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks.

Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, March 2004
Makes about 18-24 brownies, depending on what size you’re after 

These are a great for making a day ahead, to free yourself some time the day of the get-together.  Sometimes I think they’re even better the next day :).


1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
6 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
1 1/2 sticks butter (12 Tbl)
2 1/2 cups sugar (!)
4 large eggs
1 Tbl vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325°F and place the oven rack in the middle of the oven.  Cover the bottom and sides of a 9x13” casserole pan with two sheets of tin foil, so that one fits across the long side and the other across the short side, pushing them into the corners and up the sides of the pan.  Fold the excess handing edges over the outside of the pan.  Spray with nonstick spray.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk to combine the flour, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.  Melt the chocolate and butter in a large heat-proof bowl set over a medium pot filled with about an inch or two of simmering water.  Stir occasionally until melted and smooth.  Gradually whisk in the sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking to incorporate after each addition.  Whisk in the vanilla.  Add the flour mixture, a third at a time, folding it in with a rubber spatula until smooth.  Pour this mixture into the prepared pan and smooth out the top with the rubber spatula.  Bake until a toothpick stuck into the center pulls out with just a few crumbs sticking to it, about 30-35 minutes.  Cool about two hours, until it reaches room temperature.  Remove from the pan, peel off the foil, and cut into square brownies.  Can be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature for about 3-4 days.

Hot Fudge Sauce
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, July 1997
Makes about 2 cups

Oh, you know how, in most situations, I advise you to use only the best quality ingredients.  I think this sauce could be an exception.  I don’t want to name any names, but go with those regular chocolate chips for this.  I’m not sure why exactly, but good chocolate can get a bit lost in this sauce.  Maybe it’s because most of the hot fudge eating experiences throughout my life were in places like Friendly’s and TCBY.  (Perfectly great places, but something tells me they probably don’t use fine chocolate.)  Sometimes, you just like what you’re used to, you know?  Anyways, no need to splurge here.

10 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup sifted Dutch process cocoa powder
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbl butter, cut into small pieces

Melt the chocolate in a large heat-proof bowl set over a medium pot filled with about an inch or two of simmering water.  Stir occasionally until melted and smooth.  Remove from the heat and add the cocoa.  Whisk to dissolve.  Set aside.

Add the sugar, corn syrup, cream, salt and 1/3 cup water to a medium saucepan set over low heat.  Stir until sugar dissolves.  Increase heat to medium-high and simmer mixture, stirring frequently for about 4 minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter, stirring until the butter melts.  Cool about two minutes, then whisk in the melted chocolate.  Serve warm.  Can be kept in the refrigerator for about 10 days in an air-tight container.  Reheat in a microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes, stirring every thirty seconds.   

No comments:

Post a Comment