Archive for March, 2010
How many adjectives have you used to describe a glass of wine? Smoky, sharp, fruity, complex, perky, aggressive, balanced, lingering, refined… Now, how about coffee? Bold, rich, dark, strong, nutty… Now try beef.
Having a little more trouble with this one, huh? While you may have gone to wine tasting events, or perhaps sampled two or three different coffee blends side by side, or even done blind tastings of chocolate or olive oil, chances are that you’ve never tested your taste buds with steak. In fact, aside from a favorite cut (like T-bone, New York strip, filet and the like) most Americans have no idea what qualities they like in a steak. I know that in wine, for example, I prefer fruity reds with mild tannins and a sweet finish. But up until a few weeks ago, I was totally unaware of my own preferences for that great-American staple: steak. Learning about your own preferences is not only delicious, but also quite a bit of fun.
“But what is there to choose about a steak besides the cut?” you may be asking. Well, in the same way that two bottles of Pinot Noir don’t taste identical just because they come from the same varietal, two New York strips can vary vastly in flavor based on the breed of cattle, the terroir in which the cattle lived and grazed, what the cattle ate, and how the steaks were finished. It is a disgracefully unfortunate fact that we are have little-to-no insight into any of these particulars when we buy steaks at the grocery store. In fact, if you want to piss off the meat man at your local Safeway, pick up a steak and ask him if the cow was treated with steroids, hormones or antibiotics, and if it was fed grass, corn or some type of mystery feed before slaughter. (Note: this is part of the reason that I don’t buy formerly-living things from Safeway, at least not the one near me.) While your average $7 bottle of wine will tell you the year the grapes were harvested, the blend percentage of the varietals, the grape source, where the wine was made, and the alcohol percentage, we’re lucky if our beef packaging even makes mention of the cow’s diet. And even then, you’re rarely getting the whole story.
Luckily, I happened to meet Carrie Oliver at the International Food Bloggers Conference last summer, and get to hear her talk steak. Her company, Oliver Ranch, connects people like you and me with high-quality, traceable, hormone and antibiotic-free beef produced by independent farmers. Their website allows you to order your favorite cuts from one of four independent farms that supply to Oliver Ranch, and your steaks are shipped directly to you, vacuum sealed and flash-frozen. But, in my opinion, the best part of what they offer is the tasters pack. You can choose between filet mignon, New York strip, top sirloin or rib-eye tasting packs that include one or more steaks from each of the farms. The tasting pack comes with a tasting guide, complete background on the ranches and cattle, and even nifty little wood picks that read “medium rare” (incidentally, the only proper way to cook a steak, in my opinion).
I held a steak tasting for 8 people using the four different steaks from the tasting pack, plus one from my local (and well-renowned) butcher. Since the purpose of the tasting, other than to fill up on amazing meat, was to discover everyone’s personal preferences, we made the tasting blind – that is, nobody but me knew which type of steak they were eating until the very end of the meal. In order to ensure consistency, I cooked all of the steaks sous vide to a precise medium rare (53.5C) for two hours. Afterwards, I seasoned the meat with sea salt and seared the outside with a blow torch. So, every steak was the exact same doneness, with the exact same seasoning, with the exact same amount of char. I can say with confidence that this preparation method, as geeky as it was, would stand up to scientific scrutiny.
I cut each of the steaks into small portions and served them clockwise around the tasters’ plates. To round out the meal, a healthy dollop of garlic mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus filled in empty plate space. As we started eating, a chorus of moans, full-mouthed expressions of surprise and delight, worked its way around the table. Not only were the steaks transcendent, but the flavor differences between them were profound. Some steaks carried a strong flavor of grass, others of nutmeg and molasses, still others of wheat and a milieu of subtle tones – just like a glass of fine wine. What’s more impressive, though, is that these differences were not at all lost on the other tasters: my family. Although they certainly appreciate good food, this was not a group of foodies looking to out-taste one another, or people with a vested interest in seeing the emperor’s clothes. These were people who, until that night, didn’t know Holstein from Angus, but now had a reason to find out.
Not surprisingly, everyone had their own opinions on which steak they liked the best. However, in general, the table preferred the two wet-aged steaks: the Holstein-Friesian from the 3 Brand Cattle Company and the Wagyu-Angus Cross from Select Kobe Beef America Ranches. We considered these to be the “steakiest” steaks with a richer, sweeter flavor than the others. There was another clear decision from the table – the expensive steaks from my local butcher came in dead-last.
Not only was this a fun and memorable way to spend a meal, but now when I’m at the butcher or ordering steak off of a restaurant menu, I’m armed with knowledge of my own personal preferences, as well as some of the right questions to ask to ensure that the beef comes from sources I want to support. If you’ve watched Food Inc. or read a Michael Pollan book, you know that the American beef industry is a clusterfuck of cost-cutting, misinformation and industrial-strength indifference to sustainable meat production. But it is important to remember that there are artisan farmers out there, raising beef responsibly and artfully. Once you connect with that delicious combination of breed, diet, finishing and cut that lights up every taste bud on your tongue and makes your mouth water in anticipation of the next bite, you’ll know you’ve found the steak for you. And after that day, you’ll never settle for less.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
OK, OK, I’ve gone a little sous vide crazy lately… but can you blame me? Perhaps the most revolutionary cooking method of our lifetimes has just poked its head into my kitchen. It’ll take more than a few weeks and a handful of medium-rare proteins before I’m over it.
We all know that the sous vide method produces flawless (and dare I say, unparalleled) steak. But, did you know that the same magic works on lamb? It’s an amazing and, frankly, jolting experience to watch an incredibly tender lamb loin chop fall off the bone, only to reveal that the interior is a perfect medium-rare. How can this be? In order to get lamb tender enough to fall apart, you have to braise the hell out of it, right? Wrong. That’s where sous vide comes in. I cooked the lamb shanks at 54.5C – a precise medium rare – for 24 hours, until they were just barely clinging to the bone. And since lamb is so flavorful and succulent on its own, a simple slice of pita bread, some feta cheese and toasted tomatoes were all that was needed to create a really memorable dinner.
Makes: 4 little lamb wraps
Total kitchen time: 15 minutes active, 24 hours cooking
Special equipment required: sous vide immersion circulator, blowtorch (optional), vacuum sealer
- 4 American lamb loin chops
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 4 pieces pita bread
- 1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
- 1 cup roasted tomatoes (available in finer grocery stores, substitute sun dried tomatoes)
- Heat your sous vide immersion circulator to 54.5C.
- Pat the lamb chops dry and coat liberally with kosher salt. Sear all sides with a blowtorch until just browned. If you don’t have a blowtorch (you should get one if you’re gonna be sous videing) preheat a skillet over very high heat. Sear the lamb chops on all sides, just a few seconds per side.
- Place lamb chops in a vacuum sealer bag and seal. Place in the water bath and cook 24 hours, up to 32 hours.
- When ready to serve, heat the pita slices for 30 seconds in the microwave. Divide the Feta and tomatoes between the pita. Remove lamb from the water bath and pull the meat apart with your fingers or a fork. Add to the pita. Roll and serve!
It’s a little jarring at first to see shredded lamb that’s so bright pink and moist. But one bight of this dish will make you forget every lamb sandwich you’ve ever eaten. Rather than tough, dry meat that begs for the rehydrating action of mint jelly, this is lamb as it should be.
Full Disclosure: I got free stuff, but that doesn’t pay for my opinion.
There’s been a lot of debate, recently, surrounding molecular gastronomy. Although a small handful of chefs have been practicing the
art science in exclusive restaurants for the past 20 years or so, for whatever reason, this field of food wizardry is just starting to poke it’s head into the mainstream.
Personally, I find the concept fascinating. As I’ve written before, “cooking” hasn’t really changed much since Escoffier wrote it all down in a big, French book. We still bake, boil and braise, truss, fillet and tournée. But what happens when you give a chef new tools like liquid nitrogen, immersion heaters, lasers, MRI scanners, and god knows what else? We’re just starting to find out, and I’m ready to start playing with what’s possible.
To that end, I’ve teamed up with two other passionate food geeks, Eric and Jethro, to form the Jet City Gastrophysicist Club. Our mission is to make advancements in the field of molecular gastronomy (define it how you will). But first, we’ve got some learning to do. At our disposal are bags of unfamiliar powders, laser thermometers, syringes, gram scales, blowtorches, stacks of books, and
some all of our ingenuity. For our first meeting, we wanted to get familiar with one basic technique: spherification. By combining a liquid, in this case root beer, with a certain chemical and then dropping it into a solution, we are able to form a membrane around the liquid. This is a popular process for creating “caviar” or “pearls” out of richly-flavored juices. The image above shows what happens if you extrude the liquid using a syringe. The video below is a giant root beer sphere we made, and how it interacts with a knife.