I know, I know, it’s Meatless Monday. But I’m finally saying goodbye to a dreadful cold that camped out in my head for almost three utterly miserable weeks during which I drank enough tea with honey to fill a bathtub. Make that a couple of bathtubs. Thank heaven I had some containers of Retro Soup in the freezer. When I was interested in eating at all, that’s all I was able to sip.
In a recent conversation about cooking for one, a statement was made about being able to roast a chicken and cook a steak. True, both are skills that will serve anyone well. And now that I can successfully breathe out of both sides of my nose at the same time, my taster is waking up again. I’m also feeling a little protein starved. I need a steak.
The problem is that we are in the midst of a most welcome rainy spell. In the past week alone, I swear we’ve had more precipitation than we did all winter. A few days ago when I got home from work, dark clouds were shouldering their way towards us as my lawn guy was practically sprinting through my and two neighbors’ yards with his gigantic mower. By the time he comes back, I’ll probably be able to see just the tips of the dog’s ears above the tips of the grass; the lawn guy’ll probably have to go at it with a scythe and bale it.
I digress. Steaks taste great seared on a barbecue grill. My charcoal grill, though, has just a shallow eave over it, and it faces into the teeth of the wind, which makes lighting a fire problematic at best. I need a steak tonight, not whenever the rain stops. But I’m not willing to brave the elements for one; besides, on a school night I don’t always feel like going through all the fire-lighting hoo-ha. Is it possible to cook a decent steak inside? Given a good skillet (cast iron is ideal), a stove, and an oven, most certainly yes. And given a few cooking tips, you are guaranteed a tender result.
Bison tends to be my red meat of choice, but the process is the same for any meat: a flank steak, pork chops, lamb chops, even a burger. First, bring it to room temperature for about an hour before you plan to cook it, and salt it on both sides. Bringing it to room temp keeps the protein molecules from seizing up when the meat comes into contact with heat.
As for salt, remember a few years ago a debate that raged in cooking magazines about when to salt meat? Okay, “raged” might be a bit strong, but debates are relative to what interests one, I suppose. At any rate, I seem to recall that the majority sided with salting just before cooking. Not a good idea.
Salt loves water. Salting an hour before cooking may sound counterintuitive, but what happens is that the salt will dissolve on the surface of the meat. Once that happens, given enough time, it is absorbed into the meat’s cells. And there it remains, along with some lovely water, which it holds onto for dear life. When you cook the meat, provided you don’t overcook it, that water remains bound up inside it. If, on the other hand, you salt it just before cooking, the salt sits on the surface in the water it has extracted from the meat, and as soon as the meat hits the fire, there goes all that nice, tenderizing water.
The last essential piece of advice also applies to any kind of meat of any size. Give it a rest period. The amount of time is relative to size: obviously, a standing rib roast or a Thanksgiving turkey is going to require a longer rest period than your steak or burger. Let the latter rest for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove your steak from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and set it on a plate. Salt both sides with sea or kosher salt. I’m fond of French grey sea salt from the Camargue, and its grains are pretty large. When I’m salting meat, I give it a few grinds in a mortar and pestle to crush up. Cover the steak with plastic and let it sit at room
temperature for an hour.
- As the hour draws to a close, heat your oven to 225 degrees.
- To sear the steak, warm a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little olive oil – say, a couple of tablespoons. When the oil shimmers, add the steak and reduce the heat to medium. Now, when I use the term “sear”, I’m not suggesting that you blacken the meat. Rather, you’re just going to cook it to a good degree of caramelization for great flavor. You’re not “sealing in juices;” that searing accomplishes that is a complete myth. Salting it in advance, not overcooking it, and resting it guarantee that it will be juicy. So brown it well on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. It will spatter some, but not excessively because water is not cooking out of it.
- Now set the skillet containing the steak in the oven. Finishing it in the oven rather than on the stove allows it to finish cooking much more gently than direct heat permits. A perfect medium-rare steak, an inch or more thick, will take about 4 minutes. If you’re not sure take its temperature in the center; it should read no more than 118 degrees.
- When done, remove the skillet from the oven and turn the heat to broil.
- Remove the steak from the skillet and set it on a dinner plate. Cover it with a piece of foil and a kitchen towel folded into 2 thicknesses. This will keep it warm, and allow the cell walls to literally relax after the stress of cooking, allowing any water migrating around their outsides to be reabsorbed via osmosis into the cells. Have you ever cut into a turkey, or a roast, or a steak for that matter, and seen liquid gush out of it? It wasn’t rested adequately.
- While the steak is resting, wash and trim a handful of asparagus. Keep the woody ends for your stock bag. Spread the spears out on a baking sheet, and drizzle them with some olive oil. Season them with salt and pepper, and use your hands to toss them about so all are coated and seasoned. Broil them for about 6 minutes, until beautifully browned and even charred in spots. Use tongs to roll them over half-way through the broiling time.
- While the asparagus is cooking, return the skillet to medium-high heat. Cut a lemon in half. When the skillet is hot, set both halves of the lemon in it, and press them firmly to the bottom with your fingertips. Lift an edge now and then to peek at how charred they are or aren’t. Sear them until well charred, about 2 minutes. Charring is going to sweeten and deepen the flavor of their juices.
- Remove the asparagus from the oven and squeeze one half of the lemon over it. Squeeze the other half into the skillet and return it to the stove. Heat, stirring with tongs to deglaze all the lovely pan juices from the skillet.
- Remove the towel and foil from your steak. Pour the pan juices over it. Add the asparagus to your dinner plate. Pause for a moment to admire your artistry. Then consume it all contemplatively over a good book. Have a slice of good bread to hand to sop up all the heavenly juices.