Steaks #8 & #9: Old Italian Marinaded and Pan Cooked with Squash and Technical Guidance

Okay, folks, get comfy. There’s a great steak idea in here, an excellent side, two fantastic guest chefs, a skilled guest photographer, and several breakthroughs in steak cooking technique. Enjoy!

The Big Idea: Steaks Eight and Nine were shared with some good friends, Susan and Janette who are also good cooks and fellow fans of Mark Bittman. We planned to use an unusual Italian marinade with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, as demonstrated in this video and Susan planned a squash and caramelized onion side, as demonstrated in another one of Mark Bittman’s Minimalist videos. That was the plan, and it was pretty much what happened, but not until after I learned a thing or two about steak cooking technique.

Technical Guidance: My friend Janette subscribes to an online cooking school, www.rouxbe.com, so while our steaks were coming to room temperature, we watched the video series on how to cook steaks. While I’m pleased with the amount I’ve been able to learn so far just by doing, it was incredibly enlightening to get some tips from the pros. Some highlights:

  • There are two schools of thought on ideal steak cooking: the “Flip Once” school and the “Flip Many Times” school. The Flip Once technique (which I’ll call F1 from here on out) takes a single flip, and the Flip Many Times (hereafter FMT) flips every minute on the minute on the theory that it redirects the juices in the meat and cooks more evenly, especially for thicker steaks.
  • For an FMT steak, doneness must still be assessed by feel (Rouxbe recommends the same finger test I’ve been using), but for an F1 steak, there’s an additional possibility for timing the steak. The video showed that when it’s time to flip an F1 steak, the top, uncooked surface will “sweat blood” (my term, not theirs) and be marked by little blood drops. Then, after flipping, the steak will be done when those same drops appear through the char on the other side.
  • Resting the steak after cooking is more complicated than I thought. These guys suggest a wire rack, since placing the hot steak directly on a plate can create steam and release more juices. They also recommend resting it for 5-10 minutes (which is probably longer than I’ve been doing) covered with a piece of tinfoil with a hole in it.

I learned a few interesting things from Susan and Janette, too, that will serve me well in future cooking endeavors. I feel like I’ve been exercising plenty of patience in waiting for my pan to heat up before adding my steaks, but clearly I need to exercise a lot more. We heated their heavy stainless steel pan for more than five minutes on high before adding a bit of oil and the steaks, and could tell when it was ready using Janette’s new-to-me water test. If it’s new to you, too, try reading this. There seems to be debate on the internet as to whether this only works for stainless steel pans, or cast irons, too.

I also learned that I should really be better about patting steaks dry before cooking them. I haven’t been doing it because I never buy paper towels, but maybe I’ll get a roll for just this purpose. Apparently, (and logically) if the steak is moist when it hits the pan, it will steam instead of charring.

The Marinade: Just in case you didn’t watch the video, I’ll fill you in on what it says about the history of this unusual Northern Italian dish. It has its origins in the time the Barbarians invaded Northeastern Italy shortly after the BC-AD switch and had it out with the Visigoths there. The Visigoths eventually won, but not after plenty of bloody destruction that left the countryside dotted with dead horses. To help them both preserve and enjoy this unexpected wartime bounty, the locals bathed the meat in local wines before eating it. Around the turn of the first millennium, as cloves, cinnamon and other spices became available, they were added to the mix.

So that’s the story, here’s the marinade the steaks bathed in for a day: a half bottle of Valpolicella wine (Amarone’s cheaper cousin), a few cinnamon sticks, cloves, a half a nutmeg, salt and pepper and a mandarin orange. It made these my most visually interesting steaks yet – have you ever eaten purple beef?

The Side: When I arrived, Susan was finishing up the caramelized onions with maple syrup and apple cider vinegar and some delicata squash slices with salt, pepper, and chili flakes were roasting in the oven. When they came out, they were too crispy, spicy, and delicious not to eat a few. Then there weren’t really that many left, and they really were so good, so we just ate the rest of them with some of the onions as an appetizer. She then chopped an acorn squash into slices and roasted it for the side dish. Both were good, but the delicata was better. We skipped the ricotta and toast from the video, but I didn’t miss them one bit.

I’ll make this again, and soon. I’ll make sure to use a delicata, but even if I use another squash, I’ll be sure to cut it into small slices before roasting it with the chili flakes. I also liked the way Susan did the onions, with half the maple syrup and vinegar recommended in the video.

At the last minute, Susan put together a simple kale salad with some pre-chopped kale that she had ready in the fridge. It was quick, easy, and nice to have a little green crunch on the plate.

The Steaks: Since we had two identically marinaded steaks, we decided we had the perfect opportunity to test the F1 and FMT theories of steak cooking. We had a large, very hot pan, so we plopped them in next to each other (but not crowding each other.) I carefully flipped the FMT steak every minute on the minute until it felt right, and waited for those blood droplets to flip and then to pull the F1 steak from the heat. We did as we were told and rested the steaks on a wire rack over a pan for ten minutes, under tinfoil with a hole.

Both came out very nicely, overall, and at good degrees of doneness. I’ve been patting myself on the back in the last few posts, but these were definitely better cooked than steaks 6 or 7. And steaks 6 and 7 were much better than 1 and 2. We forgot to salt and pepper these before cooking them, and ended up seasoning them on the table.

 

A Comparison: So which was better? Well, they were different, and in some interesting ways. The FMT steak finished nearly two minutes faster than the F1 steak, and when we cut into it later, we found that it was still slightly less rare. Maybe there really is something to moving those juices around! The F1 steak had a better char to the outside, which I would ordinarily think of as a good thing, but in this case it meant that the flavor of the marinade didn’t come through as much as it did in the FMT steak.

The Verdict: The marinade was pleasant and interesting, the sides were delicious, the steaks were well cooked, much was learned, and a good time was had by all.  Success!

Notes for Next Time: There are some things that can be figured out by practice, but it sure is nice sometimes to get some pointers! I learned a whole lot from the video, and from S&J that I will take forward with me into my next seven steaks.

  • Drying the steak is important for good char.
  • Get the pan hotter than it seems like it could possibly need to be – use the water test if necessary – and then turn the heat down just a little when the steak hits the pan.
  • Rest the steaks longer than I’ve been doing, and on a wire rack covered loosely with tin foil.
  • Consider the benefits of F1 and FMT for any given steak, taking into account flavor, desired char, and thickness.
  • Look for the blood drops to time flipping and doneness when using the F1 technique – in this case, timing by blood drops produced a steak cooked even more to my liking than removing from the heat by feel.

Other Notes:

  • I haven’t watched many cooking videos in my day, but I think I really like them. They’re much better for technique than a cookbook. I also appreciate that unlike a cookbook, they don’t get tied up in specific measurements for a recipe, but easily convey the important stuff – generally what to do with which ingredients in what order.
  • It sure was easy for Susan to whip up that kale salad, with the kale already washed and chopped. I could probably benefit from this habit of “thinking like a prep cook,” as Janette put it.
  • I should cook with these guys more often.
  • Thanks to Susan and her iPhone for the great photos of this meal!

Questions:

  • Okay, I learned a lot from the pointers I got with steaks 8 and 9. What haven’t I learned yet that you’re dying to tell me? Tips, tricks, suggestions, superstitions?
  • Post a good cooking video to the comments for me! I’ll consider it a Christmas present.
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