The Knife and Fork

One man's opinion on cooking (and drinking)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Top Sirloin with Potato-Parsnip Puree - A Fine Return

It’s time for my annual post to this blog. That’s right, it’s been a year to the date since I’ve posted anything here. Pathetic, I know, thanks to some gentle prodding by friends who will remain nameless (Brian, Erik, Tony and dad).  Enough with past foibles, the subject at hand is perfectly cooked meat and a new friend in the world of root vegetables.

Don't waste the fat trimmings - they are white gold!
It is well established that the slower a hunk of meat cooks, the more uniform the ‘doneness’ is throughout. I still marvel that current recipes recommend roasting large pieces of beef at 350 or 400 degrees because that results in a huge variation in internal temperature from the roast’s center to its exterior. It may register medium rare/135 on the meat thermometer at its center but a cross section will reveal the full spectrum of doneness – a slow transition from rosy pink to Soviet gray as it reaches the exterior. Flavor and texture are seriously compromised.

Tied to give uniformity and even browning.

Keeping this phenomenon in mind, I preheated the oven to 250 degrees while I prepped the top sirloin (top block) roast I got from the local butcher.  The quality of meat from our local butcher is so superior to the supermarket that I gladly pay a premium for it, knowing I won’t be enraged at the dinner table when the “good deal” I got on sale turns out to be a glorified chew toy. The piece I got was essentially a super thick top sirloin steak. I seasoned the nearly 3 pound hunk with kosher salt, pepper and Penzey’s Italian Herb mixture. I let it sit at room temp for several hours for the salt to do its magic then tied it around the perimeter to cinch it up and form a plump, even mini-roast. I browned it in a heavy pot in the rendered fat from the trimmings, which tends to develop a beautiful browned exterior.  Then it was into the oven for a slow finish to about 130 degrees.

I didn’t want to waste all the precious fond in the browning pot so I deglazed it with some Port and basted the roast with it through its cooking time. I had enough left that I simmered it down to make a port wine reduction to drizzle over the slices. I unapologetically use a digital meat thermometer to monitor the internal temp of roasts and was amazed at how quickly and steadily the temperature rose in this one despite the low oven temp. I kept backing the oven temp off until I finally just turned it off and let the residual heat finish the cooking. When it hit 130 I pulled and let it rest while I finished the side dishes. The digital thermometer probably saved me from a disaster.

The holy grail of done-ness.
The Food Mill - Indulgent gadget perhaps, incredible texture absolutely.

Note the removal of the woody core.
Speaking of side dishes, I made a Yukon Gold and parsnip puree that I had seen on Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, hosted by the rough-and-ready Anne Burrell. I boiled one pound each of peeled and diced potatoes and parsnips (I removed the core from the larger parsnips because they can be woody) in salty water for 30 minutes; ran them through a food mill and stirred in butter and cream (go to Food Network for the full recipe). The results were terrific. Silky texture, great potato flavor followed by the haunting, licoricey  taste of parsnips. Absolutely tremendous.

Truthfully, the meat was so good that the port reduction was a detraction.

As you can see, the meat was cooked perfectly through. It looks rare but has the flavor and texture of medium rare and was completely uniform throughout. 

Tiny Cat observed but never lunged.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hanger Steaks

If memory serves me correct, this is where I first tasted a hanger steak. 

Several years ago on a trip in New York I saw something on a restaurant menu I had never seen on the west coast – a hanger steak. I was intrigued by the concept of an obscure steak, so with the encouragement of the waiter, I ordered it. Bottom line - I enjoyed its full flavor and didn’t mind the grainy, somewhat chewy texture.

The size and shape are very similar to a pork tenderloin.
My trips for work now take me only as far as Fresno so I had almost forgotten about the hanger steak until recently when I started seeing it appear on west coast menus. I ordered it at Route 246 in Solvang and it was terrific, much better than I remembered. A few weeks later I saw a scrap of paper on the meat case at our local butcher shop advertising “Butcher Tender or Hanger Steaks” for $8.99/lb. The butcher informed me that it comes from the diaphragm area of the cow and is close in proximity to skirt steak. This dispelled my misunderstanding that it came from the neck (courtesy of my waiter in New York).

I purchased two for the wife and I to enjoy as our Friday night dinner. Turns out what I got was the entire muscle divided in half with the membrane removed. Each steak weighed about 8 oz. They were so good that I bought two more the next Friday for a repeat performance. They were boneless with no exterior fat or silver skin and required no trimming whatsoever. I simply coated them in olive oil, kosher salt and pepper and grilled them over an oak wood fire the same way I would a normal steak. They seem to have the best flavor and texture at medium rare but the ends that reached medium were good too.

The texture and flavor are like flank steak or skirt steak. In fact, this is one of the most flavorful cuts of beef I’ve had after a rib eye or a prime grade steak. Last week I gave some a brief marinade before grilling them for tacos with my friend Brian, but I’m not sure it really improved the flavor. Much like some other newly popular cuts, the French have valued this cut for years and call it ‘onglet’. I categorize it with the flat iron, baja and the chuck eye steak as an undervalued treasure. Hopefully it will not be co-opted by the pop gourmands who start the food trend bandwagons that drive prices up. Maybe I shouldn’t have written this…

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chuck Eye Steaks

In the early 1990’s my friend Sean and I would often go to San Francisco Giants games at Candlestick Park. This was before the new ownership group brought in Barry Bonds and erected real bleachers in the outfield. We sat in the multipurpose stadium’s equivalent to bleacher seats  – “General Admission”. They were real seats, not benches, in the left field corner but were at a strange angle due to the fact that Candlestick was designed for several purposes but excelled at none of them. Despite their deficiencies, the $3.25 per seat price tag was all the incentive we needed. At one point we realized the open seating allowed us to choose seats near the left field foul pole, a scant few feet away from the high rent Lower Box Seats. One game a General Admission patron heckled nearby Box Seat customers and basically informed them they were suckers for paying six times more for essentially the same seats.

So what does this have to do with steak? The cow is a lot like seat prices at a baseball park. Someone in the Meat-Government complex divided up the cuts with strict lines and assigned varying quality and price levels to them. The cuts from the rib and short loin command a much higher price point than cuts from the chuck or round for good reason. A quality rib eye or porterhouse may be the greatest expression of steak but the rib/loin borders its inferiors neighbors, the round and the chuck (think Canada and Mexico),  in a contiguous stretch . So how different can the north end of a rib loin be than the south end of the chuck?  I don't think it's a precise anatomical line so someone arbitrarily decided where the rib eye ended and the chuck began. It was this thought that intrigued me when I saw some “chuck eye steaks” I saw at the store the other night.

My understanding was that the chuck eye was essentially the extension of the rib roast (i.e. rib eye). I found a couple chuck eye steaks with beautiful marbling and an overall shape similar to a rib eye. They were each about 8 oz. and were priced at $5.49/lb. For $6 I figured they were worth a try. I couldn’t make them for a few nights so I sprinkled them with kosher salt and drizzled them with olive oil, having great success with this process in the past.

Friday night came and my emotions ran the gamut from thinking they could be as sublime as the outer ‘ring of heaven’ on a prime rib (or rib eye) to dread, imagining them to be tough and livery tasting. I conjectured that, like other pieces of chuck, they would benefit from long and slow cooking. Perhaps they would become meltingly tender with slow, gentle heat in the oven. With a half-formed plan I started dinner. I began by using my trusty confit method – rendering excess steak fat trimmings in a cast iron pan for searing the tied-up steaks. So far so good but I could already see a different hue and grain structure than a rib eye. I started getting nervous. After developing a crusty exterior I put them in a 250 degree oven and browsed the internets for comments or recipes on this cut. It seemed clear that cooking them beyond medium rare was a mistake, so naturally I panicked. I pulled the steaks out of the oven and used a thermometer to test one. It topped out at about 150 degrees so I figured I had screwed that up (although the finger push test told me they were just right). The obvious antidote to a tough or dry or poorly flavored steak is augmentation - specifically sauce or toppings. I sautéed mushrooms and made a red wine pan sauce, hoping they would cover any shortcomings.

The wife made a mashed potato recipe that used Yukon Gold potatoes through a food mill and lots of olive oil and I sautéed up some swiss chard. We had a bottle of Carmenere from Argentina that turned out to be fantastic (we’re going to Cost Plus tomorrow to see if any is left). The mashed potatoes were excellent and deserving of a separate entry. The steaks – they were good. They weren’t out of this world and superior to their rib eye neighbor. If they were I wouldn’t be the first to discover this. They had a different flavor like other chuck cuts do (i.e flat iron and baja steaks). It might be off-putting to some but it’s not that strong. I was amazed how tender they were. I braced myself for some serious chew but mine was more tender than most rib eyes I’ve had. The flavor was less buttery than a rib eye or New York (or Porterhouse or T-Bone) but it was good and definitely not bland. They would take very well to a marinade.

Conclusion – if you see real “chuck eye steaks” and they look well-marbled I suggest you give them a try. Season liberally, sear over high heat (pan or bbq) and finish with some slow roasting. It could be replace the Flat Iron as the hip new steak (not the new hip steak).

Friday, January 08, 2010

Smoked Hamburgers

Human history is filled with moments of breathtaking discovery. Lewis & Clark’s first glimpse of the mighty Pacific, Watson and Crick’s unraveling of DNA, Armstrong and Aldrin’s dusty steps on the moon, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Mt. Everest. Add to this epic list, Tom and Brian’s smoked hamburgers.

My first love - a Mecco electric water smoker

First, a little history. Back in the 20th century I purchased my first smoker and a copy of an excellent smoker cookbook called Smoke & Spice. For years I referred to it when making traditional smoker favorites like ribs, pork shoulder and smoked sausages. I would often leisurely thumb through the book and was always intrigued by a recipe for “Humdinger Hamburgers”. For some reason, other than the corny name, I never gave them a try despite their relatively short smoking time, which makes them one of the easiest recipes in the book. I never put them out of mind and knew one day I’d see if they were as good as the book promised. Turns out, they were better.

If you want to smoke food, get this book.

Fast forward ten years. Our church was having its annual Men’s Barbecue Competition and my friend Brian suggested we enter. We strategized about our entry. Tri-tip – tired and cliché: Ribs – also overdone and difficult to pull off at a remote location. We had done a prototype of smoked hamburgers a few months prior so we decided to try them in earnest for the competition. Risky? Yes, but we might as well go down swinging.

I admit I wanted to put as much wind in our sails as possible, so rather than buy pre-ground beef I bought a chuck roast and sirloin ‘flap meat’ (looks like skirt steak) to grind up fresh. Brian brought his son Sam over and we ground the meat on my Kitchen Aid grinder. We dusted the patties with a traditional barbecue spice and placed them in the smoker. While they smoked over oak wood Brian and Sam headed to the church to light our charcoal grill parked in the staging area. After 90 minutes of smoking I shuttled the burgers over to the church.

After the smoking period the patties had a stunning mahogany patina. Unlike a grilled patty that shrinks, tightens and balls up while cooking, these had shrunk very little. Combined with the raw looking interior, they looked undercooked but I’m convinced they had reached at least 135 degrees in the center. Regardless, we finished them over direct heat on the grill for a crispy exterior and to melt the cheese.

Gentle cooking = juicy meat and minimal shrinkage. Look at that color!

We wanted to win the contest and didn’t know how these would turn out, so as an insurance policy we made sure the condiments were top shelf. Brian made a caramelized onion spread and I grilled red, orange and red bell peppers over an oak wood fire. We placed a roasted pepper on each patty and topped them with a slice of Tillamook black label aged white cheddar. We warmed the buns on the grill and gave them a smear of onion spread before laying the patties down. The flavor? Impossible to capture in words. Intense smokiness that didn’t overpower the juicy beef flavor. The sweet peppers and tangy cheddar were perfect counterpoints. We called our entry “The Smoked Offering” because I felt like I should honor God for creating such transcendent flavors for us to discover (btw, we won the contest but our real reward was the burger).

I reported the results to my friend Tony who promptly made the 3.5 hour drive with his wife to our house to make smoked hamburgers. The photos on this post are from his visit. This time I simplified the process a little with good quality ground chuck from the butcher. Not a problem - we climbed Everest again.

Don't be fooled by the raw look. It's cooked through but with

incredible flavor, texture and juiciness.

I use a New Braunfels smoker but these can be made on a charcoal grill or probably a gas grill that has a little smoker box for chips. Just have the fire on one side, add chunks or chips of wood, cover and keep the temperature in the cooking area around 225 degrees. I recommend finishing the burgers for just a minute over direct heat. And please don't destroy them with "bbq sauce".

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Malty Falcon

In the early 1990’s I was fresh out of college, looking for a job, ready to take on the world and living at my parents’ house. Rather than spending time in job interviews I often found myself with my friends at a place called City Pub in Redwood City. These were the early days of so-called microbrews and City Pub sold several on tap. My favorite was a beer from Canada called McNally’s Extra Ale. In the world of wine there are fruit bombs - McNally’s was a malt bomb. The heavy use of malts made it almost sweet. For some reason it disappeared from bars and restaurants in California in the mid-90’s, although the brewery and beer still exist.

The trend in craft beer now is India Pale Ale (aka IPA) with each brewery in an apparent competition to see who can squeeze more hops into each bottle. I appreciate the bitter grapefruit taste of hops and have enjoyed this trend but I’m getting burned out on these over hopped beers. I want to move forward and go back to the past with a nice malty beer but they seem to be hard to find.

However, the Mendocino brewing company produces a thick beer ca

lled Eye of the Hawk that is a salute to the salad days of malty beers. A bit hefty at 8% alcohol, it’s readily available at Trader Joe’s. It’s not as sweet as McNally’s but it’s a ‘classic’ malt-oriented beer and reminds me of the good old days when I made no money, had no girlfriend and drove a 25 year old car with a mashed in front.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Old Forester

A couple years back I purchased a bottle of bourbon from a large beverage store that I will refer to as RevHo to protect their anonymity. I wanted to try something different so I asked the gaggle of employees at the register if anyone had any knowledge of bourbon and could give me some advice. Not a single employee looked old enough to purchase alcohol legally so I was immediately pessimistic, and with good reason. A peach fuzzed kid accompanied me to the whiskey section and quickly it became clear that I knew more about bourbon when I was 17 than this squirt. I thanked him for his "help" and decided on Old Forester's Signature Bourbon for about $20. Over the course of the next year I would dip into the bottle but never really enjoyed it. Finally I decided that I should let the company know because perhaps I got a flawed bottle.

Old Forester Signature - A screw cap and mediocre flavor pushed me to complain
To make a long story short, I e-mailed Old Forester and they were very courteous and compensated me without me requesting it (btw, RevHo never responded to my e-mail). While researching the company I had noticed their "Birthday Bourbon" on their site and was intrigued. It is a limited annual release bourbon that had some nice reviews from independent websites (for more info see: I put my name in at a good liquor store near my parents' house, realizing my rural community would probably never get an allocation, and was pleased to get a call in January informing me that my bourbon had arrived. On a recent trip my parents brought the bottle with them and we enjoyed a tipple before dinner. Here is my tasting report: A refined, classy bourbon. It's not thick and sweet like some of my favorite bourbons but more restrained, almost like a good rye. Perhaps this is due to its more modest 94 proof than the flamethrowers like Old Grand Dad 114 and Booker's (approx. 126). It actually tasted much better a day after I opened it than the first night. I got distinct toffee notes with secondary notes of apple, spice, vanilla, leather and wood. It's not as syrupy as some other rich bourbons but it's smooth and has complexity, like an old world wine. Overall I'd say it's a very nice bourbon. My parents paid $33 for it and at that price I'd say it's worth it if you want a sophisticated sipper. Of course there are several other attractive offerings in that price range. They presented this bottle to me as a birthday gift so not only is it truly a Birthday Bourbon but it was definitely worth the price. Attractive "I Dream of Jeannie" bottle and a classy bourbon turned me around on Old Forester.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Side Dish - Roasted Tomatoes and Onions

A recent evening I had two beautiful pork rib chops slated for dinner but really didn't know what to serve with them. The wife was dead set on making polenta with a tomato mushroom ragout to go with them, but that was almost a standalone dish. I wanted something to complement the pork chops without being too heavy-handed. Taking a cue from mother, I used what I had on hand - a pile of marginal tomatoes and an onion. I simply halved the tomatoes and sliced the onions in slivers, tossed them all with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 400 degrees while making the pork chops. I seared the chops in a cast iron pan and finished them in the oven with the tomato/onion mixture.

The sheet pan may look like hell but look at those stunning chops.
I pulled the tomatoes and onions when they were clearly caramelized and let them rest while I finished the chops. The chops were done when I pushed on them with my finger and they stopped yielding. Nothing is worse than a dry pork chop. I placed a bed of arugula on the plate for the chops to rest on and topped them with the tomato-onion mixture. The juices the chops yield while resting wilted the arugula and made an additional sauce that went great with the tomato-onion topping. Mother would be proud.
This would also be good with a chicken breast or firm white fish.