Monday, February 25, 2013

The steak

Cooking a steak is a bit like housebreaking a dog, learning how to ride a bike, or buying a used car. Everyone who has ever done it, even once, has an opinion on the subject.  And sometimes all of the opinions are different.

Despite having been a meat eater for well over a year and having cooked chuck roast, London Broil, and so forth, I hadn't cooked a really good steak until now.  My mother--when she cooked--used to make steak by tossing it in the broiler and hoping for the best. By the time she stopped cooking, I had stopped eating steak (which I never liked because it wasn't deep-fried or in a bun). After the divorce, she began microwaving her meat because it was faster and required less cleanup.

I've found since going back to meat that I like many of the plain, meaty, non-sugary flavors I couldn't stand as a child.  Ever since writing an article on grilling I've wanted to cook a steak, but I don't own a grill,nor can I justify the purchase of a grill for cooking for one person. Also, steak is 'spensive and the cheapskate in me is eternally at war with the food blogger inside of me (and it's pretty obvious from this blog which one usually wins).

I rationalized also that for one person, even a grass-fed antibiotic-free steak wasn't that much for one treat meal ($7.50 at Wegmans, at $9.95 a pound).

So, based upon the foodies I 'interviewed' and some extensive Internet Googling, the consensus that emerged was that the best way to cook a steak without a grill was to:

1.  Salt the steak on both sides (I used approximately 1/2 a teaspoon for the whole steak) with coarse sea salt and let the meat rest for 45 minutes.
2.Preheat the oven to a smokin' hot temperature (I used 500F)
3. Heat a skillet super- hot (preferably cast iron). You can lightly oil the skillet or use melted butter if you are worried about sticking (just don't use EVOO in this application). I didn't grease my skillet, and according to some sources, if you heat the pan hot enough and truly let it sear, the meat's fat is enough to prevent sticking.
4.  Sear approximately three minutes on each side.  Then cook for approximately 3-5 minutes (depending on thickness and desired level of doneness) either in the oven-safe cast iron skillet or another pan.
5. Let rest for at least ten minutes before slicing.

Because I had a lean, grass-fed steak I was way paranoid about it overcooking and pulled it from the oven at exactly three minutes.  Although it looks super-rare in the picture, I was amazed by how tender it tasted.  Without seasoning, it had a very complex flavor.   Although now I'm less paranoid, I will leave it in for a bit longer to make it 'medium rare.'

As I said, although the meat was very lean, you can see how it did have a large chunk of fat hanging off on one side....not that I am complaining...

Based upon my experience, I would totally recommend grass-fed beef by its taste, despite the fact that all of the butchers I talked to said it was inferior in taste to heavily marbled, corn-finished, conventionally raised steak.  Of course, corn-finished conventional beef is what they specialize in so......evaluate those statements with a heavy lashing of (sea) salt. 

This won't be the first time I cook a steak, and I have a number of methods to choose from if I want to vary my 'technique.'

  • There is the 'reverse sear' method, involving baking the steak at a relatively low temperature of 275F and THEN searing in a hot pan for 2 minutes on each side.
  • There is the famous cake baker Rose Levy Beranbaum's method of searing the steak on one side, turning it over in the pan, and then IMMEDIATELY putting it into a 500F oven that has been preheated for 45 minutes. Serve with cream cheese frosting.
  • There is the Mark Bittman method of not salting the steak, but salting the pan and searing it for 3 minutes on each side, no oven required. Although Bittman is an oddly controversial figure in the food world--half of my friends swear by his methods above all others and the other half say his recipes don't work.
  • And the Alton Brown method of heating the skillet in a 500F oven, salting and oiling the STEAK (not the pan), and searing for 30 seconds or so on both sides.
So, other than grilling, how do you, Dear Readers cook your steaks, other than the grill?  Any really unusual methods.

It's an important question, given that even people without grills no doubt come home from a long day of work every now and then and want to cook a steak, quickly and not 'mess it up' because of how much it costs. 

I suppose the quickness and convenience of steak is why it has a reputation as 'bachelor food.'  Men who consider it a mark of high testosterone levels not to know the difference between baking soda and baking powder pride themselves on being able to cook a good steak.

An interesting point--even if steaks seem pricey, TV dinners and fast food meals nowadays cost in the 3.50-4.50 range, so a good, filling grass-fed steak is a way healthier, low-carb meal than a Lean Cuisine or an Extra-Value meal.  Throw some .99 a pound broccoli with your fancy-pants steak and you can dine like a real king (not a Burger King) for under ten bucks. 

The broccoli is important, though--this may be an urban legend but I did once hear of a friend of a friend who, on his 'first job' subsided on nothing but a pot of coffee all day (too lazy and cheap to eat breakfast and lunch) and a steak at night, eventually giving himself an ulcer or some other nasty stomach complaint.  I've also heard rumors about frat boys giving themselves scurvy subsiding on beer and hot dogs...but overall, I have to say, I really felt good about eating a nice steak and veggies (and had some left over for lunch the next day) and can't wait to experiment with some different methods. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chocolate Chip Vegan Banana Bread (with a secret ingredient)

Inspired by my trouble-shooting with flurrious in the comments section of my last blog post about a banana snack cake, I decided to make some banana bread.

Banana bread was one of the first baked goods I ever made successfully.  Successfully as in I felt comfortable offering the final product to other human beings.

I've never understood why chocolate chip cookies are considered to be the 'first thing' that everyone  should try to bake. Chocolate chip cookies can be extremely finicky and creating a cookie that is crisp and thin on the outside and chewy and thick on the inside is no small feat.  However, with banana bread (as opposed to banana cake) you can pretty much throw in everything you like relatively randomly, with haphazard measuring that would yield a disaster in other types of baking...and yield a somewhat edible product.

Although I've posted a few banana bread and muffin recipes before, the grandaddy and template of all banana bread recipes is really this one, at Simply Recipes. Pretty much every banana bread recipe is some variation of this standard ratio.  The 166 comments are rather interesting to read because many are from people who NEVER baked before--and didn't even know where their loaf pan was--and made the bread successfully. And of course, everyone changed the recipe slightly, if only to throw in a few odd ingredients here or there.

One of the commentators on the recipe was David Lebovitz, the famous professional cookbook author and pastry chef.  That's like reading the comments on a Facebook page about dogs, and noticing: "hey there is a dude commenting about his Portuguese water dog.  Wait, that's President Obama!" 

 Dave suggested adding a shot of espresso to banana bread to accentuate the flavors.  To be honest, I would have completely ignored this comment if it came from a totally random person, but I figure that with several best-selling cookbooks on the shelves, he must know what he is talking about.

I was a little wussy and didn't put in a whole shot of espresso, but the two tablespoons of strong coffee brought out the flavors of the dark chocolate very nicely.  This version has no eggs and uses vegan vegetable shortening rather than butter. I've often found the egg to be fairly extraneous in banana bread, because of the moisture and starchiness of the fruit and I was going to be sharing it with a friend who is vegan, but feel free to use butter if you prefer.

Chocolate Chip Vegan Banana Bread (with a secret ingredient)


1/3 cup melted shortening
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2-3 tablespoons very strong espresso
3 mashed, overripe bananas (approximately 1 cup)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips 
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and line a 9x4 loaf pan with parchment on the bottom.
2. Melt the shortening, cool.  Stir in the sugar and espresso, add bananas.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda, and spices together.  Incorporate the wet and dry mixtures.
4. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter in the pan (it will be fairly thick).  Top with chopped walnuts.
5. Bake for approximately 1 hour until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Heath Bar Crunch Muffins

It was snowy and icy this morning, so I was forced to run inside on my rickety home treadmill.  I count myself very lucky to have a place to run when I can't run outside (another example of how staying fit isn't just due to willpower but also due to quite a few environmental factors). Running outside by the ocean is my favorite 'cardio' in the world, and only during one period of my life was I forced to run on the treadmill for an extended period of time, when I was nursing an injury.

To 'transition smart' from the treadmill back to blacktop once I recovered, I decided to try running the track at the local university early in the morning. Tracks have softer surfaces than the streets, even though they are even more boring to run on than the treadmill.

The first day was rather dull and uneventful.  The next day, the security guard of the college pulled up onto the grass to watch me.  Now I can kind of understand why he would watch me for a little while, since I was obviously not a college student and was running alone.  But he watched me THE ENTIRE RUN.  "Doesn't he have somewhere else to patrol, like the dorms where the kids are getting drunk?"

This behavior went on for about four days.  The security guard didn't show up on the fifth day, and I was glad that he had apparently realized I was not a homicidal maniac.  On the sixth, a car pulled up near the track.  A very large man wearing only a thin pair of jogging shorts emerged. I expected him to run, but instead he walked over to the metal bleachers, attached one of those stretchy athletic bands with hand grips to one of the metal supports and began pulling the bands up and down, grunting very loudly in what I can only describe as a very sexual way.

My mind was racing: "why is someone here, before dawn, doing a workout that he can easily do in his home?  Is he coming to the track because it is an 'athletic area' and he thinks you can't work out at home?"  I ran my usual five or six miles and left him there, still grunting and pumping.

Grunting and Pumping Man reappeared for the next three days.  Of course, the security guard did not resurface, when I would have actually liked him to be there.

The next week, the large man did not reappear.  However, midway through my run, I heard some screaming and yelling.  I saw a SUV filled with college students on the driveway that runs 'round the college.  This is not unusual, given that I run in the morning and am used to being accosted by drunk and stoned college students who try to pursue me on foot or offer me potato chips or say: "run Forest, run!" from their crappy cars purchased with their own money or their expensive cars purchased with their parents' money.

But this yelling was different.  It was higher-pitched, visceral and sounded demented like an animal in pain.

The opening to the track is rather wide, and the SUV pulled onto the track and began speeding around right behind me. It was clear that the driver had no intention of stopping.  I threw myself to the center of the track, but then the SUV pulled onto the grass.  It really did seem to be gunning for me, but I managed to roll away, this time to the gravel by the other side of the lanes.  The SUV parked in the grass center of the track.  I crouched, terrified as I heard the inhabitants arguing with one another, then they sped away the same way they left. I suppose they hadn't seen me at all.

I decided to continue my run after that.  If you are a runner, you understand that I had my workout goal and would not be deterred.  Of course, THEN the security guard pulled up and asked me if I had heard any yelling. When I told him what happened, he clearly thought that I was on drugs and demanded MY name and phone number.  I tried to point him in the direction that the SUV was heading, but to no avail.

That happened in spring of 2006, and no matter how many cars and crazies I've met running on the road, I've decided there is nothing crazier than the running track of a college campus. Gyms, however, are a close second.

At least on the roads, I can run away.

These muffins straddle the border between cupcake and muffin in terms of their sweetness level, kind of like how many runners (and college students) straddle the border between sane and insane, although the ease which they come together (no creaming) puts them firmly in the muffin camp.

Heath Bar Crunch Muffins
--yields 10 muffins--

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup full fat Greek yogurt
5 tablespoons of melted butter
1 large, beaten egg

10-15 fun-sized Heath Bars, coarsely chopped or broken

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line a muffin tin with 10 liners
2. Sift the dry ingredients (flour, leavening, salt).
3. Mix the yogurt, butter, and egg together.
4. Incorporate wet and dry mixtures.  Pour into muffin tins (batter will be thick).
5. Top with chopped Heath Bars.
6. Bake for 17-20 minutes, or until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean'