Steak and Spaghetti
Now that we’re getting better acquainted, and you’re beginning to adjust to my quirks let’s cook something.
You know those diners advertising steak and spaghetti? Also usually sitting with the name of either Gus or George? That’s the experience we’re after today. Formica table tops, Sinatra on the radio, advertisement placemats, gold edged menu holders. Definitively not modern, vinyl covered booths. We all know this restaurant, I hope. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this restaurant doesn’t exist. The requisite steak is usually an off cut dubbed a “sirloin” but an upgrade to a t-bone or Delmonico is always an option. For your $12.95 purchase, you get access to the salad bar, and a bowl of spaghetti with red sauce. Sounds comforting right? This was my grandfathers favorite sort of establishment. So much so, that the day we buried him, we went down the street in Falls Church, Virginia, to restaurant much like the one I’m describing, to remember him.
Dining out isn’t quite what it used to be so we’re gonna recreate, and improve upon this experience at home.
(A quick note; I shop at Aldi and the local Organic Food Depot, but don’t get hung up on brand names, we want ingredients, and although I’m going to insist on specific ingredients, remember my last post, trust your gut)
You will need the following;
Whole peeled garlic — not crushed garlic, not a squeeze bottle of garlic, not garlic powder, or garlic salt. If you’re particularly adventurous feel free buy garlic bulbs and peel it yourself.
Organic olive oil — refer to my first post here.
Whole peeled tomatoes — the best and most expensive you can find, extra credit if you use real San Marzano tomatoes, or can manage to find the brand Alta Cucina. We’ll talk a lot more about ingredients and making quality decisions as we move along. Don’t worry I’m not gonna break the bank, I live on a budget too, BUT there are certain instances I’m going to strongly recommend a quality buy. In the case of canned tomatoes, always buy the best you can afford. Ultimately you’ll end up saving money because there’s more tomato and less water in the can. It’ll also be just a smidge healthier because you won’t be dumping excess sugar or salt into your sauce to get it to taste like tomatoes. Remember you’re ingesting the finished product into your body, do you really want to skimp on that?
Tomato paste — one small can should suffice
Crushed red pepper flakes
Salt, pepper, white wine vinegar, sugar
Your favorite cut of steak — I could bore you to tears with my thoughts on beef and how we consume it. I won’t, today. That being said, source ingredients you feel comfortable with a cut you like. If you’re cooking for the family a London broil will work beautifully in this circumstance
Salad fixins and your favorite dressing — this should be self explanatory, I don’t care what you put on it or in it, just eat some vegetables.
OK, let’s cook.
We’ll talk about equipment extensively at a later date but you’ll need at least two larger pots, heavy bottomed if possible, and either a non stick skillet that your steak can fit in OR a cast iron skillet your steak can fit in.
Take the steak out of the refrigerator and open it up, set it on a plate and salt both sides generously. Flavoring your food is important, but we also want to draw some moisture out of that meat so you can get a nice sear. Put it back in the fridge. The act of refrigerating food without a covering will draw moisture out as well. This isn’t going to give you a dry steak, just help you get a nice sear.
Next, in a heavy bottom pot, pour a few glugs of olive oil in the bottom and set your burner on a low setting. You want enough to cook the garlic without submerging it, but not so little that it doesn’t line the bottom of the pot. Once you can smell the olive oil, put in the garlic cloves. I don’t care how many, more than five less than 12 let’s say. After a few minutes, you should be able to smell the garlic cooking. You’re looking for the cloves to be a solid golden brown on all sides. If after five minutes you can’t smell anything cooking slowly bring the heat on your burner up until you can. This is called tempering, we’re extracting the natural oils in the garlic and melding them with the olive oil. This is a gentle process.
While your garlic is browning, open the whole peeled tomatoes. Dump them in a bowl big enough to hold the contents and being to gently crush the whole tomatoes with your hand. If you find an errant basil leaf in the can that’s okay, discard it.
Now that you’ve got the garlic golden brown you can add a few pinches of chili flake to the oil. It should sizzle. Let it sit for a few moments, we’re tempering the chili into the oil. You may not like spicy food, that doesn’t mean omit the chili flake, just go easy with it. The pepper notes are going to make the flavor of the tomatoes pop, it won’t be spicy or even peppery, just learn how to moderate what you put in. Go slow, you can’t take it back out if you put in too much. If you like it on the spicier side, feel free to ramp it up some.
Pour in the hand crushed tomatoes. Open the tomato paste from both sides and push one end into the can forcing the tomato paste out. I learned that from Rachel Ray. That unfortunate fact aside, it works and it makes less of a mess.
Now stir and season with salt, sugar and a few drops of white wine vinegar. It’s going to taste like canned tomatoes, sorry. What you’re tasting for is a twinge on the sides of your pallet that makes you salivate. If you don’t get there right away it’s okay you don’t have to keep seasoning. In fact it’s probably better that you stop instead of over seasoning. Bring the sauce to a simmer and let it cook for an hour or two. You want to cook some of the water out of the sauce and let the tomato paste do it’s thing to thicken it. Once you’ve let it simmer taste it again and adjust your seasoning. Go slow.
Pull the steak out of the fridge and let it come to room temp. Don’t get freaked out, you won’t get sick. Food has FOUR HOURS, of being un-refrigerated before it enters into what Kenny Loggins calls, the danger zone. You want a nice dry, and room temp piece of meat to sear.
As our sauce is coming together lets get our second pot on. Fill it with water and salt the water. Taste it, it should taste like sea water. If it doesn’t add more salt, you’re flavoring the pasta. Once it comes to a boil, cook according to the package instructions. Fan the pasta out in the pot to avoid it sticking together. Keep once it’s had a chance to sit fully submerged stir it again. You don’t want strands of spaghetti sticking together. Once you get to the desired doneness, IN THIS ORDER. Cut off the burner, strain the pasta, put the pot back on the stove, drizzle a few glugs of olive oil into the bottom of the pot, and take a few spoonfuls of sauce and add it as well, take the pasta and put it back in the pat, and stir it well. DO NOT RINSE THE PASTA. It will separate as it sits in the oil and sauce, and a nice coating of sauce will envelope it. The starch that’s present on the pasta will one, be flavored gently with the salt water and two absorb the sauce and stand up better on the plate than whatever sad mess you’ve probably made before. Let it sit, it’ll stay nice and warm. It’s probably going to cook a little big more but that’s okay. You’ll love it.
Take either your cast iron pan or your non stick and put it on medium high heat. Let the pan get hot. You want to feel the heat from a few centimeters away on the back of your hand, not your palm. DON’T burn yourself, but get your hand close enough to feel the heat. Turn on whatever fan, you have in your kitchen, open a door, or window. You’re going to need a fair amount of heat to get the sear you want and you don’t want to set off the smoke alarm or burn your house down. You don’t want full blast, because we’re gonna use olive oil here. Right before you put the salted steak in the pan, pour a little bit of olive oil in, it should smoke lightly, put the steak in the pan. It’ll seize, sizzle and pop some. That’s okay. It’s important here to let the steak cook.
Here’s a don’t burn down your house hack. BEFORE you start cooking, make sure you have a lid that covers the entirety of whichever pan you’re choosing to sear your steak in. It doesn’t have to fit perfectly but it needs to be large enough to cover the pan. In a pinch, a cookie sheet will do. Let’s say you get carried away with the perfect storm of too much heat and too much olive oil. There is a strong possibility that the pan could ignite. In that situation, here’s what you’re NOT, I REPEAT, NOT, going to do. Run over to the sink with a flaming pan and pour water in it. Then you really will catch your house on fire. What you’re going to do is put the lid over the pan and turn off the heat. As the fire sucks up the remaining oxygen in the pan, it will after a few moments extinguish itself. The steak will no longer be edible at this point, you’ll still have your house, albeit filled with smoke.
Ignore the urge to flip the steak too soon. I don’t really have a specific time for when you should flip but it’s okay to lift up the edge and peak. You want a dark sear. We call this the Maillard reaction, the caramelization of the proteins. This is an instance that you’re probably going to screw up the first time. It’s okay. You get good food by making slightly less good food. Watch as the steak cooks. All steaks won’t cook exactly the same but there will be similar tells that will alert your senses as to when to flip it. The good news is this is only achievable by cooking, and eating, more steak.
When you’ve reached the desired doneness, flip it and turn the heat off. Let it sit for one minute and take it out of the pan, put it on a clean plate and let it rest.
I’ll say this once, and then probably three hundred times more. It’s very likely the reason the majority of the steak you’ve had cooked in someones home has been mediocre at best, is because they don’t rest it. You have to rest it. For at least twenty minutes. The good news is it’s easy. Let it sit there before you cut it.
This is an opportune time to set the table, get the kids to help with the salad etc. When it’s time to sit down and eat you will have a steak that is at the very least edible, but I’m willing to bet will be delicious.