[Photographs: Emily Dryden] If I learned anything about food growing up down south, it’s that a cast iron skillet can work wonders for any recipe—even chocolate chip cookies. Slap a chocolate chip cookie dough in a cast iron skillet, and it’ll bake up crunchy around […]
Month: January 2018
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 400°F (200°C). Combine butter, white sugar, brown sugar, malted milk powder, vanilla, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and nutmeg in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low to […]
Jenny Allen, the humorist and author of the guffaw-inducing new book Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas, derives as much pleasure from eating as anyone I know. Consider this anecdote she shared with me about her food-loving stepmother: “One day she said, ‘I made you something. I thought you’d like it.’ It was an entire mixing bowl full of chocolate mousse…It was a huge bowl, and I just took it up to my room and just read and ate it all afternoon. I’m sure I felt sick afterwards, but it was…oh, my God, the best present ever.”
The New Yorker‘s Andy Borowitz, who is no slouch in the humor department has called Jenny one of the funniest writers alive, and so I had to ask her for the one piece of advice she would give to aspiring humor writers: “Something I say sometimes, which is I think even true for me is, when you think the piece is so eccentric or so idiosyncratic or so neurotic or so weird and so personally your own peccadilloes and anxieties, just when I think, boy, I’m gonna send this in, and my editor’s gonna think, this woman is really nuts. That’s when it’s ready to send. And not before that.”
Jenny also happens to be one of the bravest souls I’ve ever met; her hilarious and moving one-woman play I Got Sick Then I Got Better, which describes her experience as a cancer survivor, is a testament to that. And I think anyone who listens to her in Part 1 of her Special Sauce interview will come away with more than a little inkling of her humor and her wonderful generosity of spirit, and will be left wanting more.
(But that’s what Part 2 is for.)
You Could Be on Special Sauce
Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your in-laws over the most reliable way to roast a turkey? Have you been struggling to get the right consistency in your Thanksgiving stuffing over the years? Does your brother always turn up with the worst pumpkin pie, and you want to help him make it better? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at [email protected].
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Whenever my husband and I order delivery from our favorite Lebanese place, the center of the meal isn’t the chicken shawarma or the mixed grill for two—it’s the potent garlic sauce, toum. Despite my desperate messages for extra toum, they never pack […]
Mortar and Pestle Method: Depending on the size of your mortar and pestle, you may need to make the recipe in smaller batches, dividing the ingredient amounts in half or quarters. In the mortar and pestle, combine the garlic and salt, grinding until it becomes a smooth paste. Work oil into paste one teaspoon at a time. After adding 1 tablespoon of oil, work in a few drops of lemon juice. Repeat until all the oil, lemon juice, and water have been incorporated.
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, except where noted] For many people now reading this, Garrett Oliver doesn’t need an introduction. As the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, Oliver has for decades been one of the strongest and most eloquent advocates for the craft beer movement. While his primary […]
[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Happy new year from the commerce team! Even though the holidays are long gone, we know that the search for great cookware (at a great price) is a year-round pursuit. So you can expect to keep hearing from us—occasionally—when we find worthy […]
They say there are two sides to every story. This one began with two sides as well, both of them crusted in cracked peppercorns. But it ends with just one. And I want to convince you that it’s the only right one.
The story I’m telling today is about France’s classic steak au poivre—pan-seared, peppercorn-crusted steaks with a creamy pan sauce. More specifically, it’s about how to cook it. First, I want to assure you that it’s easy, despite the fancy-sounding name and legendary status. It’s more or less like any seared-meat-and-pan-sauce recipe, just with a spicy crust added.
It’s that crust of peppercorns that needs the most attention. Most recipes call for pressing a layer of cracked black peppercorns into the top and bottom sides of each steak. You can make better steak au poivre, though, by encrusting the meat on only one side and leaving the other bare. The good news is, the recipe is even easier that way.
But that’s just one part of the story. Let’s start at the beginning.
Chapter 1: The Steak-Out
Steak au poivre starts with the steak. Most often, it’s medallions of filet mignon (also called beef tenderloin), but you can use any steak cut into a cylindrical, medallion shape—the photos in this story show medallions of both filet mignon and strip steak. The filet is supremely tender, which creates a better textural contrast with the crunchy peppercorns, but it tends to be less flavorful than most other cuts of beef.
Frankly, you could make this using a non-medallion cut, too. Peppercorns pressed into a big old boneless rib steak wouldn’t be too shabby.
Chapter 2: Children of the Peppercorn
Steak au poivre requires cracking peppercorns, which can be a tedious task. The exact size of the cracked peppercorns is flexible, but you’re generally aiming for them to be broken into halves or quarters. Some will inevitably crack into smaller pieces than that, and a few whole ones may slip through the, erm, cracks.
There are a few ways to do it. Some pepper mills can grind coarsely enough to deliver nicely cracked corns; in our tests, the Magnum Unicorn was among the best at making coarsely ground pepper (though it stumbled on the fine setting). I managed to get good results from a mortar and pestle, but only after I broke the peppercorns down thoroughly enough that they stopped leaping from the bowl. If you own a meat pounder or large mallet, you can wrap the peppercorns in a clean kitchen towel and then hammer away at them. The rounded outer edge of a skillet can also be rolled over the peppercorns to break them down, but, once again, make sure you cover them first, or they’ll go flying all over your kitchen.
Once you’ve crushed enough peppercorns, you can spread them on a plate or in a rimmed vessel and press the steaks down into them. This brings up the question of pepper’s counterpart: salt. Salt and pepper are usually rained down onto meat at the same time, but steak au poivre complicates this a little, since you need the large pieces of pepper to adhere to the meat in an even layer. If you salt the meat first, then try to press the peppercorns into it right after, the salt acts as a barrier, preventing the pepper from sticking. You could do what French chef Joël Robuchon suggests, which is to apply the peppercorns first and then sprinkle the salt on top—but, as you can probably guess, that just creates the opposite problem, with the salt not sticking nearly as well.
The solution is to salt the meat at least 30 minutes in advance, a technique called “dry-brining.” It’s something we like to do anyway, since it gives the salt time to draw out moisture from the meat, dissolve into that moisture, then get absorbed into the meat as it’s allowed to air-dry. Once the salt penetrates the meat, it dissolves muscle proteins, helping the meat retain more juices when it’s cooked. It’s the perfect technique for steak au poivre, because once the surface of the salted steaks is dry, you can press the peppercorns into it with no trouble.
Here’s where we get to the most interesting part of the story. Most recipes have you coat both sides of each steak in the peppercorns. I started my testing this way, but I didn’t like the result. The problem with coating the steaks on both sides is that the peppercorns act as a barrier, preventing you from ever properly searing the steak. That’s a problem for flavor, since we never get a deep sear on the meat itself—just deeply toasted spice. Even worse, we fail to develop the good fond (the browned stuff stuck to the bottom of a pan after searing) that’s essential for a flavorful pan sauce.
After realizing this, I switched to coating the steaks on only one side each, leaving the other bare. That way, we get a more deeply roasted flavor in the meat, thanks to the uncoated side that makes direct contact with the pan, and we get a better fond, which makes a better pan sauce.
Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, but I like my steak au poivre peppery, and you just eliminated half the pepper in the recipe.” Except that I didn’t. I keep the remaining half of the cracked peppercorns, toast them in the skillet after cooking the steaks, and make the sauce from there. The result is an extra-peppery pan sauce, which makes up for the pepper left off the steaks.
Chapter 3: A Saucy Finish
The sauce is the final stage in this little tale, and it’s incredibly simple to make. After toasting the extra peppercorns and sautéing some minced shallot, I deglaze the pan with brandy or cognac, letting it simmer until the strong alcohol flavor has cooked off. If you want to be flashy, you can flambé the booze, but you don’t have to, since simmering will also burn off the alcohol. Just be careful: If you’re working over gas, it’s easy to accidentally light the alcohol on the burner flame when it goes into the pan. That can be scary for those not ready for it, especially when the flames reach your upper cabinetry. To ward against a kitchen inferno, turn off the gas, add the alcohol, and relight the burner after that.
Next up comes stock. The best stock for this sauce is a well-made beef stock, but few of us have that kicking around at home, and store-bought beef stock is about as close to the real thing as murky water. If you have homemade chicken stock at home, that’s a far better choice than store-bought beef. If you don’t have a homemade option, then store-bought chicken stock will generally still be a better choice than a carton of beef “stock” off the supermarket shelf, since the chicken versions are usually made with more real meat than the beef ones are.
At this point, you can finish the sauce with either heavy cream or crème fraîche. I tested both and like both (and my recipe includes both as options). Heavy cream makes a milder sauce that allows the peppercorn flavor to shine through more, while crème fraîche produces a more complex sauce with a distinct lactic tang.
Reduce the sauce until it’s thickened to a spoon-coating consistency, whisk in some Dijon mustard, and it’s ready. It’s a recipe that makes sense and delivers deeply satisfying results, just like the best stories. There really shouldn’t be any other way.