February 2012


I’m so glad I don’t have to work today. For meat and seafood, it’s top three in the worst days of the year. Why? Because two simple things, for 24 hours, become the all-consuming, must have dinner products.

Filet Mignon

Lobster

Why? Why is it that every year, around New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, people feel the obligation to attempt the high risk maneuver of the surf and turf combo? I understand that it’s a special day for many people. I get it. I really do. HOWEVER, if this is a day where the gentleman of the relationship trots out his cooking skills to impress the lady, I always try to recommend something else.

It’s not because I want to discourage the man cooking a special dinner. Far from it. It’s the questions. All of the questions that people ask about how to cook their lobster and filets drive me up the wall. I want to say “If you don’t know how to cook it, please, for the sake of your relationship, do not attempt it for the first time tonight.”

I don’t say it.

Instead, here is a list of helpful answers to your Valentine’s Day queries about how to cook the best special surf and turf you can possibly muster.

“I need two filet mignons. How do I cook them?”

Alright. First, the proper pluralization of it is Filets Mignon. It comes from the French, meaning ‘dainty fillet’. What an adorable sounding name for a piece of meat. I just had a little chuckle at your expense.

Okay, now seriously. How do you want to cook them?

“Medium Rare.”

Are you saying that because you want to cook them medium rare, or because that’s what everyone says when they go to a steakhouse?

“Rare.”

Sear it in a SCALDING HOT PAN with a tiny bit of oil NOT OLIVE in the bottom for four minutes a side. Roll the sides so that you can give it an even texture. It’s going to be cold in the middle, but as long as you know that, it’ll be okay. Let it rest for ten minutes before you slice it so you can at least get a knife into it.

“Medium.”

Follow the steps for rare.  Heat your oven to 425. After you sear it, throw the whole thing in the oven for 10 minutes. Let it rest for ten minutes.  Slice and serve.

“Well Done.”

Seriously? Well done? Get a Petite Top Sirloin steak over here. I guarantee you won’t be able to tell the difference after you pull it out of the oven. Moreover, you will save approximately $30, which you can then use on flowers to make up for the fact that your steak is rendered flavorless and inedible. Sorry. $25 on flowers. $5 for a bottle of A-1. But don’t you feel so much better that you saved your money on that steak? Don’t forget to throw away the butcher paper.

***

All joking aside, it’s not that difficult to make a steak. It’s easier to make other steaks taste better than a filet, and you won’t feel the sting of your credit card digging into your hip as you wrench it out to pay more than you should for a steak. However, like a dutiful significant other, you’ve purchased a filet.

Let’s get cooking.

First, take the steaks out of the butcher paper. Look at them sitting there on the counter. Is one thicker than the other? Are you worried that one will cook faster than the other and then you’ll be left with two incredibly different degrees of doneness? Don’t worry. As the chef, you take whichever one is the less appealing, or whichever one comes out looking kind of funny.

That’s love.

Season the outside with salt and pepper. Rub all the surfaces, and let the steaks sit for about an hour at room temperature. Don’t start with a cold steak in a pan. That would be your second mistake, the first being purchasing a filet mignon rather than a flatiron or delicious, delicious ribeye.

Now, remember what I said about the olive oil? Don’t use it for steak. Don’t. It’s for your salad. It’s not for frying.  Turn your heat on to medium high, closer to the high side of things. No, you won’t burn your place down. You might get it a little smoky, but you won’t burn it down. When it’s pretty hot, grab your regular vegetable oil, and just put a  little less than a quarter sized drop in your pan. It’s going to smoke and bevel when you swirl it around. You only need just enough to cover the area where you will be searing the meat.

Is it smoking? Good. Put your steaks in the pan, at least an inch apart so they don’t end up steaming next to each other. Just let them sit. Don’t touch them. Don’t. Don’t touch them. I’m serious. Let them sit for at least four minutes a side. If there’s oil pooling at the bottom of the pan, you have too much in there. I told you to put less oil in there. Why didn’t you listen to me? Your steak isn’t going to get beautifully browned, and then your girlfriend is going to yell at you and then Valentine’s Day will be ruined! I will not be responsible for this. Do you hear me!?

Whoa. Okay, deep breath. You didn’t touch the steak, did you? Okay. Good. Just treat it like a grilled cheese sandwich. After four minutes, if it starts to smell like it’s browning, try lifting a corner of the steak from the pan. If it releases easily, congratulations! You are cooking it right so far!

Is it not releasing from the pan easily? Leave it in there. Check it in two minutes.

Okay, it’s good and ready. Now, flip it. Let it stay there. Don’t touch it. Don’t. Just don’t do it. Four more minutes, four minutes, then roll the sides, then let it rest. Boom. Congratulations. Now you have a rare steak. Really rare.

Want a more medium steak? Remember what I told you earlier? Heat the oven up to 425. Throw the whole pan in there. Let it go for about ten minutes. Pull it out. Let it rest.

Want something well done? If you haven’t been listening up to this point, I simply will not tell you anything more than throw it in the microwave for an hour, and then throw it in the trash with your hopes and dreams.

***

Now, on to the lobster. Nobody knows how to cook a lobster unless you’ve done it on more occasions than a holiday or for a special night with the lady once in a blue moon. Still, you’ve got your lobster, and you have to cook it, right? Right. So, with that in mind, I will tell you how to cook lobster tails, skipping over the part where you have to kill them, because although I’ve done it on many occasions, I choose not to. There is something unappetizing about describing that process, so I’ll leave it out. Just get lobster tails, okay?

So you have your tails. If they’re small, (8 oz or smaller), take a barbecue skewer and spear them from flipper to front so they don’t curl up. Put them in a casserole dish. Boil a pot of water, salted, and pour it over the top. Let them sit for ten to 15 minutes. When they are good and red, pull them out, slice them down the back, and pull the meat out. I know you want a nice presentation, but I bet you also want a nice dinner where your date doesn’t hem and haw over how difficult it is to get the lobster out of the shell. Considerate cookers of the world, do them a favor and shell the meat.

Save the shells for stock. They make a good one. Either roast them straight away, or throw them in the freezer. I recommend roasting them until they are brittle and dry, just so they don’t severely stink up the freezer.

Now, let the meat cool down. You should have two half tails, split lengthwise, for each whole lobster tail that you got. Do you? Okay, good.

The meat is still tender. This is really important, as when most people get them and don’t ask the questions, they just throw it in a boiling pot of water, leting it curl and gnarl itself into a tiny ball of awfulness, once again wasting their money. Like throwing the steak in the oven, you can easily throw the meat on the grill, under the broiler, or into a warm pot of butter before serving, maintaining the flavor and delicate texture.

Did you get that? Don’t boil your tail.

Don’t.

Five minutes in contact with heat should do the trick, and by the time it is ready to go, you have everything timed out perfectly, and your date is salivating in a Pavlovian way over the wonderful smells that are coming from the kitchen.

“Hot Dog! I never knew you could cook like this, (fill in your name here)!”

I bet you didn’t either. You’re welcome. Now go. The dinner hour is fast approaching. Get your mind in the game, your butt in the kitchen, and make the best damned Valentime you’ve ever done.

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I went to the movies the other day. While there, I made the concession to purchase the food they had available at the kiosk. Like a lot of people, we realize that the price of snacks at certain places are somewhat exorbitant, raised to recoup the expenses of putting butts in the seats at the theaters. Naturally, we snuck a couple of things in, but in addition to the bags of sweets that we had, I purchased an order of Pretzel bites with movie cheese for six dollars.

I began to think about it. I looked over the prices of some of the other items on the board, and it made little sense to me that we hold a skewed sense of value for foods that are out of convenience. Wherein we would normally spend a considerable amount less for a comparable portion at home, millions of people, for a bag of popcorn that costs less than 50 cents to make, willingly shell out six, seven, eight dollars for the privilege of feedbaggery at the movies without a second thought.

Now, where I work, there is a price structure in place that is slightly higher than your average grocery store. For a pound of ground meat that is lean and grass-fed, you can expect to pay $7.99/lb. We’ve registered a few complaints in the last week about the rise in prices, especially with the price of ground bison at $9.99/lb. The fact is that the cost of raising an animal is going up. Commodity costs are higher for corn, wheat, and even pasture raised animals. It happens every couple of years. So what?

It goes back to convenience. For $7.99/lb, you get the equivalent of four 1/4 pound burgers, and still have money, even when buying the highest quality meat in the case, to buy your lettuce, tomato, and a good quality bun or hard roll. When did we get so complacent in our desires to eat right? Is it merely because we don’t want to think about making our meals?

There’s no filler in our meat. None. If you buy ground beef, it’s ground beef. There’s none of that horrible ammonia washed offal powder filler that is in something like 70% of our fast food burgers these days. You can probably find a good quality tomato, and a delicious mustard. If you end up paying a bit more for it, shouldn’t you take comfort in the fact that you’re paying a couple more pennies on your dollar back to someone who is raising an animal to be an animal and not a frozen fast food patty?

Back to the pretzels and nachos. Even in the grocery store, an entire box of pretzels costs 3-4 dollars. A frozen box of soft pretzels, if you want to get technical, costs around 5. Why do we feel that it’s alright to pay the premium for something merely because we are beyond the velvet rope of a movie theater? I don’t.

You can get an entire bag of good tortilla chips for $3. Salsa? $2.50. Cheese? $4. That’s at least three or four servings of a complete nacho extravaganza for under ten dollars, if you just make it yourself.

Soda? Any soft drink that you purchase at the movies is going to be $5 or above for a liter or larger. Even when looking at a six pack, it’s cheaper at the store. Want to know what else is less expensive, and a lot better for you? 2 quarts of orange juice. $3.99.

What everyone wants is a meal that can be made in one pot in less than 30 minutes, with a minimal amount of steps. You can make a hamburger or cheeseburger in that amount of time. You can get inexpensive pasta, chop up an onion and garlic, throw in some frozen vegetables, and add some cheese that you shred yourself on top when you’re done. Toss it together and serve. Total time? <30minutes. Total cost for a family of four? <$10. Compared to a bucket of chicken from a fast food joint, the five minutes you spend chopping vegetables is more valuable than the 15 you spend debating in the restaurant queue about what everyone wants to eat.

In addition to money, few things cause dischord more than going out for fast food. At least one person feels exasperated, because it acts as a last resort for a parent with less energy to spend on dinner plans. The aspect of ordering is always a chore, especially if you have children, who are notorious in their indecision. Lastly, nobody feels good after they eat fast food. You only feel full. Extra salt and fat make us feel not satisfied, but sluggish.

Quick- name a fast food chain whose prominent advertising color is green. Subway, right? That’s about the only one I can think of. And their slogan- Eat Fresh? If I want to eat fresh, I’ll eat at home. If I eat at Subway, there’s no way I’ll load up on green peppers and iceberg lettuce just to increase the overall health of my sandwich. Those things barely have any nutritional value to begin with. I don’t know what the reason is behind many restaurants having a logo that is comprised mostly of hot colors (red, orange, yellow). Maybe it gives the illusion of fire, of something being flame broiled. There hasn’t been an open flame at Wendy’s for years. The only reason there’s a flame broiler at Burger King is to keep the frozen patties from melting into piles of goo. Yes, goo. If you drop a frozen BK patty on the ground,it doesn’t thaw into a pile of ground beef- it melts into a puddle.

Yet somehow, you get the illusion that you’re getting a whole meal at these places, that what you’re eating is satisfying your appetite. It may be, but it doesn’t satisfy your hunger for real food, does it? If I eat, I want real burgers, real fried chicken, a salad that doesn’t come pre-loaded with precooked bacon bits, an egg, cheese, turkey, and everything else that doesn’t make it a salad. In the time it takes me to walk to the Polish sausage joint down the street, order, come back, and start eating, I can look in the fridge, throw some stuff in the oven, and sit down to relax as my food, my real food, lightly browns on its way to my plate. We eat with our eyes, I understand, even though in reality we eat with our mouths, but watching a popcorn popper at the movie theater triggers the impulse buy. The popping sound. The manufactured smell of artificial butter. It is just as easy to replicate that experience at home with real food. You have a pan. You can make some music with a sizzle, a bubbling boil, and a percussive rap of a knife blade against the cutting board. The end result, along with the sounds and smells, will give you far more satisfaction and a better sense of value than a trough of movie popcorn ever could.