Letting go

Originally Published in the Herald Sun 2/2012

In March, I bought a six inch piece of beef tenderloin. It was just ordinary grocery store meat, but still cost about twenty-four or five dollars. Due to circumstances too embarrassing to relate here, the dish it was meant for never got made.
So it has shunted around the freezer since then, forlorn and forgotten. The packaging was torn, and the longer it subsided in sub-zero hell, the more icy damage was done. Guilty and resentful, I ignored it.But the other day I was in a “what the hey” kinda mood, and I called that puppy up to the majors.

I thought about Beef Wellington, the original purpose for which it was purchased. But Welli is complicated and very time-consuming if it is made from scratch. I enjoy that kind of thing normally, but my heart would break if I went to all that work and it was awful because the beef was so freezer burnt.

Freezer burnt

Sad…just sad.

I thought about dishes that might hide the deficiencies of the meat and thought about chicken-fried steak. But it seemed both ridiculously indulgent, and crazy heavy, even for a lean cut like tenderloin. I thought about cutting it thinly, seared quickly, then served with a pan sauce of some sort. I went to Aunt Betty’s Cookie Store and bought a small bottle of cognac just for this purpose.
Yesterday when I went to clean it up and slice it, I cut it into three pretty 1 1/2 inch steaks, and a smaller one for steak and eggs, a favorite of Petey’s. I would cook it in my cast iron, and just go for it. Consequences be damned.
I’ve been seeing restaurants on TV that specialize in steaks. One of the things they all have in common is cooking at extremely high heat, some at higher than one thousand degrees. Now I can’t approach that temp, but I cranked the heat under my cast iron pan, and got it literally smoking, scary hot.

smoking cast iron

If you can’t stand the heat, just order take-out.

I tied the fillets with a piece of butcher’s twine to keep them round and attractive. Right before I put them in the pan, I massaged them all over with olive oil (I’ve since learned that canola oil has a much higher smoke point than olive, and can take higher temps without blackening) and heavily sprinkled them with just kosher salt, and coarsely cracked black pepper. I inserted a probe thermometer into the thickest steak set at 125 for medium-rare, and laid them into their molten metallic bed. And quickly jumped back, because them babies started hissing and spitting.
At the 43 degrees which they started out, they would need to cook for a while. But since I figured the meat was so damaged there was a good chance our protein that night would come from Burger King, I didn’t stress. I just barely lowered the temp under the pan and put a lid on it, slightly ajar, to keep most of the heat from escaping.
What I was looking for was a heavy crust on both sides and a beautiful juicy pink on the inside. But, in my eyes the meat was already ruined, so I threw caution to the wind.
When the probe reached 110, I flipped the meat over. I got a tad worried, because it looked browner than I would normally allow it to go on the first side. I lowered the heat a little more, forgot about it again, and took it out of the pan when it chimed at 125. I set it aside to rest and turned my attention back to the pan.
I threw in some diced shallots, and when they had colored and softened, I poured in the small bottle of cognac (3.8 ozs and I don’t buy the best, I’m cooking with it here). I scraped all the stuff off the bottom of the pan.

pan sauce

Building a pan sauce.

After it had reduced ’til it coated the back of the spoon (called nape; pronounced nap-ay), I took it off the heat and whisked in a little pat of butter (maybe 1/2 tablespoon). This is called mounting, and gives a silky finish to your pan sauce. Most French chefs would use way more butter mounting a sauce, but I’ve grown fond of my heart beating at regular intervals, and Petey’s getting older (unlike myself).
You know what? It was honestly the best filet mignon I’ve ever made (we really didn’t need the sauce, but the sauce was good). The lack of confidence in the meat, and the benign neglect had turned into a correctly cooked steak. Instead of fiddling and obsessing, I just let go.

It seems every time I have a culinary breakthrough, the lesson seems to be something like, “Get over yourself, you big drama queen! It knows what it needs. You’re just along for the ride.” Being alive for almost half a century, married for almost thirty years, and with a kid in college you think I would’ve learned that lesson by now. Maybe this time it’ll stick, I’m almost sort of sure it will.

The Herald-Sun | Christine T. Nguyen on Thursday, October 10, 2013.

That’s me, checking my steak for tenderness.

Thanks for you time.

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