I was a vegetarian all through high school, right up until the first summer in France. When I began integrating meat back into my diet, it usually arrived at my table by the hands of another chef—I think the idea of hacking up a piece of meat at home in the kitchen seemed too grisly and intimidating at the time. Even now, I often have to remind myself when cooking at home to prepare dishes with meat. In a lot of ways, the main event for me is more likely to be a vegetable. At the market, I’m more likely to be seduced by a bright jade-green brussel sprout, possibly still on its stalk along with its brethren, or a bunch of black walnuts in a wicker basket. Beef stew is a nice way to showcase the haunting earthiness of good parsnips. A roasted chicken is downright revelatory when there are potatoes cooking alongside it in the pan, as they are among the most noble of all vegetables—they need very little encouragement to become extraordinary. A little salt, some sort of fat, and voila! If only cooks the world over would stop abusing them in the kitchen!
Of course becoming omnivorous has helped balance out a lot of the unsightly holes in my diet (most notably my wicked sweet tooth), but I have to train my focus when it comes to protein. I love all sorts of protein: from oxtail to Cornish game hens, or prawns to pork shoulder. It’s more a matter of imagination. I have to really search for a plan of attack, so that way I’m not left with a giant pot roast in my fridge all week while I fret over what the hell to do with it. When I find myself confronted with a good cut of lamb or a nice clear-eyed barramundi—I often bypass it out of sheer intimidation. The only thing I detest more than a wasted vegetable is wasted animal protein.
My friends Mary and Ben came over last Saturday to have a movie-night, and I remembered that a few days earlier, I’d impulsively bought a flatiron steak. I had spied it sitting prettily on the top shelf of the case. It was one of the cheaper cuts there, and it had such a delightful ruby-red color to it, so I asked the butcher to wrap up one of them for me. It's in situations like this where I'm happy to know of a good butcher. The one I like the most is someone who gives me bacon scraps and chicken backbones for stock, someone who I can trust to help me get over the numbness that I find myself struggling with when faced with so many options. While the butcher did his best to lend some thoughtful encouragement my way—I wasn’t about to get out of my funk so easily. He capably wrapped the steak with brown paper and masking tape before thrusting it into my hands. Still intimidated when I came home, I let the 2 lbs of red meat sit for two days in the fridge while I debated my plan of attack. Images of sawdust steak danced in my head…
Because I’d been putting off devising an ingenious method of preparation, I didn’t have time to marinate the steak. The flatiron is cut from the shoulder, and part of why it was so inexpensive is because there’s a thick grey bit of connective tissue that runs through the center of it—that part isn’t tasty in the least, but most butchers will remove it for you if they haven’t already when you go to purchase one (another reason to have a butcher you trust!). Once that gristle is removed, the rest of the steak is texturally akin to tenderloin, and full of good marbled fat and flavor. The one I got was organic, from a steer that hopefully lived a happy grazing life in the southern part of Oregon. I know organic meat can cost a little more than what’s comfortable these days…but I think it’s better to have just one deliciously healthy, happy steak once in awhile than one limpid and unhappy sirloin every evening.
Mary called in the afternoon, and I started to jog my mind for ideas. I imagined fashioning a Chinese-inspired 5-spice rub to add flavor and tenderize the beef a little. I had to improvise once I discovered I was out of Sichuan peppercorns, but found a tub of white peppercorns sitting in the back of the cupboard. To that, I added a few black peppercorns. I wanted to offset the heat of all that pepper, so I rounded it out with some fennel seed, coriander and cinnamon. All it needed then was some salt and dark brown sugar, and once it had all taken a dash through my coffee grinder, it was done. I rubbed it into the muscle and let it rest while we prepared the rest of the meal.
Lacking a grill, I put the whole filet underneath the broiler, et voila! When you first smell it coming out of the broiler, you’ll think you’ve added too much pepper, but clear that thought from your mind at once. It’s tender as any other marinated steak could hope to be, and the cinnamon gives it a surprising sweetness. The rest was pretty simple to put together. Ben made a pan of red-skinned potatoes served with their nobility still in tact, complete with garlic cloves en chemise (a small but vital touch Mary added last-minute). I threw some chopped escarole into a bowl with a lemony vinaigrette.
We all descended upon the steak at the same time, releasing a collective sigh at once. It was everything a good steak should be—tender, rare, and capped by an exotic flush of heat from the peppercorns. White pepper has an aroma that strikes me as a little bit (how else can I put it?) barnyard-y, but mixed with the anise and round sweetness of the brown sugar is a perfect foil for such a rich and full-flavored cut of beef. The only downside to the evening was that there were no leftovers.
Flatiron Steak with White Pepper Rub
The rub recipe here makes more than enough for one steak, so hold on to whatever you don’t use for later. I have a feeling it would be especially good with lamb, or white fish. White pepper is an acquired taste for some--because of its funky flavor which comes from fermenting the peppercorns in water for up to two weeks. The outer-flesh of the peppercorns is lost in the fermentation, and then what's left is dried. This can attribute to the sometimes pastoral aroma of white pepper. I really love it for its funkiness, but If you're worried, you could substitute the white pepper with sichuan peppercorns.
2 tsp. White peppercorns
12 Black peppercorns
1 tsp. Fennel seeds
1 tsp. Coriander seeds
5 whole cloves
1 Cinnamon Stick, 2 inches in length, broken in half
2 tsp. Dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. Fine-ground sea salt
1.2-1.5 lbs. flatiron steak, gristle removed
olive oil for brushing
1. Place the white peppercorns, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, brown sugar, and sea salt into a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Grind into a fine powder.
2. Prepare the steak: pat the steak dry with a few paper towels on both sides. Massage the rub (about 2/3 of what you’ve made) into both sides of the steak—really work it into it! This will help tenderize the steak and later on, produce a nice crust while it broils.
3. Turn the oven’s broiler on. Brush a ceramic pan or metal sided-sheet pan with olive oil. Place the steak on the pan and set under the broiler, about 6-8 minutes per side for a rare steak. If you want to use a thermometer, a rare steak will be about 125 degrees Farenheit.
4. Place the steak, uncovered, onto a plate to rest for at least 10 minutes. This helps keep all of its wondrous rare juices in tact. You don’t want a sawdust steak!
5. After 10 minutes, slice across the grain with a nice sharp knife, and serve with escarole salad. Serves 4.Lemony Escarole SaladIngredients:
4 cups escarole, chopped into ribbons 1 inch in length
1 apple, cut into matchsticks
1/4 of a red onion, thinly sliced
2 oz. pecorino cheese, shaved
2 Tbs. lemon juice (about the juice of one lemon)
3 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. good balsamic vinegar
coarse salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl, place the escarole, apple and red onion.
2. Drizzle the olive oil and balsamic vinegar around the sides of the bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice over the salad.
3. Toss until well dressed, sprinkle with the pecorino, and serve immediately. Serves 4.