Winter Frying-Pan Steak

…with celery-onion sauce and pasta:
(c) 2017, Davd

In Canada, the barbecue season is months away in both directions. It’s a good time for another way to enjoy the occasional steak, one that you can cook up when it’s raining or even snowing outside, enjoying the warmth of a kitchen and the convenience of tables and counter tops to work on. It won’t have the special pleasure of smoke grilling, and if you really want to go outdoors and make a hardwood fire to cook you and a friend or two some steaks, pick a day without wind and rain, and enjoy.

Most dinners between now and May or June, most men will be cooking indoors.

As forecast, beef prices are edging down in the stores, months after they fell in the livestock markets. Last autumn i bought a piece of “eye of round” for less than $7 per kilo, and it cooked up tender, between medium and medium rare, in my good 8-inch cast iron frying pan. In the process i confirmed the adaptation of the SCOP formula for seasoning meat sauces.

Usually, being cut into steaks raises the price of a piece of meat—so usually, i buy larger pieces and cut them myself. There is a simple, reliable trick to cutting steaks that are the same thickness all the way across: Not quite freezing the meat. I put that round, as i had put a piece of sirloin in August, into the freezer.

The round, which was about four inches across the long way, a bit less the short way, and nearly a foot long, sat in the freezer for a few hours, checked occasionally; and when it was quite stiff but not quite frozen, out came the meat and out came the heavy chef’s knife. (The same cutting technique works if a frozen piece is allowed to not quite thaw, in a fridge or camp cooler; and it works on pork, even chicken and turkey ‘breast’.)

Serious tradesman cooks care about their knives. When a chef interviews anyone who wants a job in his kitchen, the first thing he asks is “Show me your knives.” The pots and pans belong to the restaurant, but each cook has his own knives (sometimes hers, but commercial kitchens are almost as much men’s territory as welding; women can be found in the trade but they are rare.)

A good main chef’s knive should have weight, balance, a comfortable handle, and steel that will sharpen to a fine edge and hold that edge. For vegetables and fileting fish, lighter weight is fine, but the other qualities apply. Paring and bread knives should have weight, and balance, but not be massive like that main knife. I believe it’s also good to have a same shaped knife about half the size of your big one, for lighter work of the same character.

So get yourself a good chef’s knife for cutting steaks; and if you are not sure you know how to choose, take along a man who does. You’ll save the cost in a few months if you like steak and pork chops. .. and you’ll finally enjoy many detail cutting chores in the kitchen when your knives work with you instead of against you.

Under that piece of meat and that knife, you need a cutting board. My good ones are made of red oak. White oak should do, and i use red or white cedar for seafood. Plastic cutting boards were once popular, but some serious professional cooks told me that the cuts that form in them with use, are hiding places for bacteria. Oak and cedar, they said, contain resins that kill bacteria. (Larch and Douglas fir do also, to some extent. I myself wouldn’t use birch, beech, other fir, maple, poplar, spruce, even pine.) Oak takes cutting longer and better; so for cutting steaks and for chopping, i much prefer oak.

Fish takes less force to cut and much of the time you will be cutting parallel to the board, not down into it… so in my humble opinion, cedar will do.

With the meat not quite freezing and thus quite stiff, you’ll find it easy to hold still and cut with parallel slices. The “grain” of the meat should run the long way of the piece (watch for this when shopping) so that you cut the steaks across [perpendicular to] the grain. That will make them more tender than if cut parallel to the grain.

(The work of cutting almost frozen meat with clean, parallel strokes takes muscle; it is not for petite women. My sister and grandmother were not petite; they could do it.)

I cut my steaks between 2 cm [¾ inch] and 1 inch [2,5 cm] thick for winter pan cooking; maybe a little thicker for summer grilling. The winter thickness will sear well and still have more pink to red meat in the middle, than seared edge… and it will take less time to cook. In the summer, extra cooking time is not such an issue; everyone but the chef, and maybe he too, will be sipping and nibbling while the steaks cook, and in no hurry; and the meat should be absorbing smoke from the hardwood coals that are cooking it.. (What wood to grill on is a story for another time.)

From that piece of round, the 2 cm steaks i cut were probably 5-6+ ounces in weight, which is enough for a serving of meat but is not a big serving for steak. Several were wrapped tightly in plastic bags from the produce i had bought and brought to the kitchen, with almost no air in those bags, and put back to freeze and keep for later. Three stayed in the fridge.

The first steak i cooked, was seared in just a little vegetable oil*, on fairly high heat but before the oil could begin to smoke, a minute or two on the first side, which made it a rich brown colour; then when i turned the meat i dropped the heat on the stove switch and soon after, added chopped onion so the onion could brown just a little, itself. The cast iron pan stayed hot long enough to sear the second side of the steak, and then the steak and onion cooked on low heat while i cut up two [regular cultivated Agaricus bisporus] mushrooms, added them, and in a few minutes, cut into the steak to see how the inside looked. Meanwhile, i chopped maybe two ounces—a quarter cup—of celery*, an eighth of an inch or slightly thinner (cutting across the grain, as with the meat].

You should know what color of the meat inside, represents the degree of rare, medium, or “well done” you like. When the inside is that color, or almost, take out the steak and put it on a plate with a lid over it; and add the celery* and some stock. (I make and use vegetable stock). If you add water instead, add some boullion powder or a half cube. Sprinkle on some pepper, and with mushrooms, i suggest oregano. Let that come to a gentle boil and simmer until the mushrooms and celery are cooked.

Notice a familiar seasoning pattern? With pork, poultry and many kinds of fish, including in chowders, the standard seasonings are Sage, Celery, Onion, and Pepper. They can be your seasoning check-list for turkey stuffing, for instance … as well as for chicken or turkey soup, chowders and fish soups. They are good with pork chops and in pork stew.

The more general check-list is Strong, Celery, Onion, and Pepper; where the Strong herb can be oregano, thyme, sometimes tarragon, instead of sage. With mushrooms, oregano is usually the best Strong herb. With beef but no mushrooms, i usually choose thyme. And of course, you might want to add salt, depending partly on whether and how much stock powder or boullion cube you add.

Back to the cast iron pan: When the celery and mushrooms were cooked, i added cooked fettucine [broad pasta] a little more than twice the amount of the steak, stirred things together, turned off the power, and put the steak back in to warm up, in case it had cooled below ideal eating temperature. As bachelors often do when eating alone, i then ate the meal from that pan.** It was excellent.

The second and third pieces of steak, i cooked the same way, but without mushrooms, using a half slice of fairly fat bacon for the pan seasoning and crumbling it into the sauce when i added the stock. The strong herb was oregano one time and thyme the next. Both were delicious. So if mushrooms are available for a good price, get some; and if not, use bacon; either way it will be a meal worthy of a glass or two of red wine.


* Liveche, as i’ve mentioned a few times in earlier food blogs, is a good, rich flavour alternative to celery, and i’ve now seen it growing, obviously perennial, in two Central Alberta gardens.. In this technique, the celery may add texture to the sauce that makes it preferable—what texture you prefer is for you to choose.

** In addition to saving on dish washing, i often give the pan to Fritz to lick, when i’ve emptied it in human terms. Frying pans operate above boiling temperature, even while being seasoned, so that’s safer than letting him lick plates.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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