Rock Island, IL
I have it on good authority—my own plus that of a few others who know more about these things than I do, including one fellow who “attended the best culinary school in the country” (a claim I take on good faith, not knowing the name of a single culinary school, good or bad)–not to mention that stern preceptor, experience (is this sentence going somewhere?) … I have it on good authority, as I say, that there is scarcely a credible reason to order a steak when you dine out.
The reason is that hardly anyone can prepare a steak as well as you can at home, and I’m not talking about doing anything particularly fancy like aging the beef or rubbing it with some mythical magical rub or any of that cowflubdubbery. I’m talking about nothing more than beef to advantage dressed.
So, as Kipling said, hear and listen and attend, O best beloved.
Choose a ribeye. Do not be impressed by the name “New York strip” or “sirloin tip” or anything else that rhymes with “hip.” The only thing hip about this meal is that that’s where you’re sending your calories. Get yourself a one-inch thick ribeye cut out of a locally grass-fed and locally lockered beast. If the cut is frozen, defrost it. If not, proceed generously to salt both sides, whether with regular salt from your favorite stainless steel salt shaker or, if you must feel yourself sprinkling salt with your fingers like the big shots on TV, with sea salt.
Wait! Almost forgot! Shake a Bombay sapphire martini with a whisper of vermouth. Pour it into the martini glass you’ve been chilling in the freezer since last week, when you began thinking about this steak dinner. Skewer a bleu-cheese-stuffed olive and send it to the bottom of the clear cold pool. Sip delicately. Sip again. Ah!
And some folks say there is no God! They’ve never seen the back pockets of a fine pair of blue jeans ding-donging back and forth down the walk on a cool fall day or beheld a shaken Bombay Sapphire martini aside the mis en place, where, mute and expectant, lay a one-inch-thick ribeye steak, the prestidigitation of Bruce Hornsby blaring from the hi-fi.
Salted, the slab of dead cow now needs something of the green herb that fed it while it lived. Sprinkle dried oregano on both sides, then drizzle a little olive oil, again on both sides. You can crush in some garlic if you want to, and sometimes I want to, so have your garlic press at hand and ready, and ignore the snide swipes taken at this noble utensil by a certain celebrity chef fond of parting with the confidentiality of the professional kitchen.
Rub it all in or don’t. There will be little influence on the flavor. You do this or don’t do this depending on how tactile and visceral you want the cooking to be. Let the spirit move you. Then let the spirit linger.
Cover the meat and remove it to a cool place if you’re several Hornsby CDs from settling down to your dinner, which you should be. There’s no hurry. This isn’t fast food.
Did I mention you’re eating alone tonight? You are. The family is off visiting other family, and you’ve been left home alone to power wash and restain the deck and build a new brick walkway along the south side of the house, which you’ll do, but not this evening. This evening is given to the fullness of man: the incarnate condition.
Look out the window toward the western skyline. Observe the various mother birds at work feeding their young in the many birdhouses you’ve built for them: the sparrows, the wrens, the finches, the nuthatches, the titmice. Indulge the analogical imagination. How our Mother feeds us, does she not?
Sip. Sip. You’re no lost soul coming down the road, somewhere between two worlds. That’s worth giving thanks for. Sing it, Bruce!
The salad will have four kinds of lettuce plus arugula. . . . No! Tonight you can have straight arugula. No one’s here to complain about too much arugula! You cut it from the garden not an hour ago, washed, dried, and set it by. Throw it into a big bowl, not some little bowl meant for Cap’n Crunch.
And feta! How for the least division of an hour could you have been beguiled as to have forgotten thee?
See, here’s how whole process can surprise you. You hadn’t planned on this. But you crumbled up some feta—the properly soft and salty kind that only certain Greek acquaintances initiated into secret swarthy rites know how to find, and you’ve sprinkled it onto the salad. Ah, green and white. What colors! But now that you’ve got the feta out you’re reminded of another noble purpose to which feta can be put. So you cut another little square off, place it on a small plate, a blue one if you’ve got it, and sprinkle it with oregano. You crack some fresh black pepper over it and shower it with olive oil (also procured by your serendipitous acquaintance with the Greek underworld). Go to work with a spoon on the little hunk of feta. It’s your appetizer. Just don’t let it blunt your appetite. Mmm-mmm.
Light the charcoal grill.
But isn’t it about time to shake another … no. Benjamin Franklin said: eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
To hell with that portly opportunistic hypocritic!
Compromise. Crack open a bottle of deep inky shiraz. How it complements the colors of the appetizer and flatters the very bloodstream. You might legitimately switch over to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and “Thank you, Lord! You made it right.”
Potatoes would be good, wouldn’t they? But you’re on your own. Translation: no cardiac nurse is here to remind you of your soaring cholesterol levels. The words “lipid profile” will not be uttered tonight. Into the saucepan goes a half-pint of cream and about an quarter—no, better make it an eighth—stick of butter. Sprinkle in plenty of nutmeg and crushed hot red peppers. Stir over low heat. Let it thicken.
Boil the oiled and salted water for the bowtie pasta.
Chop up some garlic–lots of it, because there’s no soft personnel to kiss tonight. Soften it in butter in another pan. Not too long. Five, ten minutes tops. Keep the heat low. Sing to the music and ignore the ringing telephone. Ignore the knock on the door. Whoever’s there can plainly hear that no one’s home but you, and you’re in no mood to see your sacred rites interrupted.
In go the bowties. This is all a bowtie is good for. Beware of men who wear bowties. Step outside to spread the coals.
When the pasta is done, strain it and add the cream sauce and garlic. Cover. It’ll be just fine (after you’ve sprinkled on the parmesan cheese you’ve just grated).
Out to the grill at last! On goes that fat slab of cow. Hear the olive oil sizzle. You give it about sixty seconds; then you turn it. You give it sixty more. Truth is, it’s ready, but this isn’t a night for steak tartare. You give both sides another sixty to ninety seconds and bring the thing inside. Au bleu, as the Frogs say: the only way to eat beef if you’re going to bother to cook it. People who cook the flavor out of beef should just eat old shoes.
Now for the place setting:
Just kidding! Who cares when you’re all alone? It’s just you and the steak, arugula salad, bowtie pasta in thick nutmeggish cream sauce heated with crushed red peppers, and a deep inky shiraz. Read during supper if you want to. Peruse an Orvis catalogue. Vow to buy a creel even though you’re a catch-and-release guy.
To the hi-fi. This calls for something of gravity: Beethoven’s seventh will do. Now don’t be ungrateful. Eating without gratitude leads to all kinds of mischief. And, besides, such a night calls for gratitude. There’s something bigger than you out there. Make a nod in its direction.
Cut a piece of dead cow. Turn it sideways. Salt it a little (and each individual piece to follow). Stab it with your steely fork and put it in the mouth God gave you. Bite down twice, pick up the glass, swirl it, smell it, put it back down, and finish the first morsel. And, as the shampoo bottle says, rinse and repeat.
Now there’s going to be a puritan out there telling you you shouldn’t drink alone. But you’re not alone, are you. Didn’t Jesus say, “Lo! I am with thee always”? You, my friend, are in good company. And you’re nobody’s fool. You know the uses of careful exegesis.
And if irony got the best of you and prevented you from pronouncing a blessing, raise your glass to your companion. That will suffice tonight.