Monday, 31 January 2011

Steak and chips

Following on from last weeks posts on poached eggs and omelettes and/or tortillas, I’m moved to point out that some of life’s greatest pleasures are the simplest. 

Well, duh. 

Except that’s such an obvious truth it can easily be overlooked.  It’s just too simplistic to feel worth saying.  We all want to appear cleverer, more sophisticated than that, so it goes without saying, and by remaining unsaid, it can easily get forgotten, and we end up denying ourselves our greatest pleasures in the endless, and self perpetuating, pursuit of ever more complex, more arcane pleasures.  I’m not going to make the obvious food/sex/pornography analogy here – this is neither the time nor the place, but hell, you’re already on the internet, if you want to I’m sure you can pursue that line for yourself.  Although it does remind me of something I didn’t mention in my review of Arbutus a couple of months back: that the stairs down to the toilets, the corridor and the toilets themselves are decorated with Victorian ‘erotica’ – i.e pictures of naked ladies, some of whom are in distinctly sexualised poses, with very little pretence to the status of ‘art’.  Which makes me wonder just how old does pornography have to be before it becomes acceptable as décor in a mainstream restaurant?.  My guess is the cut-off is currently somewhere around the nineteen seventies.  Sixties Playboy, OK; seventies, maybe, but probably not full frontal; eighties, definitely not.  Unless it’s a fully themed restaurant.  But why should it be that late 19th century pubic hair is acceptable and late 20th century pubic hair not?  And while I’m on the subject of risqué decoration of restaurant toilets, I feel obliged to bring up (although I rather wish I didn’t) the ladies and gents at Hix Oyster & Chop House in Farringdon, distinguished (?) as they are by close up (and blown up) photographs of the anuses (ani?) of the artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble respectively.  Quite apart from their capacity to put you off your food, these pictures really aren’t very helpful, because I, for one, cannot readily identify whose anus is whose…

Hanger steak, seared rare and sliced
Damn.  I knew this wasn’t the time and place to pursue that food/sex/pornography line… Sorry.  Still, Hix Oyster & Chop House is an appropriate place to get to at the end of that line, because the hanger steak there - rejected by Giles Coren on the grounds of being too cheap - is a perfect example of a simple pleasure being one of the finest.  Of course the hanger steak at Hix comes with a side serving of baked bone marrow, and you are eating it at one of London’s most fashionable restaurants, so it’s not as simple a pleasure as all that, but still.  If it’s just the meat you want (and it better had be, because that’s pretty much all they got) then you could try the Santa Maria de Buen Ayre (or just Buen Ayre as it now seems to be called), where they operate to a sort of gaucho version of Henry Ford’s famous dictum and you can order anything you like as long as it’s a great big slab of Argentine beef.  That said, merely by virtue of its being on Broadway Market, Buen Ayre, is potentially even more grievously fashionable than Hix is these days.  Still fantastic though, and fantastically good value, if not quite as ridiculously so as it used to be when it first opened and Broadway market was still at least half steel shutters and dog shit and not lined end to end by chi-chi boutiques and organic coffee shops.  Or you could just turn the simple pleasure dial up to 11, and have steak and chips at home (although, of course, for all I know, you live on Broadway Market, have a Tracy Emin neon hanging on your living room wall, and have AA Gill round for dinner all the time…).

... griddled
Ribeye, oiled, seasoned and...

Well, never mind, and even if you don’t, steak and chips is one of the quickest and easiest ways of treating yourself to a real luxury at home, and it’s really not all that expensive, as special treats go, as long as you don’t insist on prime fillet steak.  And why would you?  That question, by the way, is genuine, and not in any way rhetorical.  Why would you pay a premium for a cut of meat with less flavour, less texture, less character, than its cheaper counterparts?  Yes, it’s the most tender, but if I’ve spent that much on a piece of meat I want to spend at least a bit of time chewing it to feel I’m getting my money’s worth, and yes, there’s less fat in it, but fat’s good.  Fat carries flavour.  And anyway, if you don’t want a fatty steak, get a piece of rump (which now seems to be coming back into favour after a period in the foodie fashion doldrums) at half the price and just don’t eat the rind.  Not that I’m saying that ribeye, or sirloin are cheap cuts of meat, because obviously they’re not, but even so, not much more than the cost of two pints in a central London pub, will cover a substantial slab each for two people.  A round and a half would definitely cover you, unless you insist on ridiculous Desperate Dan style portions.  Which might say more about the price of beer in a central London pub than it does about steak, but never mind.

Ribeyes on the griddle, chips in the wok
But if you have a good butcher who can you supply you with the cheaper, and perversely less commonly available, cuts, then even better.  Flank/skirt/bavette, or onglet/butcher’s/hanger steaks, if you can get them, will generally be half the price of fillet, and considerably less than ribeye, or sirloin.  Also, perhaps because they are traditionally served already sliced on the plate, you seem to need less of them.  I would also argue that they have at least as much, if not more, flavour.  As long as they are cooked properly rare.  If you like your steak well done, or even on the medium side of medium rare, then these cuts are perhaps not for you.  Which would be a shame.  Not that I would judge you for it.  Really, I wouldn't, people do, I know, but it's a matter of personal taste, and as such there is no right or wrong.  If you want your steak burnt to a crisp, then go ahead.  No skin off my nose at all.  I might even nibble a few of your caramelised crispy bits...

Steak, chips, mustard, ketchup. Simple. 
As for cooking steak, well there’s not a great deal to say is there?  You put your meat in a smoking hot pan for not very long on each side, take it out and allow it to rest for ten minutes or more before serving.  That’s about it.  But here are my top tips for the perfect steak:
1.     Get the meat out of the fridge in plenty of time.  You want it at room temperature before you do anything to it.
2.     Season well – plenty of salt and pepper on the meat before it hits the pan.
3.     Oil the meat, not the pan, and use sunflower or grapeseed oil, definitely not olive oil, which burns at too low a temperature.
4.     And when I say smoking hot, I mean that literally.  Whether you use a regular frying pan or a ridged griddle, it needs to be properly, seriously hot.  Cooking steak will create smoke, you may need to take pre-emptive action to disable or remove any smoke detectors in the vicinity, and certainly want to ensure the kitchen is well ventilated and your extractor is at the top of its game…

As for the chips, my trick is to par boil them first, then dry them out.  Apparently, according to Heston Blumenthal, drying them out in the fridge is the way to go, but I frankly can’t be bothered/don’t have the fridge space, so just on a tea towel on a board or tray seems to work for me.  Then I cook them in batches in sunflower oil, in my wok.  The end result seems to be about as good as chips are likely to get, even without hypodermically injecting them with ketchup.  Seriously, Heston

hanger steak, sherry mushrooms, grilled pepper
A steak and a good portion of chips is a good enough plateful in itself, but a side order of mushrooms is a delicious addition, and a good way of ensuring that all those glorious juices and charred meaty bits left in the pan don’t go to waste.  Just chuck the mushrooms (wild, field, chestnuts, portabella’s whatever you have) in to the pan after you’ve taken out the steaks and while they’re resting, along with a little finely sliced garlic.  Throw in a glass of sherry or marsala (or white wine) to deglaze the pan.  If you don’t have an allergic girlfriend feel free to add a dollop of cream or crème fraiche if you want.  Cook till the mushrooms are done and the wine and juices are reduced to a rich deeply flavoured sauce.  Serve alongside the meat.

Grilled peppers - this is an idea I nicked from the fine people at Buen Ayre, apparently traditional in Argentina.  Just put a regular red pepper whole under the grill till the skin is blackened and blistering on all sides, then seal it in a polythene bag for a few minutes, after which the skin will easily peel off.  Slice it and scrape out the seeds.  Do a load of these at a time and marinade them in olive oil and balsamic or sherry vinegar, with finely sliced garlic and chilli, and some parsley, they'll keep a week or more in the fridge.


  1. In reference to Heston's ketchup-injected chips - if life's too short to stuff a mushroom, it's definitely too short for THAT malarkey. Plus, if you're doing all this faffing after the chips are cooked, aren't they cold by the time you serve them?

  2. (Heston's original recipe is gone from the link in that article, so I can't see what he said...)