Tag Archives: Salad

Budget Brilliance – Part 1 “Steak on a shoestring”

When it comes to meat, and particularly beef, there are a few truisms that everyone should know.

  • The more a muscle works, the tougher it is to eat, BUT the more flavour it has.
  • The closer to the horn and the hoof, the more work the muscle does.
  • Tough cuts of meat should be tenderised before eating.  This can be done mechanically (mincing, chopping, perforating), chemically (acids: marinades, or enzymes: kiwi, papaya), or by cooking for extended periods of time.
  • Tender cuts of meat are expensive, whilst tough cuts tend to be cheaper.
  • Restaurants buy the best of the tender cuts, leaving the public to fight over the second grade leavings…whilst quality tough cuts can be found for a fraction of the cost.

So, knowing the best way to tenderise a tough cut of meat will mean you can not only save plenty of dollars from your beef budget, but you can get the best of the the most flavourful options available.  It’s a win-win situation for us all.

Let me introduce you to what is arguably (though almost certainly dollar for dollar) the finest steak that you can buy.  When the purse strings tighten, and I have the kind of hunger that only a steak can satisfy, there is only one cut of meat that I turn to.

Skirt Steak.

Skirt Steak comes from the cows diaphragm, so it is a muscle that is used every second the beast is alive.  The unique qualities that make skirt steak so attractive is that the muscle fibres are uniform in direction, and long in design.  This means that whilst the steak is tough as old boots, thanks to it’s constant use, it is also very easy to mechanically tenderise…and it has flavour in spades.

  • You can see there is a little surface fat, which can be easily trimmed, but very little marbling. Skirt Steak is very lean, and great for heart health.
  • The fibres (running the length of the steak, and vertically, are very distinct and easily recognised. This is important later.

Step 1, and possibly the hardest step, is to find your Skirt Steak.  Granted, it’s not the most popular of steaks on the market (despite my loud, but singular efforts), so don’t count on your local box grocery store to have any.  Hit up a local butcher instead.  If quality meat is what you want, you should be building a healthy relationship with your butcher anyway, and buying your meat from a source that knows it’s stuff.

Step 2, bring the meat to room temperature, and fire up your bbq.  You want a heat source that is as hot as you can get it.  You can cook this indoors, but I’d recommend a cast iron pan, 20 minutes preheat on a max burner setting, and several gas masks for the smoke you are about to produce.  For me, it’s a flat out BBQ preheated to pizza oven or tandoor proportions.

Step 3, trim and season the meat.  There can be an opaque membrane left on the muscle, and you should do your best to remove this.  Trim the fat off as well, if you so desire.  As for seasoning: I use cooking (or Kosher) salt, and little else.  The salt will help draw a little protein ladened moisture to the surface and assist in the creation of that tasty crust.  Note, this DOES NOT SEAL IN THE JUICES.  That is a cooking myth.  It does, however, taste delicious 🙂

Step 4, prepare a place to rest the meat after it’s cooked.  And by prepare, I mean chop up some fresh herbs with a little garlic, oil, and salt/pepper.  By laying the freshly cooked meat on this when resting, you will do more to add the fresh herbal goodness to your steak(s) than by trying to add them prior to cooking.  Also have a sheet of aluminium foil ready.

Step 5, cook the meat.  Medium rare is best (in my opinion), and it is not the thickest piece of meat on the market, so it wont take long.  My preference is to cook for a couple of minutes on one side, then rotate the steak 90 degrees to allow the criss-cross pattern to form.  After another minute, turn the meat over and repeat.

Step 6, rest the meat.  This is probably the most important step in affecting the final result of the meat.  Rest it for at least 10 minutes, and even 15 if you can.  Use this time to make a salad, or prepare your other dinner elements.

Step 7, the slicing.  This is the critical stage that will turn your shoe leather into butter tender slices of steak.

  • Look at the steak, and note the direction of the grain.
Well rested, you can see the juices that have reabsorbed into the meat.  It makes me hungry EVERY time I look at it.

Well rested, you can see the juices that have reabsorbed into the meat. It makes me hungry EVERY time I look at it.

  • Using a large sharp knife, slice thinly (5mm slices) ACROSS the grain.  Lay the beef on a cutting board in front of you, with the grain running left to right, and slice vertically (at 90 degrees) to the fibres.

There is nothing left to do but enjoy the steak.  I promise you that this is a dish to try at home.  Whether you cook it for yourself, your family, or a crowd of friends, you will be seen as a food hero when you lay this platter out.  And just what is the best way to enjoy the results?

Watching your weight?  As healthy as it is delicious.  Unless you include the baked potato...in which case it's a little more delicious than healthy!

Watching your weight? As healthy as it is delicious. Unless you include the baked potato…in which case it’s a little more delicious than healthy!

A classic use for skirt steak, and delicious in  anyone's language.  Just add guacamole, sour cream, and saute'd onions and capsicums.

A classic use for skirt steak, and delicious in anyone’s language. Just add guacamole, sour cream, and saute’d onions and capsicums for world class Fajitas.

There is a bun under there somewhere.  A steak sandwich is about as Aussie as it gets.

There is a bun under there somewhere. A steak sandwich is about as Aussie as it gets.

Honeymoons, Original Ceasar Salad and Happy 5th Anniversary

Today marks the 5th Anniversary of my marriage to Jeri, my lover and partner in life.  When we first met, 7 years ago, my life was at the bottom of a downswing and what we have been able to achieve together is testament to the fact that two people in step are greater than the sum of their parts.  I’m sure she’ll read this, so:  I love you baby, and I love who we are.  The skies the limit.

One of my great food memories as a couple, and I could safely say one of hers without actually asking, happened during our first trip away alone as a married couple…our honeymoon if you wish, though it was 10 months after we married.  Jeri was working at Frontier Airlines in the States, and one of her friends had a time-share unit in Cabo San Lucas (Mexico), which we had been offered the use of.  Money was tight for us in those early days, so we jumped at the chance to have an exotic “cheap” holiday.  Of course January in Denver acts as quite a motivating factor for a trip to more tropical climes.

Sunset in the Endless Pool at the resort

Now, if you’ve not been to Cabo it is a bit of a Time-Share capital.  Getting off the plane at the airport, and passing through customs, you run a gauntlet of Time-Share sellers, offering you all sorts of gifts and cash to spend a couple of hours viewing their respective holiday presentations.  Being naive and broke, we quickly agree.  I mean, $500 worth of activities, food vouchers, and gifts just about doubled our spending money for the week.

Time Share Tequila, contents removed and Cabo beach (sand and sea) added.

This is not a travel piece, so I’ll keep it short, but for that 3 hour investment (buffet breakfast included, lol) we got:  $150 in vouchers (total) for use in up to 5 restaurants and bars, free paragliding, free glass bottom boat tour, buy 1 get 1 free 1/2 day game fishing trip, a free bottle of Tequila, and a free Mexican blanket.

Jeri enjoys a birds-eye view of Cabo San Lucas

With part of our meal vouchers, we went to Salvatore’s, a great Italian restaurant adjacent to the Marina, and what a meal we had.  It was at this restaurant, during this meal, that I had my very first Caesar Salad.  OK, I had THOUGHT that I had had Caesar Salad in the past, but I was very much mistaken.  Every other Caesar Salad I had had in the past paled in comparison in the same way that a Mall Food Court Sushi Roll compares to a piece hand rolled by a master, in the same way that a Dominoes Pizza compares to a wood fired pizzeria Napoletana.

Much like Peking Duck, Caesar Salad is theatre.  In the 1920’s, before there was refrigeration widely available, and before fresh produce could easily be transported from half way around the globe, Chef Caesar Cardini created a sensation when he mixed some leftover pantry ingredients with a handful of Romaine lettuce leaves and invented the Salad which continues to bear his name.  The key to the Salad’s success, and the experience, is that the magic all happens with a dramatic flourish alongside the diners table.  From mis en place to plate while the patrons watch enraptured.  Dining as entertainment took a giant leap forward, and you haven’t had a Caesar Salad until you have watched the show.  That evening we experienced a food zen moment, and we experienced it together.  I’ll never forget it.

All of that preamble sets the scene for today, our wedding anniversary, and to celebrate 5 wonderful years I am going to make a Caesar Salad…just as Chef Cardini intended.

Ingredients

  • 2 Heads of Romaine or Cos Lettuce
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • Salt
  • ¾ cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup  genuine imported real Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 Cups stale cubed bread, dense artisan loaf

Method

This recipe uses simple ingredients, very simply prepared.  It is essential that you use the best quality that you can find as every ingredient will show up and either shine, or fall flat.  Nothing here is ridiculously expensive, so even buying the best you can will not be a huge burden.

  • Remove the base of the lettuce, and gently separate the leaves.  Sort through them until you have about 8 from near the middle of the bunch, all uniform and unblemished.  Save the rest of the lettuce for another salad, or BLT’s later.  Remove the thickest part of the stems from the selected leaves and gently rinse.  Spin in a salad spinner (or dry with paper towels by blotting) and store them in an air tight bag or container in the fridge.
  • Using  a pinch of the salt, and about 3 tablespoons of oil, mash the garlic into a paste.  Toss with the brad cubes and toast in a cast iron or non-stick frying pan over a medium heat.  When golden brown and crunchy, transfer to a plate to cool.
  • Using a vegetable peeler, shave about 1/4 cup worth of Parmesan Cheese into a small bowl.
  • Drop the two eggs into enough boiling water to cover.  Cook for exactly a minute, then remove and cool under running cold water.  You want to coddle the eggs and nothing more.  This is not enough cooking to kill any potentially harmful bacteria, so if you have a compromised immunity (or are pregnant), you might want to avoid the dish.  This is also the main reason that Caesar Salads are not made according to the original methodology…stupid food police (but that’s a whole other post).
  • What about the anchovies?  Well, contrary to popular belief, the original Caesar Salad did not have anchovies, other than what was already in the Worcestershire Sauce.
  • At the kitchen table, or on the counter in front of your guests, place the lettuce into a large wide bowl.  Pour about 1/4 cup of oil onto the leaves, and using an exaggerated motion gently toss the salad four times using a large salad fork and spoon, rolling the mix toward you in a breaking wave motion.
  • Sprinkle on a good pinch of the salt, and about 8 grinds of pepper, and another splash of oil.  Toss again twice (gently).
  • Add the lemon juice, 6 drops of Worcestershire Sauce, and break in the two coddled eggs.  Toss twice gently, yet again.
  • Finally, add the cheese, toss once, then add the croutons.  Toss two more times gently, and serve.

Such a great Salad deserves a great main dish. What would you serve it with?

Remember, the “theatre” is as important as the meal, and this is as much about the experience as it is the food.  Have fun with the display, and enjoy the meal.

The Pathway to Redemption – Make your own Salad Dressing

Nothing represents our failure as a culture as much as Salad Dressing.  I know that’s a big statement, given all of the issues we are facing in the world today, but Salad Dressings have to be one of the most vile and evil things that we can possibly buy.

Let me explain.

First of all, the recipe for a basic salad dressing is:

  • 1 part vinegar
  • 3 parts oil

And that’s it.  End of story.

So, here’s a homework project.  Check you pantry.  Do you have oil?  Do you have vinegar or lemon juice?  Great!  Or…if not…get some the next time you are at the store.  It doesn’t have to be fancy oil or vinegar, just plain old vegetable oil and white vinegar is fine…for a start.

Grab an old jar from that cupboard full of old jars and lids that ‘someday’ you are going to find uses for, and add a splash of vinegar.  Don’t add much, just a good pour.  If you have to have a measure, go with a 1/3 of a cup or a couple of shot glasses full (my personal favourite measure).  Then add roughly three times more oil.  Cap it and shake it.

Now make yourself a basic salad.  Just lettuce.  Fancy lettuce, plain lettuce, bagged lettuce, whatever you want.  Drizzle on some of the dressing, and toss the lettuce around (best to use your finger tips, and toss gently).  You want to just coat the leaves.  And you are done.

Taste it.  How good is that?

Now, think about some variety.  A pinch of salt…a spoon of garlic…a turn of fresh cracked pepper…even a little bit of sugar.  What’s that?  You want to get fancy?  Try a different oil, get a different vinegar.  How about lemon juice instead?  Or….how about some herbs, or a spoon of mustard…a dollop of mayonnaise…and now you are really cooking.  I mean, really cooking…literally and figuratively, and we haven’t even addressed the salad mix yet!

So why is Salad Dressing so evil?

Well, $15 a litre, for a start.  Emulsifiers, preservatives, and colouring agents, that’s why.  The fact that we allow a market for Salad Dressings to even exist, is proof we are spiraling down a drain of culinary helplessness.  Billions of dollars are spent on this ridiculous convenience, not counting the cost to the environment in plastic bottles and packaging.

You see, a salad dressing is analogous for all cooking.  It can be complex, or it can be as simple as 2 ingredients.  The point is, sometimes we buy things for no real reason, and all we are really doing is spending money that we could be using elsewhere, and filling our bodies with the ingredients and chemicals that food companies use to make their profits.  Salad dressing is not a convenience food, so quit buying it.  Instead, spend the money on some quality vinegar and oil.

Returning to the basics can be a very eye opening experience.  Food doesn’t have to be, and should not be, a complicated chore.  Don’t let Masterchef or MKR or Top Chef fool you.  You don’t need a degree in cooking, or be practiced at complicated techniques, to make good food.  Keep it simple, and most of all, keep it home made.

For gods sake people, make yourself a salad dressing.

Tips for a perfect Salad Dressing:

  • Vinegar is roughly 5% acidic…so is lemon juice.  If you are using something less acidic, such as orange juice, use more of it.
  • Dried herbs will take some time to release their flavours into a dressing.  If you have fresh herbs, add them to the salad, instead of the dressing.  Dried herbs are fine, but the dressing won’t benefit from them until a few days soaking.  You can shortcut this by simmering the herbs in the vinegar before making the dressing, but you will want to cool it down before adding to the salad.
  • A salad dressing doubles as a killer marinade.  NEVER forget that tip.
  • Try an Asian flair…a dash of soy, a splash of sesame oil, and a blob of honey (maybe some Chinese 5 spice or fish sauce too).
  • Most of all, have fun and play around with flavours…but never forget the basics.  1 Part Vinegar, 3 Parts Oil.