This recipe was originally featured in The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004.

Steak and sauce

Whether you're grilling or skillet-cooking, start by putting your steak on a plate and dusting it generously on both sides with freshly ground black pepper and a little salt. Let it sit at room temperature for a half-hour or so before cooking. (After extensive testing, I've dismissed the old theory that steaks shouldn't be salted before cooking. I've seen no evidence that this practice "draws out the juices" or does anything else other than gently enhance flavor.)

How much steak? For us, between health concerns and the startling reality that dry-aged ribeye or strip steaks are usually $16 a pound at Whole Foods, we most often divide a 12-ounce steak two ways. To be honest, though, I could easily put away a 16-ouncer without any help, so portion size is really up to you.

If you're grilling, fire up the charcoal and wait, patiently, until the flames have died down and the coals are hot and covered with gray ash. (You do use charcoal, don't you? Oh, all right, use your gas grill, then.) Put the steak on the grill, directly over the coals, and let it sear for just a minute or two. Turn it and apply the same treatment to the other side for about the same length of time. Then, rotating it 90 degrees if you care enough to give it a pretty criss-cross pattern of charred grill marks, give it another minute on each side. For any steak less than about 1 inch thick, a total of four to five minutes over very hot coals should be plenty; for a thin steak it's probably too much already ... but why choose a thin steak?

Cooking indoors to escape heat or rain? Prepare your steak in the same way, choosing a piece that's a good inch thick; this procedure won't work well with a thin cut. Preheat your oven to 450F. Put a black-iron skillet over very high heat and leave it for a few minutes until it's screeching hot. Wipe with a little vegetable oil on a paper towel, just enough to coat the surface and keep the steak from sticking. Slap it into the skillet with a smashed garlic clove and leave it alone for two minutes. Don't press it down. Don't move it around. After the allotted time, flip it over and sear on the other side for a minute or so. Flip again, and pop it into the preheated oven for five minutes, no more. Remove and serve.

Now, let's talk about that sauce. It's a simplified version of a Dijonnaise sauce from a favorite cookbook that you've probably seen me mention before, Mirielle Johnston's "The Cuisine of the Rose, Classical French Cooking from Burgundy and Lyonnais." With the original version, she said, a good steak "will acquire a Dijon accent and taste like Charolais." Whatever.

This alternative imparts similar flavors in a quick sauce that takes only about a minute to make. It's so simple that I'm almost embarrassed to present it as a recipe.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

2 tablespoons (30g) crème fraîche (my preference) or heavy cream
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard


1. Mix the cream and mustard in a small bowl. (Use a good imported Dijon brand if you can. Call me a French-food snob, but I find it distinctly preferable to Grey Poupon.)

2. If you pan-seared your steak, drain excess fat from the skillet and, while it's still hot, put in the cream-mustard mix on the stovetop over medium heat. Cook just until it bubbles and thickens, and serve with the steak.

3. If you grilled your steak on the barbie, put it on a hot plate and let it sit for a minute or two until some juices collect. Put a skillet or sautee pan over medium heat, and pour in the juices. As soon as they bubble, add the cream-mustard mix and proceed as above.

MATCHING WINE: I love just about any dry red wine with a rare steak, but after careful consideration, I think Burgundy (and other quality Pinot Noir) may be the best match of all. Add the Dijon cream sauce and that goes double. It's worth splurging with the best red you can manage - we recently celebrated my wife's birthday with a rare ribeye and a fine Burgundy, Frederic Magnien 2001 Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Gruenches. But you needn't uncork such an imposing (or such a youthful) wine: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, or any robust, dry Mediterranean-style red from Spain through France and Italy to Greece and Lebanon - or a New World equivalent - will serve just fine.