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Steak and sauce

Summertime, the living is easy, and to be frank, I haven't been doing much creative cooking lately. The lure of the ball park and the demands of professional dining often take us out for dinner; and when we're home, I've been slapping a steak on the grill when it's sunny, or searing one in a black-iron skillet indoors when it's not.

I actually find myself missing a good spell in the kitchen, and with any luck, I'll come up with something interesting in time for next week's column. Today, though, let's keep it short and simple, as we talk about steaks and some quick but tasty things to do with them.

When I'm indulging in a steak, I like to make it a good one, even if it costs a few dollars more. To my delight, we've recently seen a dramatic increase in the availability of quality fresh, grass-fed, hormone-free beef hereabouts, sometimes dry-aged, occasionally locally produced, variably tender (grass-fed beef, particularly from local producers, seems to be more lean than marbled), but always beefy and delicious.

Operating on the assumption that excellent beef needs little help beyond the natural goodness that nature gave it, I try to keep things as simple as I can. A little salt, a little black pepper; a quick sear, never cooking it past a hot-pink medium-rare center at the most. My father taught me that a good steak needs no sauce, but a little exposure to French cuisine taught me that my father, wise though he was, didn't really know everything; so we'll talk briefly about a simple variation on a quick Burgundian pan sauce that can improve even the most delicious steak.

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.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Steak and sauce."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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