Friday, March 12, 2010
Raw Food, My Way
I have a bit of a problem with the whole raw food diet concept. Now, I'm a firm believer in to each his own and chacun à son gout and all that, and it's not that I don't enjoy a nice cold faux pizza made with faux cheese and dehydrated tomato purée on a pappy crust of compressed sprouts and seeds washed down with a refreshing glass of kale juice....
Okay, it is that. It's that exactly. I do not enjoy that sort of raw food. Not that I can say I've explored every corner of that realm of eating, because, well, I don't like that kind of food, so why punish myself? Beyond the fact that the application of heat does wonderful things for the flavor of food, the whole idea behind the raw food approach goes right over my head. I don't get the idea that people were meant to be pure herbivores, any more than I do to the absurd notion of "caveman cuisine" that has also popped up recently, a regimen centered around large portions of bloody meat and nothing else that has graced the human table since the dawn of civilization. I like civilization. Well, parts of it....
The raw food approach would be more appealing if one were allowed oysters on the half shell, sashimi, or well-seasoned raw chopped steak, but you always run into that whole "vegan" thing, if you know what I mean.
This is all just a snarky, roundabout way of saying: Is there anything better than a plate of good steak tartare, frites, levain toast, and a glass of red wine? The sort of steak tartare I like is a French invention, and I try not to think of its supposed origin in the barbarian practice of tenderizing a piece of meat by keeping it between horse and saddle over the course of a long day's ride. I think I would rather eat hemp and seaweed than that "authentic" sort of tartare.
I had my first steak tartare in Paris, at a chain wine bar called L'Ecluse, off the Champs Elysées--you can actually see a picture of the dish at that link. What I remember most about it is that the portion was huge. I ate and ate and ate, and Mary had a few bites, too, and still the ginormous mound of meat did not recede. When I could eat no more and abandoned the plate in defeat, the manager came over and regarded my failure with a look of deep disappointment and hurt. He asked me if I hadn't enjoyed my dinner, and I tried to summon enough French to respond, yes, indeed I had, it was very good, but, Monsieur Dude, that was one honking hill of raw beef, n'est-ce pas?
I recall that we ended that meal with an astoundingly good, runny, salty, smelly round of st. marcellin cheese.
I've had steak tartare in France several times since then, and the sum of those experiences leads me to conclude: 1) The French really like steak tartare, as it still shows up on many, many menus, and 2) The French like very large portions of steak tartare. We're often told, and I find it generally true, that the French diet is not focused on large servings of protein, being comprised rather of a balanced approach, several courses, salad, bread, cheese, wine, and vegetables. When the meat is not cooked, though, all bets are off--chop it, mix it, pile it high. Bring on the toast, and let's eat raw beef. And what, I ask, is wrong with that?
Occasionally I've had steak tartare as a first course, but now I prefer to make a meal of it, indeed, an event, Bistro Night! Cue up the Serge Gainsbourg, the Aznavour, the Amélie soundtrack, bring up a bordeaux or a cru beaujolais, and sail across the sea on a dreary Minnesota March night to Les Bacchantes on the rue Caumartin near the opera--STEAK TARTARE HACHE A LA COMMANDE 14.50.
But I'm getting carried away, and am yearning for Paris and all that it implies, so back to the topic of homemade steak tartare. The question of health issues will invariably arise, and all I can say is that that is something one must decide for oneself, and you should know the source of your beef, and it should be very fresh. I will also say that I have never been made ill by steak tartare, or, for that matter, by the many dozens of raw egg mayonnaises that I've made over the decades. Most bacteria on a piece of meat inhabit the outside surfaces, so if you want to be fastidious you could carefully cut away the outside and use the middle only. And, needless to say, I would never, ever eat raw beef ground by someone else. I want to choose it, see it, smell it, chop it, eat it.
Those are the caveats; on to the recipe.
The meat: sirloin is a good choice, or top round. The most recent version I made with a chuck-eye steak from the Seward Co-op. Pricier cuts like a strip or ribeye would be fine, as well, but you don't need to spend the big bucks to have excellent tartare. I certainly would not use tenderloin, which costs an arm and a leg and has no flavor, but that's what a lot of tartare recipes call for, so, whatever.
My seasoning is a bit idiosyncratic, and I like my tartare very well seasoned. I don't use the traditional raw egg, but I do add some mayonnaise, Hellmann's. This may cause outrage among purists, but I stand by it. It gives lot of savory depth and unctuousness to the tartare.
Finally I feel the steak must be chopped, not ground. I'll usually slice my beef into strips and put it on a plate in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to make it easier to chop. Then I go through it with a very sharp knife just as if I'm mincing an onion or such, and when I've got it chopped quite fine I'll spread the meat out on the cutting board, and get another sharp knife, so a knife in each hand and I go chop-chop-chop-chop-chop until I'm tired of chopping, and taste a bit for texture, season, let meld, enjoy.
Steak Tartare Maison
pour deux personnes
10 ounces beef--sirloin or top round
1 small shallot finely chopped, about a tablespoon
1 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 shakes Worchestershire sauce, or to taste
1/4 tsp sambal oelek chili paste--or a few shakes Tabasco
1 heaping Tbsp Hellmann's mayonnaise
juice of 1/4 lemon, or to taste
2 good pinches salt
1 tsp capers, chopped fine
2 tsp dijon mustard
a few grinds of black pepper
Mix all together well and let sit at room temp for at least 30 minutes. Serve with good buttered toast, oven fries, cornichons if you have some, and a green salad. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the meat on the plate, if you like. You can also bring some of the condiments to the table for individual adjustments.
Our salad this night was our first harvest from the potted greens shown in the previous post. The potatoes came from our root cellar stash, from the market (things are getting pretty sprouty down there; I guess spring is on the way). I baked the bread, of course, made with Minnesota and North Dakota flours. The cornichons, grew 'em, pickled 'em--and this year I'll be able to use my own vinegar. The steak was either Hill & Vale or Grass Run Farm, I forget which--purchased at the Seward Co-op. The nice thing about shopping at co-ops is that you often wind up eating local foods without having to think about it.
But don't assume that because a store has a "green" reputation that they're actually walking the talk. I read something in a blog recently about Whole Foods 365 frozen "organic" vegetables which I found hard to believe, but I checked it last time I was there, and it's true: Many of those vegetables are grown and packaged in China. Talk about your food miles....
These greens traveled about 25 feet from "farm" to table:
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw