Tuesday, November 8, 2011
A Dinner Too Far / The Sirloin Strikes Back
Today's double feature showcases the struggles, hardships, and eventual heart-swelling triumph of a much-anticipated Bide-A-Wee supper in the first act; and in the second part of the double bill, the thrilling tale of how a modest piece of beef overcame an overly conceptualized side dish to win the admiration of hungry diners.
To put it another way:
In a world where overwrought home cooks obsess over the local and seasonal, and go to torturous extremes to distill gold from the dross of roots and grains, how can a humble piece of sirloin rise above the fray and stake its claim on the lawless frontier of dinner...on a plate...on, uh, the table?
Well, let's start with the wheatberries. I've had this notion, a long time brewing, of a rich and satisfying risotto-like dish, based not on rice (which doesn't grow around here) but on wheatberries, which do--the wheatberries (wheat seeds, in reality) in my Bide-A-Wee cupboard come from just a few miles down the road in Connorsville, grown on the Bartz farm . An earlier attempt at such a dish foundered on the shoals of underdone wheatberries. I learned from that attempt that the wheatberries must either be cooked a very long time, or sprouted for a couple of days prior to cooking.
I'm against the idea of a "risotto" that cooks for hours, and I like the idea of sprouting, which sort of precooks the berry, sans heat, and creates a natural sweetness in the grain. Sprouting grains is the first step in malting, a process used in the production of whisky, beer, and, of course, malted milk balls. As the seeds sprout, the starches therein are converted to sugars. The soaking process also allows the hard seed to absorb water, so that after being kept nice and moist for two or three days the sprouted seed is quite edible--just like beans sprouts or alfalfa sprouts, though a good deal more al dente.
So: my idea was to sprout wheatberries for a couple of days, then combine them with some sautéed onion, a fine dice of celery root, chicken stock, herbs, a suitable amount of butter, and finally, some hen of the woods mushrooms. This was to occur on Saturday night at Bide-A-Wee. We would serve it with a piece of grilled sirloin we'd picked up at Seward Co-op . Seemed eminently do-able.
But you know how things that seem eminently do-able in the encouraging light of morning can come to seem, by the end of that day, in the fading evening light, not so do-able anymore, and as delicious as that anticipated meal sounds, it would sound way better if someone else were making it? That was where I was on Saturday evening, after a morning radio interview, family luncheon get-together, packing-up-driving-out-unpacking, fire lighting organizing, pour a drink and--hey, can we call out for pizza?
Well, at Bide-A-Wee, no, we cannot. You just have to down that martini, buck up, and get on with it. The first thing that went out of the picture was the grilling. It was after seven, it was dark, and I had no desire to be going in and out of the cabin to tend a fire. The woodstove was blazing away. We would sear the steak in a cast iron skillet atop it. I got going on the "risotto" of wheatberries. I chopped a small onion and made a very small dice of half a small celery root--about 2/3 cup once diced. In a saucepan atop the Haggis I melted a tablespoon or so of butter, added the onion, and as it began to wilt, the celery root. As that took on a little color I dumped in the sprouted wheatberries. That was half a cup to begin with, now swelled to a generous cup, so it appeared. Stir that a bit, add salt and pepper, then around a cup of chicken stock. When that got to a simmer I covered it and let it cook very slowly. I figured that it wouldn't need to be stirred as often as a proper risotto. I checked back in five minutes. Didn't look like the wheatberries had taken up any stock. Gave it another five. Same deal. Ten more. No real change, though the berries did taste like they were softening.
What I eventually learned from this round of wheatberry risotto experimentation was:
1) I should stop trying to make risotto out of things other than rice, and
2) When wheatberries sprout, converting starch to sugar, then the starch is no longer there to thicken the dish.
What I wound up with, in the end, was a sort of a brothy pilaf, and I let that cook uncovered while the steak cooked, to reduce the stock and intensify the flavor. (A side note: Originally I had planned to add some frozen sweet corn--also from Connorsville!--to the "risotto," but the wheatberries themselves had a crisp vegetable sweetness quite like corn, so I left it out--it went into the next night's lamb stew, instead.)
And so we turned to the steak. I put the cast iron skillet on the stove, added wood and worked the bellows to get it really hot. I salted and peppered the steak and brushed it with a little oil. It was a Hill & Vale bone-in sirloin from the butcher's case at Seward. You don't see bone-in sirloin that often. It has always been one of my favorite cuts of beef. It doesn't get the kind of press that a marbled ribeye or strip steak does, but the flavor can be extraordinary. So I had high hopes, though I also knew that a simply cooked piece of meat can often be overshadowed by a meticulously planned side dish like the one that was...currently failing to materialize on the woodstove.
The skillet wasn't as hot as I would have liked when the steak went in. On the turnover the sizzle was largely gone. We added wood, we bellowed. I figured this was going to be one that we would write off to experience. Planning simple meals for the first night at the cabin was supposed to have been a cardinal rule by now, but, you know, you get cocky....
About this time I remembered the hen of the woods mushrooms that I was going to put in with the wheatberries. They were precooked--in fact, they'd been roasted off in some pork fat rendered from a piece of belly I'd braised earlier in the fall--and they were--well, they were hen of the woods roasted in fresh pork fat, what more do I need to say? As the sirloin rested (preparing to strike back!) I deglazed the pan with a little red wine, added some more chicken stock and the mushrooms. That reduced quickly and wonderfully. We served it up.
For a meal that bore little relation to what I had originally had in mind--no, strike that: Without qualification, it was superb. Let's start with the steak: chewy-tender, deeply beefy, with a compelling tang and savor to it--the best piece of beef I've eaten in a long time, and not diminished at all for not having been grilled. The mushrooms with their porky undertones provided a complementary meatiness and texture.
And then the wheatberries and celery root: the wheat was sweet and slightly crunchy, the celery soft and savory. Neither risotto nor pilaf, but a beautiful autumnal dish that I'll make again, and I'll just call it: sprouted wheatberries simmered with celery root.
This is a lot of verbiage expended on one Saturday supper, I realize. But in doing interviews to promote the cookbook, I've been asked about my approach to cooking, this expanded sense of "foraging" that I'm trying to shove down the public gullet(!), and what it means for cooking to be "ingredient-driven." Well, I think this sort of goes to all those topics. For what it's worth.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw