Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Signs of Spring
What’s cooking? Coffee-rubbed Flank Steak with Cauliflower Purée

Is there anything that improves the collective mood more than the arrival of spring? In eager anticipation, I’ve had the windows washed and the many plants that turned brown and scratchy over the winter cut back, and I’ve cleared out my little kitchen garden for the spring planting. I even went through my closet and pulled out several bags worth of items for giving to the local thrift shop. (A friend suggested that “giving up” for Lent could be accomplished by getting rid of one item per day – 40 in all – to a good cause. Works for me.)

Not much makes me happier than clean windows. It doesn’t hurt that my window cleaners themselves are darling. I was just in New Jersey for a few days, and the first time I headed out onto the highway, I thought, “Man – the air quality here has really gone downhill.” Then I realized that it only seemed that way because my car had been sitting in a garage for two months and a thick layer of dust had accumulated on the windshield. A few squirts of wiper juice on the glass, and the view suddenly became much clearer. It was like being in a Claritin commercial. Suddenly, I felt much better.

Back in Texas, we’re moving rapidly into grill-outside weather, and even in New Jersey, temperatures will be in the 70s (!) this week. In the kitchen, I’m still working my way through Justin Warner’s Laws of Cooking, and have found a terrific way to celebrate the nicer weather: Coffee-rubbed Flank Steak with Cauliflower Purée. Mmm-mm. I know, it doesn’t sound very spring-like, but I’m okay with that, since it’s not yet spring!

Of course, along with the nicer weather comes the reminder of bathing suit weather around the corner (eek!), so the substitution of puréed cauliflower for mashed potatoes is another welcome twist. The original recipe doesn’t incorporate a grilling option, but flank steak is a natural for that treatment, so I plan to finish them on the grill next time. Either way you finish the meat, you’ll want to start it in a skillet so you have the drippings and the fond (the crusty stuff that stuck to the pan) for the sauce.

The “law” for this dish is Warner’s Law of Coffee, Cream, and Sugar: bitter meets fat and sweet. As he explains it, the fat in the cream smooths out the acidity of the coffee, and the sugar reins in the bitterness without damaging the nutty, chocolate flavor.

So in this particular extrapolation of that law, the cauliflower purée stands in for the cream, while the maple syrup – which might sound a little weird but here again, you have to trust me – is a perfect balance for the earthy bitterness of the coffee rub and the dark beer. I served it with roasted asparagus because I wanted a veggie that wouldn’t get in the way of those flavors.

This is a great dish to serve company. You can make the cauliflower much earlier in the day and zap it in the microwave before serving – just don’t wash the skillet, as you’ll want to use it as is for searing the steaks. And you can cut the steaks into serving size and dredge them in the coffee-salt-pepper rub just before the guests arrive, then let them (the steaks, not the guests) rest on a rack next to the stovetop during your cocktail hour. This technique is both efficient and useful: for best flavor, the meat should be at room temperature when you cook it, which will take less than 20 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: Flank steak isn’t just one of the most flavorful cuts of beef – it’s also one of the toughest. But not if you cut across the grain. Take a look at the piece of meat and notice the lines of sinewy fiber. When you cut across those fibers – i.e., perpendicular to the lines of sinew – you are making the fibers shorter, which makes the meat easier to chew. So put steak knives on the table and advise your guests to cut thin slices of the beef across the grain.

Folks, this is an amazing dish, and for so little effort. The Kitchen Goddess was a bit skeptical at first – after all, whoever heard of cooking beef without garlic? But I’ve now served it twice, to rave reviews. I had to slap my hubby’s hand to hang onto a piece of the beef for my lunch the next day. The mix of earthy flavors, the light crust on the beef, and the smooth texture of the cauliflower purée will linger in your brain and on your palate. And please, for my sake, use real maple syrup.

Another KG note: If you decide to make the meat and cauliflower in one fell swoop, it will go a lot better – and take very little time – if you just get your mise en place. Now, I can hear you saying, “Not that again!” But this whole process goes very quickly, and if you don’t have all your ingredients out and measured, you will have more than one moment of “Oh, shit...” while you stop to grind out the pepper or open the beer and try to pour 8 ounces without foam.

Coffee-Rubbed Flank Steak with Cauliflower Purée

Adapted from Justin Warner in The Laws of Cooking (Flatiron Books, 2015)

Serves 4.

For the cauliflower:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ head cauliflower, finely chopped (about 3 cups)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the steak:
4 tablespoons instant espresso granules
2 tablespoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds flank steak (at room temperature), cut into pieces that are 5-6 ounces each
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the sauce:
1 tablespoon whole wheat flour (all-purpose flour will do if you don’t have whole wheat)
8 ounces dark beer
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt (start with 1, taste, then add more as you like)


1. Make the cauliflower purée:
In a large, heavy (preferably cast-iron) skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the cauliflower. Cook, stirring occasionally to get the vegetable evenly touched by the heat, until it takes on a pale golden color and is soft, about 9-10 minutes. Set aside the skillet for use with the steaks.

Shift the cauliflower to a blender and add the syrup, yogurt, and salt. (You may want to let it cool slightly – blending really hot ingredients requires some care that they don’t explode on you.) Purée at a medium high speed for at least a couple of minutes, until the mixture is quite smooth and fluffy. Reserve the purée in a covered microwave-safe container until just before ready to serve.

2. Cook the steaks:
In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the espresso powder with the salt and pepper. Have ready a large sheet pan (half-sheet size is good) with a metal rack that fits in it. Dredge the meat in the bowl, patting each piece to get the rub to adhere all over. Set the meat on the rack and let it rest until you’re ready to cook. For best flavor, the meat should be at room temperature.

Before you begin to actually cook the steaks, get your mise en place for the sauce, if you haven’t already.

Preheat the oven to 400º. Set the cauliflower skillet over medium-high heat for about a minute, then add a tablespoon of butter. When the melted butter starts to shimmer, add as many of the steaks as will fit with room to spare. Sear the steaks for 2 minutes per side, then remove them back to the rack. Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan and repeat with the remaining pieces of meat. (The meat in these photos was 3 pounds, and I cooked it in 3 batches.) When you’ve finished searing the steaks, move the skillet off the heat and set it aside while you get the steaks into the oven.

Kitchen Goddess notes on cooking meat: (1) You want the skillet and oil to be hot when you add the meat. (2) Never crowd meat in a pan. The pieces won’t sear – they’ll just steam – if you crowd them. And (3) once you have added them to the pan, step away and don’t touch them until they’re ready to turn. The way to get that good crust is to leave the meat in solid contact with the pan.

Move the sheet pan with the meat into the oven and cook 9-10 minutes, or until steaks register 140º (medium rare) on a meat thermometer. Remove them from the oven and let them rest at least 5 minutes before cutting into them.

Before you begin to make the pan sauce, stick the cauliflower purée into the microwave and run it on high (uncovered) for a minute. Stir and heat another minute on high. You can let it rest in the microwave while you make the pan sauce.

Make the pan sauce:
While the steaks are in the oven, move the reserved skillet to low heat and add the flour to it, stirring with a whisk to incorporate any pan drippings or fond. Once this roux begins to smell toasted (about 1 minute), add the beer, continuing to stir as you bring the mix to a boil. Cook the sauce on a low boil, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until the mix thickens. Turn off the heat and add the syrup and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Taste and add salt to taste.

To serve, spoon a large dollop of cauliflower onto a plate. Top with a steak and pan sauce. Warner suggests that if you want to take the presentation up a notch, you can drag a spoon through the cauliflower in comet-like form before you place the meat on top. That comet trail will give the sauce a place to hang out, rather than running around the plate. You can also slice the steaks and fan them out next to the purée.

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