When Fed Ex placed on my front porch an insulated box of grass-fed New Zealand rib-eye steaks, I realized just how good it is to be a guest blogger for Marx Foods, a fine food importer featured in this month's Food and Wine Magazine.
The only better thing to be is a non-vegetarian friend of Heather's invited for dinner.
As a guest blogger, I wanted to do more than clean the Weber for these steaks. Anthony Bourdain's ever honest-to-blunt-to-crude discourse on brasserie cooking in his Les Halles Cookbook felt like the right French swagger for meat with such a bucolic provenance.
Even though it's grill season, I turned to France, specifically Page 130 in Les Halles, "steak au poivre."
The opened Marx box revealed ravishing, marbled bricks of angus beef, "Silver Fern" steaks from steer who supposedly have known only open New Zealand fields and blue New Zealand skies. (Silver Fern is a farm cooperative, managing the procuring, processing and marketing for more than 20,000 New Zealand sheep, cattle and deer farmers.)
My steaks came from cows who began and ended their lives grazing.
The current nutritional buzz on fat and grass-fed animals is all good news. A Time Magazine article from June, 2006 claims that 100 percent grass-fed meat "is not only lower in saturated fats but also slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats found in salmon and flaxseed, which studies indicate may help prevent heart disease and bolster the immune system."
Grass is low in starch, high in protein; corn and soy are carbohydrate-rich and fiber low. Eating a pasture-raised animal thus means enjoying the health benefits of the former.
Again, the Time Magazine piece claims, "grass-finished meats are therefore high in vitamin A and vitamin E, antioxidants thought to boost resistance to disease."
The Union of Concerned Scientists apparently reviewed scores of studies to conclude that a change from grain-based feedlots back to a purely pasture-based system "would be better for the environment, animals and humans." Quoting Kate Clancy, the author of the Union of Concerned Scientists study, Time reports "grass-fed meat is beef with benefits."
The four big ingredients to steak au poivre are steak, cognac, pepper, and a good radio show to keep you alive while grinding pepper corns for 15 minutes. You need a lot of pepper. OK, there's butter is in there, too. New Zealand, welcome to Paris in the 1930s!
I lay out my New Zealand beauties, patted them dry, and then clicked on an episode of "This American Life."
This was not grocery store steak; this was earth and sky interpreted through flesh. These steaks bled fescue. They were tender like buttercups. The lacey layer of pepper was a forthright compliment to all that richness. The cognac was suave.
The classic way to serve steak au poivre is with a mound of pommes frittes, that sauce ribboning all. It's so French bistro you can almost hear the plates clinking and the surly waiters' splintering French slang.
Call me lazy, or uncommitted, but I served these steaks with frozen french fries, not twice-fried, hand-cut potatoes. Let's just say I didn't want the fries to out-shine the steak, nor did I want to resent the steak for the labor the fries demanded.
Enjoy steaks like these for a fabulously special dinner, but be easy on yourself; find fancy, organic frozen french fries. Just make sure you drizzle the sauce over all, or you'll hear it from le serveur.
Anthony Bourdain's Steak au Poivre,
from Les Halles
4-8 ounce steaks
2 ounces olive oil
2 ounces freshly cracked peppercorns (not powder)
4 ounces butter
1 ounce good Cognac
4 ounces strong, dark veal stock (Bourdain says here, "right now, you really could us a tiny bit of that demi-glace I told you to keep in your freezer." True confessions, I used beef demi-glace.)
salt and pepper
Cook the steaks.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Moisten the meat very slightly with the oil, then dredge each of the steaks in the crushed peppercorns to thoroughly coat. Don't be shy with the pepper.
Heat the remaining oil in the skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add 2 ounces of the butter. Place the steaks in the pan and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook to desired doneness. Remove the pan from the oven and remove the steaks from the pan to rest.
(Bourdain says, "have I told you yet to ALWAYS rest your meat after cooking? I've told you now.")
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Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at email@example.com. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.