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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Cold Nights, Warm Food - Potatoes Au Gratin and Steak Charred on a Carbon Steel Pan

It's comfort food time. Cold nights call for warm dinners with deeply satisfying dishes.

What makes you feel good in cold weather? What about a vegetable soup flavored with roasted tomato sauce and filled with roughly chopped carrots, green cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and string beans? Or spaghetti tossed with charred cauliflower buds and shallots with an anchovy-butter sauce?

I made those last week and they were delicious. Tonight I wanted meat, a starch and a green. Pretty basic stuff. Add in a Prairie vodka martini with an olive and I was definitely comforted.
Usually when I cook a steak, I make mashed potatoes with butter, half and half and sautéed scallions. Tonight I wanted something different. For some reason the idea of potatoes au gratin seemed like the way to go. I'd still have the soft potatoes to contrast with the steak but the au gratin would give me a crunchy top.

The green was my favorite: an escarole salad with blue cheese, pickled green beans, fresh chopped tomatoes (this is California so it's easy to find flavorful heirloom tomatoes at the farmer market) and carrot rounds with an olive oil and reduced balsamic dressing.

This entire deliciously comforting meal took 50-60 minutes to prepare. In actual work time, you'll do 20 minutes and otherwise be waiting for the potatoes to do their thing.

First thing is get the potatoes au gratin going. The recipe for that is below.

Because the steak should be hot from the oven and loses quality if it has to wait around for the other dishes, make the salad next. If you can't find escarole, which I learned to love when I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, use red leaf or romaine lettuce.

The salad and steak
Escarole is slightly bitter and the leaves are rough, so it holds up well in a tossed salad. Tear the leaves into bite sized pieces, peel the carrot and make paper thin carrot rounds, add a 1/4 cup of another vegetable like salt steamed green beans (I make pickled green beans) or cooked corn kernels in the summer, 1 tablespoon of chopped pitted olives and homemade croutons if you have them.

Dress with the olive oil and reduced balsamic (you make that by putting 1 cup of balsamic into a small saucepan on a low flame and reducing the volume to 1/4 cup, cool and use in the normal proportion except the balsamic is now slightly sweet) after the steak is cooked and you are ready to eat.
There are lots of great ways to cook a steak. I'm really happy with the results I get using a carbon steel pan, which, I know, isn't easy to find. In Manhattan, Zabar's on the Upper West Side sells them (second floor). In LA, Surfas in Culver City has them until they sell out, then the wait can be awhile until the next shipment from France gets through the traffic jam in LA Harbor.
Carbon steel chars vegetables and a steak equally well. It is easy and the results are fantastic. A cast iron pan is a close substitute but in my opinion not as good. Before charring the steak, heat the pan without any oil until the metal starts to smoke, To use a high-temperature pan requires that you have a good quality exhaust fan in the hood over your burners. Otherwise, the smoke will set off the fire alarums and the house will fill with smoke. Not good.

Once the pan is smoking, add a small amount of blended oil (80% canola, 20% olive oil). A really small amount, maybe a 1/2 teaspoon is all you need. Throw in a handful of shredded onions. Toss with tongs so they char not burn. Throw in a handful of thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms. Maybe drizzle on another 1/2 teaspoon of blended oil. Toss, turn and don't burn. When the onions and shiitakes are lightly browned, transfer them to a plate and set aside.
The steak needs to be a good quality either bone-in or fillet. Allow the meat to reach room temperature. Dredge in olive oil then season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Both sides.

Get that carbon steel pan going again. When the metal is smoking, use tongs to gently place the steak into the middle of the pan. Allow the meat to sear 3-4 minutes, then use the tongs to turn it over. Sear another 3-4 minutes. Then place the pan and the steak into the preheated 350F oven. Depending on the thickness of the steak, bake 5-10 minutes. Use a pairing knife to cut into the middle to test for doneness.

Once the steak is the way you like it, remove from the oven. Put the charred onions and shiitakes back in the pan and lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. Let the meat rest 5 minutes. That will also heat the veggies.

Serve hot with the potatoes au gratin straight out of the oven and the escarole salad crisp and cold.

Don't forget the Prairie vodka martini with an olive.

Ok, now the recipe for the potatoes au gratin.

Potatoes Au Gratin 

Serves 4

Time to prep: 20 minutes

Time to cook: 30 minutes to salt boil, 30 minutes to bake, 2-5 minutes to broil

Total time to cook: 72-75 minutes

Ingredients

4 medium sized good quality potatoes, preferably King Edward or Baby Yukon, washed
1/4 cup half and half or whole milk
1/2 stick sweet butter (no salt)
1 cup white cheddar cheese, roughly grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup bread crumbs, fine, preferably homemade

Directions

Preheat oven to 350F.

Fill a quart sized pot with water. Add kosher salt and potatoes, washed but not peeled. Bring to boil. Cover and cook 30 minutes. To test for doneness, insert pairing knife into each potato. The knife should have some resistance when inserted. Drain, set aside to cool.

When cool, use paring knife to remove skin only. Reserve skin to sauté at breakfast and serve with scrambled eggs and bacon.

So you can work like you're on an assembly line, place all the ingredients on a cutting board around a rectangular or a pie sized, bake-proof pan with a low lip, about 2".

Make thin potato slices (about 1/4"). Use a pairing knife for better control. This part is a bit tedious because making so many thin slices can take a few minutes. The result is worth your patience.

You are going to make layers in the baking pan in the following order: overlapping layer of thin potato slices, then paper thin slices of butter, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, then potato slices then butter slices and seasoning and so on until all of the potato slices are in the baking pan.
Place a final layer of thin butter slices on the potato slices and season. Pour in the half and half or whole milk. Sprinkle on grated white cheddar cheese and finish with bread crumbs.

Place baking pan on a baking sheet and place in oven 30 minutes.

At this point the potatoes are cooked and can be reserved and reheated just before serving.

When everyone is sitting at the table, ready to eat, set oven to broil to brown the topping. Be careful not to burn. If broiling makes you nervous, skip this step and place the potatoes into a 350F oven to reheat for 5 minutes.

Serve hot.