Bistecca a la Fiorentina (Florentine Steak)

The Web abounds with recipes for Bistecca a la Fiorentina. Most of them are pretty accurate, which should come as no surprise given how easy this is to make. However, there are a few points of method that should be made, namely:

  • Do not oil the steak before you cook it; the oil will burn, leaving a bad taste. Rather, the objective of this kind of steak is the specific allure of rare grilled beef with raw olive oil.
  • Use a good quality olive oil; ideally from Tuscany.
  • Use a Porterhouse steak, preferably at least two inches thick.
  • Ideally (some would argue necessarily), use beef from the Chianina breed of cattle. Good luck. (Although you might be able to track some down via the American Chianinia Association.)
  • Let the meat sit at room temperature (covered) for an hour before grilling.

After that it’s as easy as can be. Bistecca a la Fiorentina is basically just a really big Porterhouse steak dressed only with salt and pepper, then grilled until rare, sliced, and dressed again with olive oil and lemon juice. It’s a nice change from the spicy and saucy American style of steaks we usually eat during grilling season.

I had been wanting to make this ever since I read about it in Bill Buford’s book Heat. Buford’s now proverbial “Dante quoting Tuscan butcher” friend prepared it for him, and the description was, as is typical of the book, a bit over the top. That one was something like four inches thick and grilled for thirty seconds. (OK, I exaggerate; but so too, I suspect, did Buford.)

I doubted I would find any Chianina beef nearby, but didn’t worry about it as I figured this first attempt was experimental; designed to get a feel for the technique. So I went for regular ol’ beef (I don’t even know the breed). I got the butcher to cut me a nice two-inch thick, 800 gram Porterhouse, and I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that he knew I was up to something good.

At home, I followed the prescribed method pretty much to a tee:

  1. Let the meat come to room temperature (about an hour out of the fridge, covered).
  2. Rub the meat on both sides with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and kosher salt.
  3. Grill over direct high heat for 2-1/2 to 3 minutes per side.
  4. Move to indirect medium heat and cook for another 7 to 8 minutes, turning once.
  5. Remove the meat from the fire, cover, and let rest for five minutes.
  6. Cut the filet and contre-filet from the bone, and slice at a slight angle (to cross the grain of the meat).
  7. Dress with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Serve and enjoy!

Warning: the following photos may be off-putting for vegetarians. Read more Bistecca a la Fiorentina (Florentine Steak)

101 ten-minute summer meals

Mark Bittman at the New York Times has published the perfect summer companion: his list of 101 fast and easy (“under ten minutes”) summer meals.

I love this list for the obvious “who wants to cook in summer?” reasons but also because I love simple, easy food. We often get caught up in the trappings of elaborate meal preparation in which it takes half a day of kitchen slavery in order to produce dinner, but the best food is often composed of the simplest things; it’s just a matter of having good quality stuff in your pantry and knowning when and how to go “Zen” with it.

2. Toss a cup of chopped mixed herbs with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pan. Serve over angel-hair pasta, diluting the sauce if necessary with pasta cooking water.

This is nothing new to me; years ago I picked up Nigel Slater’s book Real Fast Food and it was a revelation. He describes the beauty and simplicity of things like canned sardines and fresh bread. I learned that emphasizing quality and deliciousness is more about what you leave out that what you put in.

One of the biggest mistakes I used to make when cooking was always putting everything in every dish. I’d essentially tip the whole pantry into the pot, so all of my soups were the same (except one week it was beef and the next it was chicken, but the vegetables and seasonings were the same) and my pasta sauces were undistinguished concoctions of everything I had in the kitchen.

12. Boil a lobster. Serve with lemon or melted butter.

Over time, I’ve learned to do it the classic Italian way of using fewer, but better, ingredients, and of going light with the heat. So sometimes my pasta is all about mushrooms, in which case I don’t use tomatoes (they overwhelm the mushrooms). Or maybe it’s a pasta that’s all about tomatoes, in which case all I add are tomatoes and a bit of basil and some salt. Maybe a bit of garlic. Always olive oil. Or maybe it’s about seafood, so I leave out the tomatoes and the mushrooms and just use lemons and a bit of garlic and shallots.

I learned that every time you add something, it takes away from what’s already in there. So add judiciously; or don’t add at all!

40. Put a large can of chickpeas and their liquid in a medium saucepan. Add some sherry, along with olive oil, plenty of minced garlic, smoked pimentón and chopped Spanish chorizo. Heat through.

You get the picture. Bittman’s 101 recipes are in this vein; take a few good things, put them together, and never let your dinner forget that it’s all about the shrimp, or the beans, or whatever other few things you put in there. If you ask me, that kind of simplicity is what loving food is really all about; it’s all about the simple ingredients, not so much about the hours and hours of cooking and processing.

56. Make a fast tomato sauce of olive oil, chopped tomatoes and garlic. Poach eggs in the sauce, then top with Parmesan.

But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the results of very involved cooking. Pas du tout! But it’s good to step away from the ol’ hob now and then and take a breather. Eating good quality simple food is like taking a refresher course in what food is all about.

45. Sauté shredded zucchini in olive oil, adding garlic and chopped herbs. Serve over pasta.

Summer is the perfect time for this kind of meal because the days are hot, the body is lazy, and the markets are abundant. Who needs to spend half the day fussing over boiling pots? Some of Bittman’s recipes are so simple you’ll be tempted to say “Duh! I don’t need Mark Bittman to tell me how to make that!” But perhaps you need Mark Bittman’s reminder of how little is necessary to make a wonderfully simple and delicous meal on a warm summer’s eve. I’m glad I got the reminder.

68. Brush portobello caps with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper and broil until tender. Briefly sweat chopped onions, then scramble eggs with them. Put eggs in mushrooms.

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

For some, eating alone is a rare and exquisite pleasure. For others, a sad necessity. For most of us, it falls somewhere in between, depending on circumstances both within and without our control. Regardless, eating alone is something we’ve all had to contend with at some point or other in our lives, and how we deal with it can make for fascinating reading as well as a few good (and not so good) recipes.

alone in the kitchen with an eggplantU.S. writer Jenni Ferrari-Adler has compiled 26 such stories into an anthology just published by Riverhead Books (a Penguin imprint) called Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. The title comes from an essay by the late Laurie Colwin, from her book Home Cooking; the essay is the opening shot in Ferrari-Adler’s collection. Riverhead Books sent me a copy to review.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I cracked open the book. On the one hand, I’ve had plenty of practice dining alone. Loyal readers of this blog will remember that when I started writing about my meals in 2002 (more than a year into the life of the blog) my meals were simple, exploratory, and almost without exclusion taken alone. I was living in my Westmount apartment then, complete with its tiny kitchen that had a large window overlooking the elegant houses of people doing much better than myself. Even then, cooking and dining alone wasn’t new; but it was then that I decided I needed to take more time and care in preparing my meals, and to create, if I could, stories around them that I could share with anyone who ventured into blork.org.

It was slow going, but I saw every meal as an opportunity to learn something. By writing about them, it ensured I made an honest attempt to learn and develop my craft. Eating alone was the standard thing for me at the time – I did so at least four nights per week (the other nights I ate in pubs or restaurants, amongst friends).

But that was then. Now I rarely eat alone. So I wondered if this book would mean anything to me; and I worried that it would be little more than a collection of commiserations for lonely people. Fortunately it is nothing like that. Indeed, it is flush with excellent and very readable stories that cover the gamut of experience on the topic; eating alone as a matter of course, eating alone rarely, eating alone at home, and eating alone in restaurants. Some of the writers adore their time alone with their meals, and some loathe it. Some take exquisite pleasure in setting a proper table for themselves and feasting on their favorite elaborately crafted meals and others stand over the sink eating straight from the pot. Some see it as an opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration and others hunker down with oddly concocted comfort foods that you or I might find repulsive.

So yes; good book. Fun, easy reading that in the end is less about food and recipes as it is about glimpses into the authors’ lives. Think of it as a book of memoirs, with food and solo dining as the hub from which the essays unwind.

I really enjoyed reading the book, as I’m a fan of the literary memoir. Plus I like food. Naturally, reading such a book caused me to cast my mind back to my own solo dining experiences, and I realized that I have almost no memory of cooking and eating prior to when I started blogging about it. I know that I’ve always had a fascination with the culinary arts, and I’ve always wanted to be a good cook, but I really have very little idea of how – or what – I ate prior to 2002. That is significant considering I was already in my 40s by then, and at least ten of my adult years at that point had been spent living and dining alone.

Surely it wasn’t all spaghetti and ham sandwiches. But as we age and accumulate memories, they start to compete for prominence, and apparently the meals I ate alone between 1985 and 2002 simply were not memorable enough to rate a seat in the front rows of the theatre of my mind.

But there is another side to this question; what about eating alone in restaurants? I’ve done that plenty of times, and I have never really come to enjoy it. I used to absolutely loathe doing so, but I have come to simply accept it as an occasional necessity. Lunch doesn’t count – I’ll eat lunch alone without a second thought, but evening meals are something else. Despite doing so dozens of times, I’m still not completely at ease going into a restaurant by myself and taking a table for one. The one thing that makes it bearable is to bring a good book – and Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant would be a perfect choice.

180 Foot Homer Invents a New Sport

The folks behind the marketing of the upcoming The Simpsons Movie have angered pagans worldwide by creating a 180-foot tall image of an underwear-clad Homer Simpson on the same hill as the famous Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, England. The image of Homer is made of biodegradable paint which will eventually dissolve and wash away.

The image of Homer holding a donut aloft is already iconic of the movie’s publicity, but this image puts a new spin on it. Not only is Homer clad only in his underwear (in contrast to the giant’s brazen and aroused nakedness), but I can’t help but think of the donut as a sporting instrument instead of a fattening snack.

donut toss

Go, Homer, Go!

he scores!

Woo hoo! Homer gets a ringer in the Erotic Donut Toss.

As for the pagans, they are understandably upset over this apparent desecration of a sacred place. After all, the giant is a revered icon that has aided the fertility of countless Lord of the Rings fans. We should all be upset over this brash and profane display of commercial publicity.

On the other hand . . .

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!