And more mooching from Frugal Son's writing. It's good, non?
Anyway, the 28th was going to be the grand opening of a three-day convention and the main thing of the night was going to be the premier of a stage production of Jules Verne’s, Nantes’ most famous native son, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” I told Baptiste I would love to go and, since I had a wealth of ingredients from the market, I invited him over for dinner.
On the menu that night was a starter of pasta with a tomato and vegetable sauce, boiled and butter-grilled salsify, and seared bavette de boeuf. I discovered salsify, as I have already mentioned, in the Restau. U one day when I mistook it for potatoes. It is a long white cylindrically shaped vegetable that comes from the root of a plant, which, I believe, is in the thistle family. The flavor of the salsify itself is mild and the texture is a cross between boiled potatoes and asparagus. I happened to find some at Talensac for 3.90€ / kilo so I bought some and was going to attempt to make it for the first time.
Bavette is a cut of beef that is known in English as the “flank steak.” I wish I knew more about meat so I could tell you where it is from but, alas, all I can say is that it is a relatively unknown cut in America but in Europe it is prized for its flavor and tenderness. Actually, there are three cuts of beef that I’ve heard many culinary figures I respect talk about but that are hard to find in the USA. They are the bavette, flank steak, onglet, hanger steak, and hampe, skirt steak. All are supposed to be very flavorful (especially the onglet, which is a piece of muscle from the diaphragm, near the kidneys) and very tender provided you cook them quickly.
Anyway, I started cooking a bit before Baptiste and I were supposed to eat because I was making a rather complicated meal, i.e. something that involves more than one pot or pan, which is always a juggling act. First I boiled some water for the pasta and chopped up bell peppers, onions, garlic, and mushrooms for the sauce. I began to sauté them in the pan and while they were cooking, I began to prepare the salsify. Salsify is a root so you have to peel it before you can use it. Since I didn’t have a peeler, I borrowed a sharp knife from Jessica W., who was cooking alongside me that night, and got to work. It actually wasn’t that hard, though I did worry about peeling off too much of the flesh along with the skin, and there is something satisfying about seeing a smooth white stalk emerge from what was once a knobby and dirt encrusted black tuber. As soon as I peeled the salsify, I washed it, cut it into pieces about five or six centimeters long and then placed them in a bowl of water so that it wouldn’t start to discolor. An interesting thing about salsify is that when it is raw, the juice has a very dry and sticky feel on your hands; almost like how your hands feel after you’ve touched sap or resin. By the time I finished with the salsify, I only peeled two stalks out of about twelve, the pasta water was boiling and my veggies were properly cooked. I added pasta to the pot and poured tomato sauce into the pan along with some herbes de provence. A few minutes later, when the pasta was cooked, I scooped out the pasta using a slotted spoon and placed it onto a plate. Using the reserved, and still hot, pasta water, I cooked the salsify. The pasta sauce was finished by this point as well so I poured it into the little plastic container that my pork cheeks had been in (washed of course), which serves as my only “Tupperware.” I quickly rinsed out the pan and put it back on a hot burner to heat up for the next part of the meal.
Baptiste had arrived and had brought a bottle of Breizh-Cola (Bretagne Cola) and half a loaf of bread. Jessica W., Baptiste and I chatted while I finished up the first part of the meal. In the hot pan, I put a few chunks of butter and let it foam and subside. The salsify had been boiling for quite a while now so I drained them, rinsed them and then immediately transferred them to the pan with butter. To this, I added a clove of roughly chopped garlic and then let everything cook unmolested for a few minutes. Once the salsify began to char and pick up some nice black grill marks, I rotated them and let them cook some more. Meanwhile, I plated the pasta with some sauce and as soon as the salsify was finished, I put it directly on the plate next to the pasta. This was our first course and it was very good. I may have cooked the salsify a bit too long; it had lost some of the firmness that gives it such a great texture, but it was still very good and the garlic and butter really went well with the delicate sweetness of the root. The pasta was, of course, good and by now I’ve pretty much perfected my sauce.
After we finished the first part of the meal, I hopped up to prepare the “main course:” the bavette. I had started marinating the bavette a few hours before I started cooking in a mixture of red wine, soy sauce, and one clove of chopped garlic. I had read that bavette requires either really fast cooking or really slow cooking to keep it from being tough so I decided to go with a sort of “sear,” which is hard to do when using the anemic electric burners at the dorm. I turned the knob all the way up the fearsome power of six and let the dry pan sit on the burner for five or so minutes before adding the meat.
That morning at the market, the butcher asked me if I wanted a piece for one person and, even though I said yes, he gave me a giant piece of probably about 250g (about 9oz). Fortunately, Baptiste was eating with me so I cut the steak in half to make the portion a more reasonable size. Baptiste taught me the varying levels of doneness, of which there are only three in French: saignant (lit. bleeding but equivalent to rare), mi-cuit (lit. semi-cooked = medium), and cuit (cooked = well-done). Jokingly he added that you could also order it carbonizer, which basically means burnt. I explained to him that in English, there are five levels of doneness: rare, medium rare, medium, medium well-done, and well-done. He told me that he likes his steaks mi-cuit and I, of course, like any real food aficionado, like my steaks rare. I joke a little, but Anthony Bourdain emphatically insists that rare is the only way to order a steak and that chefs save the worst pieces of meat for people who order steaks well-done since cooking it that much destroys most of the flavor anyway. Anyway, with the pan hot, I plopped the two pieces of meat down onto the pan and let them cook away. After a few minutes on one side, I poured some of the remaining marinating juices (though minus the garlic because I didn’t want it to burn and contaminate the flavor) over the steak and then flipped them. A few more minutes on the other side and I poured the rest of the juice over the steaks and then removed mine to rest before eating. I cooked Baptiste’s for a little bit longer since he wanted his mi-cuit.
I brought the steaks to the table and, before they got cold, we ate. The steak was AMAZING. Tender, juicy, and the marinating flavors weren’t so powerful and salty that they overwhelmed the meat. My steak was cooked to perfection, or should I say not cooked to perfection since the center was a beautiful crimson red fading to a rosy grey until reaching the seared-brown outside. Baptiste’s, being the thicker of the steak halves, was at the same level of doneness as mine even though I had let it sit on the stove for a few extra minutes; however, he didn’t complain and said that because my cooking was so good he actually liked it rare.
Above all, I was proud of the efficiency with which I cooked and the fact that in spite of limited utensils (one small pot, one skillet, one bowl, one plate, and one Tupperware tub) I was able to assemble everything and get it onto the plate in good time and before it got cold. I think the key was that I never let the skillet get cold. I didn’t really ever wash it in between uses, just wiped it with a nearly dry sponge until it was clean and then put it straight back onto the hot burner. With Baptiste’s help, I did the dishes and brought everything back up to my room and then we headed out to go to Utopiales.