Oh Frabjous Day!
This column will appear on Thursday, March 8, but I'm writing it on the 7th. For those of you unaware of the significance, March 7 marks the 43rd year I've graced the planet with my presence.
No doubt this revelation has caused some of you to faint. It's understandable. My great physical beauty, lithe grace and perfect complexion are clearly those of a younger man. My secret, as far as you know, is clean living.
We may define “clean living” differently, of course.
So what did I do on my birthday? Apart from the gifts I received, it was like most other days. I went to work, I ran a few errands, and I cooked dinner. It was distinct in that I made a run to Rare Cuts and stopped off for a bottle at Hopper's Carte des Vins, but otherwise it was an ordinary day.
My wife and my mother had been asking me for a month or so whether I wanted to go out to dinner for my birthday. I demurred. I love going out to eat, which is good, since it's sort of a prerequisite for this gig, but I figured that I'd be more comfortable and happy cooking something at home rather than wrangling our two kids (and our parents) at a restaurant.
So to the extent you have any interest, here's what I did for my birthday dinner. I picked up some strip steaks from Rare Cuts. From Carte des Vins I bought a bottle of Mas de Gourgonnier, les Baux de Provence. If that means something to you, congratulations; it's a red wine that looked interesting and hit the price point square-on. I also picked up a bottle of Chablis recommended by Ric Hopper. That's one of the benefits of shopping in an intimate setting. Dude knows his wine and isn't ashamed to preach. That's how he rolls.
From there I walked over to Rare Cuts, and spent a few minutes trying to figure out whether the anniversary of my birth was worth spending $76 on a single Wagyu beef steak. It was not. I did, however, pick up a few strip steaks and a cut that you won't find many other places – the ribeye “cap” steak. The best way to describe this cut is that it's the fat-rich ribbon of meat that sits atop a rib roast, or a ribeye, as the steaks cut from that roast are known. It's not good for my cholesterol level, but hey, one only turns 43 once, no?
Steaks and wine accounted for, I decided on an old stand-by for a starch. I first made a potato gratin for a French class project when I was 12. In the years since, I've managed to perfect the dish, which is not so much a reflection on my ability as a cook as the foolproof nature of the recipe. In basest terms, you peel potatoes then cut them into thin, uniform slices. A mandoline is not essential, but it's very helpful. You layer the potatoes in a buttered baking dish, seasoning with salt and pepper every few layers, then pour in enough heavy cream to almost cover. Top the mixture with grated cheese; gruyere is the classic, then cover and bake for an hour. I swear to God this is idiot-proof, but people will rave about it.
One feels, these days, that one needs something green on one's plate. I have two kids for whom to account, so while the kale and collards in my garden are nearing the end of their utility, and should really be cooked, I opted instead for something that they like – haricots verts. It's another foolproof preparation – trim the tips from the beans, blanch them in a big pot of salted boiling water, then put them into an ice bath to cool. From there, you can simply dress the beans with some lemon juice and salt, or take a more involved approach and re-heat them with butter, lemon juice and toasted almond slices.
I considered using the charcoal grill for the steaks, but ultimately I decided it wasn't worth the effort. My wife, who is with child, prefers things cooked through these days, and my son and stepdaughter are of the same bent (though neither is with child). So pan-roasted was the way to go, which had the benefit of giving me a fond from which to start a sauce.
It's best to let steaks come almost to room temperature before you start cooking. Season with salt and pepper, then sear them in a very hot pan on both sides. Remove the steaks to a roasting pan and finish the cooking in the oven at around 325 degrees. I can't tell you how long to cook your steaks, because it depends on their thickness, how long they've been aged, and the fat content, but if you are in doubt, under-cook. You can always add heat later, you can't take it back. Don't be afraid to poke the meat periodically (heh) to gauge done-ness.
Once the steaks were seared, I added some shallots to the pan and cooked them down. I deglazed the pan with cognac, then added some veal stock, fresh thyme, and sliced mushrooms. My son is not a fan of mushrooms, so I added them with the intent of straining the sauce once it had reduced, on the theory that what he can't see won't freak him out. I reduced the sauce until it was a glaze, then strained it, and added a few tablespoons of butter to finish.
All in all it was a pretty good meal, though the cake my wife made stole the show. Semolina flour, ground almonds, whole-fat Greek yogurt and orange-infused simple syrup are all things I love, but together? Yeah.
It's been a good birthday.
It is also not too late for you, dear readers, to shower me with gifts. I prefer gold bullion, but I will also accept cash. You know where to find me.