We all have bad habits. I’m a piler and a procrastinator. I have trouble recognizing when I’m supposed to give the “short” answer to a question. And I tend to buy the ingredients for a recipe without actually reading the directions.
This final habit has caught me more than I’d like to admit staring at a recipe an hour before dinner that tells me I should have started it the night before. Or worse, I’ve gotten half way through preparing something only to discover that I am then supposed to let it sit for three hours to set or that I should refrigerate it overnight. Mishaps like these leave me scrambling and, while they can inspire creative solutions (like packing custards on ice to set them faster), the results are usually less tasty, texturally challenged or complete failures. Those are the nights we eat frozen Trader Joe’s spinach pizza.
I am trying to get better, though. I even decided to sit town with David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs last Tuesday night to look over the winter menu—Slow Beef—I’d planned to make on Wednesday for the Top Chef Finale. Fortunately I had realized that the menu was for 8-10 people when I was looking at the ingredients (7-8 lbs of flanken was a dead giveaway that we would have more leftovers than we’d know what to do with). Wouldn’t you know, not only was I supposed to salt the flank steak for the braised beef overnight, but then he suggested, right there in the intro, that you let the meat sit in the sauce over another night! Determined to do the best that I could (you don’t fall down on Finale night, do you?) I peeled myself from the couch, salted the meat, and made a date with my Le Creuset Dutch Oven for 8 a.m.
Earl Wednesday morning, with sleep still crusting my eyes, I chopped my onions and measured out all the ingredients I would need for the sauce. I browned the meet so that it had a nice crust on it, added the sauce, stuck it in the oven and went to work, which, fortunately, is just down the hall. I popped up from my desk for five minutes here and five minutes there throughout the day, straining and degreasing the sauce, then finally putting it in the fridge for about 6 hours to soak up the flavor. The results were layered, complex and melt-in-your-mouth tender, with the faint sweet heat of the paprika and earthy spice of the cloves coming through. Lesson learned. The extra time salting, slow cooking and letting the meat rest in the refrigerator had really brought the dish together. Reading the recipe had made the difference.
Beet, Egg and Watercress Salad
To accompany the beef, I made a version of the celery root mashed potatoes Tanis suggested, cutting back on the fat in recipe in addition to halving it. But the real star of the evening, though, was the roasted beet, egg and watercress salad we enjoyed to start. Sweet and tangy with a little watercress spice and creamy hard-cooked eggs with the slightly molten centers, the salad was the picture of restraint and balance. My dinner guest that night, my friend Suzy, bravely battled her fear of desserts and whipped up delicious lemon and rhubarb tarts for dessert that were light and refreshing, with wintery citrus flavor and a hint at spring, just around the corner.
I am convinced of the benefits of fully reading a recipe days in advance, but I know I’ll probably falter again. Bad habits are hard to break. And you probably didn’t need the “long” version of the story to figure that out.
Watercress, Beet, and Egg Salad
from A Platter of Figs by David Tanis
3 bunches watercress
2 large shallots, finely diced
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp grated orange zest
6 medium beets, roasted, peeled and diced small
6 soft-center hard-cooked eggs
Wash the watercress and drain. Wrap in a kitchen towel and refrigerate.
To make the vinaigrette, macerate the diced shallots in a bowl with the vinegars and a good pinch of salt for 10 minutes. Stir in the mustard until dissolved. Whisk in the olive oil, add the orange zest, and grind in some pepper. Taste and adjust for acid and salt. The dressing should be somewhat tart so add more red wine vinegar if necessary.
Put the prepared beets in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Whisk the vinaigrette and pour it over the beets. Toss the beets in the dressing and leave at room temperature.
To assemble the salad , trim short watercress sprigs from the bunch and make a fluffy pile on a large platter. Scatter the beets over the watercress leaves, distributing the vinaigrette here and there. Carefully cut the eggs into quarters and garnish the salad with them. Just before serving, sprinkle the eggs with salt and pepper.
adapted from A Platter of Figs by David Tanis
Note: This is half the original recipe. It served Suzy and I dinner on Wednesday night Neal and I four or five times each after that. It’s still plenty of food. Try making has with fried egg and potato cakes out of the leftovers, it’s delicious.
3 lbs flanken
salt and pepper
olive oil and vegetable oil or lard
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp paprika
¼ cup tomato puree
½ cup dry red wine
4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 large onion, halved
1 bay leaf
a couple of cloves
½ a large thyme spring
Celery root mashed potatoes (BUY THE BOOK!)
Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for several hours, or overnight.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Let the meat come to room temperature and dry it well.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, like a cast iron Dutch Oven or enameled iron pot, brown the beef in your choice of oil. You can add vegetable oil to the olive to lower the smoke point. I didn’t. I browned in straight olive oil. When the meat is well colored on each side, remove from pot and set aside.
Pour off any remained fat and return the pot to the heat. Add butter and flour, stirring well with a wooden spoon to incorporate the flour. Stir in the paprika, tomato and red wine. Slowly add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
Add the onion halves, bay, cloves and thyme. Return the beef to the pot, cover and move to the oven. Cook for about 2 ½ hours or until the meat is quite tender.
Remove the braise from the oven and transfer the meat to a platter. Strain the sauce. Chill it, then degrease it by spooning the fat layer off the top. Taste the sauce and season if necessary. Put the beef back in the pot, pour the sauce over it. If time allows, refrigerate it overnight. To serve, reheat the meat in its sauce. Carve meat into thick slices and serve with potatoes. If necessary, reduce sauce over a brisk flame to thicken it slightly.