A Cut Above
Steak Frites is of course a Belgian institution, arguably the national dish along with Moules Frites. It is certainly a well established Friday night tradition in our household, not every week, but maybe once or twice a month as a treat. Fortuitously our local butchers have a Friday special – two huge steaks for £15 from a choice of Sirloin, Rump, Fillet or our cut of choice – Rib Eye.
My walk home from work takes me straight past the butchers door and it is now almost hard wired into my subconscious to pop in on a Friday to pick up a couple of steaks. It wasn’t until I got home this week that I realised that, dare I say it, I was a little bored of Steak Frites. Yes it is a wondrous dish, but like anything you indulge in too often, the magic wears off. So it was that I turned instead to our regular summer steak alternative – Tagliata di manzo.
My knowledge of Italian is extremely limited, so apologies for errors in translation, but as far as I can make out Tagliata means cut and Manzo means beef and that pretty much sums up the dish. Reduced to basics this recipe is simply a grilled steak, sliced and served with a rocket and Parmesan salad, dressed with lemon juice or vinegar and olive oil. A very simple dish barely necessitating a recipe.
As with most simple dishes the real skill lies in selecting and buying the best quality produce available to you and treating it with the due care and respect it deserves. Get yourself a good dry aged steak and some high quality Parmigiano-Reggiano and the hard work is done before you’ve even picked up a spatula.
The first time I tried this was on a balmy summer evening sat outside The Eagle in Farringdon and it was pretty much the perfect meal. The original Gastro Pub, The Eagle’s praises have been sung loud enough and for long enough (pre-internet!) that there is little more I can add. It is one of those places where there are always at least 3 or 4 things on the menu I would desperately love to try. A pub where placing an order is always tinged by a little sadness in the gluttonous regret of the dishes that got away.
The version of Tagliata I make at home always includes some grilled or fried polenta and a few oven roasted tomatoes to add some substance to the dish. Rocket is fine, but given the choice I like to use a mix of leaves in the salad – I particularly like watercress with beef, but baby spinach, pea shoots, lambs lettuce all add a bit of variety and contrast alongside the rocket
As for the steak itself, I’m not prescriptive in the cut, my only insistence is that it is a good, thick steak. When it comes to steak in general I find it far better to buy one single steak of hefty girth to share between several people rather than mimsy, thin cut individual steaks. A thick cut steak allows you to cook it for long enough to create the sought after charred exterior, whilst still maintaining a rare/medium rare interior. It will also retain it’s heat throughout the resting period.
In Florence, which can give good claim to being the home of Tagliata (possibly with a little British influence?) I am led to believe that the use of a T-Bone or Porterhouse is sine qua non. The version I had at the Eagle that first time featured an offaly, borderline feral Onglet – and I mean that as a compliment. At home I usually use Rib Eye or Bavette but I’ve used Sirloin, Rump and even Picanha to good effect. Use what you like, but the thicker the better and if you can get dry aged beef your are on to a winner.
A final note, I treat the cooked steak in a similar manner to the one described by Our Lady Nigella here. A soothing post-coital bath for the freshly cooked steak which serves double duty as the dressing for the finished dish. With the amalgamation of the resting juices from the steak it sets off the dish a treat and livens up the somewhat frumpy polenta no end.
Happy Steak Night!
Cooking time: 2 hours
Serves: 2-3 portions
2 x 400g Rib Eye Steaks (or equivalent cut)
120g Rocket and/or mixed salad leaves
125g Quick cook polenta (I use Polenta valsugana)
550ml Chicken stock or water
14 Cherry or baby plum tomatoes
15g Unsalted butter
2 Garlic cloves
1 Tsp Chilli flakes
1 Tsp Fennel seeds
2 Tsp Dried oregano
3 or 4 Sprigs of rosemary or thyme (or a mix of the two)
6 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp Olive oil
1 Tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the polenta part 1:
Start by making your polenta a good 2 hours before you want to eat. It needs time to rest, cool and chill before being grilled or fried for the finished dish.
In a suitably sized saucepan heat 600ml of chicken stock, water will suffice if you don’t have stock. Once at brisk simmer pour in your polenta in a thin, continuous stream, whisking constantly to eliminate lumps. Cook for around 6 mins at a gentle simmer, stirring regularly before adding 50g of finely grated Parmesan, 15g of unsalted butter and a little ground pepper. Cook and stir briskly for a further 2 mins.
Taste and season accordingly, it may well not need any salt at all so do taste first.
Pour into a cling film lined dish – I use a loaf tin. Whatever you use you want the polenta to have a minimum depth of around an inch. Leave to one side to cool for around 45 mins then refrigerate for an hour to set.
After an hour lift the set polenta from the dish using the cling film. Place on a board and cut into whatever shape you desire. I normally go for something resembling giant chunky chips, about 1.5 inches across by 5 inches long, and allocate two or three of these per person depending on appetite. Set the sliced polenta to one side.
For the tomatoes:
Preheat your oven to 200°C.
Add 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil to an oven proof dish along with 1 Tsp dried oregano and a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Roll the tomatoes in this mixture and roast for 10-15 mins. You want them to maintain their structural integrity, but starting to soften and collapse in on themselves a little.
Remove from the oven and set aside to come to room temperature.
For the steak:
Remove your steaks from the fridge and any packaging 30 mins before you want to cook them.
If you can BBQ your steaks great, grill them to your liking.
If like me you live in a climate where a BBQ is but a fanciful dream a heavy duty ridged griddle pan will have to do. Heat it as hot as you dare, turn on your extractor fan and open the windows. Season your steaks liberally with salt, and griddle over a blast furnace heat until cooked till your liking. I tend to flip every minute or so for around 4-5 mins for a rare 400g Rib Eye, and this dish really does need to be served rare. If you are unsure about how well done your steak is, apply the finger test.
Whilst your steaks are cooking gently heat 4 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add a couple of whole slightly crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tsp chilli flakes, 1 Tsp fennel seeds, 3 or 4 sprigs of rosemary or thyme and a few slivers of lemon zest. You want these flavours to gently infuse rather than fry.
Remove from the heat, leave to cool a little and sieve into a dish large enough to hold the steaks in a single layer, add the juice of the lemon and 1 Tsp of dried oregano.
Place the cooked steaks to steep in this piquant marinade, they will leach their flavoursome resting juices into the dressing. Cover in foil and rest (turning once) for a minimum of 5, preferably 8-10 mins to relax and become one with the world.
Remove the steak from it’s bath and slice thickly against the grain. Whisk 1 Tsp of Dijon Mustard into the reserved marinade/dressing to emulsify along with any resting juices from the roasted tomatoes.
For the polenta part 2:
Whilst the steaks are resting you can either griddle or fry your sliced polenta. There is no doubt griddled polenta looks way cooler and more instagramable…yay sexy grill marks! It is also a complete pain. Unless your griddle is super clean and hot and you time your flipping to perfection you risk your polenta sticking to the griddle. I have come to the conclusion I can’t be bothered with it, and prefer the crunchy exterior texture of fried polenta anyway, but the choice is yours.
For fried polenta you just need to heat a couple of Tbsp of regular olive oil over a medium/low heat until it reaches temperature. Add your polenta slices and fry for a minute or two on each side until nicely golden, try not to fiddle with them, they can be delicate souls.
Time to plate up!
For each plate:
Add a bed of your chosen salad leaves and scatter some roasted tomatoes in and around the leaves.
Place 2 (or 3) chunky polenta chips and the sliced steak around the plate as artistically or ruggedly as you desire.
Spoon over some of the reserved marinade/dressing – less is more in my opinion, with the remainder being left in a jug on the table for people to serve themselves.
Shave some of the remaining Parmesan over the plate and a little more in a bowl to the side so again, people can add more as they wish.
Finish with a little freshly ground black pepper. I also like to add just a few smoked salt crystals to the exposed cut side of the steak, but then I’m pretentious so I would!
Get stuck in!