Last night I found myself covered in a stench that I have not smelled in a very long time—a rather unsavory combination of cooked oil and pan smoke. I was making Steak au Poivre. If you have ever worked in a restaurant, than you know what I am talking about. That aroma of oil and food that lingers with you hours after you have completed your shift and left the restaurant.
The man who told us all the “nasty bits” about the restaurant biz, Anthony Bourdain, actually talks about the “stink” of Poivre in his Les Halles Cookbook. He describes how Poivre used to be cooked at many restaurants, tableside, as standard fair. Apparently, one of his friends would order the dish just so that everyone in the dining room would go home smelling like his dinner.
The recipe I used for my Poivre was from Bourdain’s cookbook with a few parts of Julia Childs’ thrown in there, as well. If you would believe it, “the bad boy of culinary” and Julia have a lot in common—they both have similar takes on French cooking, they are passionate about food, and are very opinionated about how cooking needs to be done. I had made up my mind—I would spend my evening with Bourdain, Julia, a bottle of wine, and my Poivre.
Traditional Steak au Poivre is usually made with sirloin or something comparable. I opted for a filet—I figured if the sauce didn’t turn out, I would be left with a peppercorn encrusted filet, which is never a bad idea. And, thank God I did, because my sauce turned out pretty awful. The dish requires you to pepper and sear the meat on all sides and then transfer it from stove top to oven, cook the meat until your desired temperature, remove the meat, and, finally, use the pan oil and juices to finish up the sauce. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.
I added the cognac just as Bourdain suggested—carefully. I added the butter just as Julia suggested—slowly. Needless to say, I was surprised when the butter and pan juices kept separating even though I reduced the cognac and whisked the butter the way I was supposed to. And then I saw Bourdain’s note at the bottom of his recipe in bold, black print—“NOTE ON SEARING: With any recipe that calls for searing meat and then using the pan to make sauce, be careful to avoid blackening the pan; your sauce will taste burnt…” It basically goes on to say, be careful or you will ruin your sauce. And that is exactly what I did. The separation was the burned bits coming away from the browned butter. So, my “Poivre” was just a peppercorn filet and it was very delicious—it just wasn’t Poivre. I served it with my homemade au gratin potatoes, that are pretty much full-proof since I have made them so many times. Consequently, my meal was not a complete flop.
Although, I am not a trained chef, I do think of myself as a good cook—one who is able to make a recipe easily, improvise if I need to, and create new dishes on my own. Yet, in something as simple as making a sauce, I somehow managed to completely screw-up. What I did learn through my Poivre failure is that the foundation of cooking is truly rooted in experimentation. The formula is pretty simple—good cooking is based on trial and error—success and failure. It is very much like most things in life. And, more than likely, I will try the Poivre again—maybe several times more—and, eventually, I will get it right. Details: www.amazon.com for Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking.