This is probably not news to anyone, but I am terrible at being a dude. I have no desire to watch any kind of sports, and the last video game I played was years ago, and involved 8-bit graphics and The Konami Code. I’m not particularly interested in porn, my inclination to look at, repair, or trouble-shoot engines is almost non-existent, and if given the option, I would rather work indoors, doing something that did not involve manual labor. I realize that these are merely stereotypes in the first place, and that on the whole I shouldn’t be too concerned about any of this. But one of my great, secret shames in life has always been that I have never been much of a griller and do not default to “steak” as my first choice for dinner. Even worse, I have never developed a secret marinade that I pin my pride and manhood upon.
So it goes. I hear that I’m charming, can string together complete sentences when I want to, and occasionally make jokes that other people laugh at. For some reason, no one has been impressed by my comprehensive knowledge of Green Lantern, though.
So, the other day I decided to take a stab at skirt steak, which for some reason sounds way dirtier than it actually is. I decided to include with the meal a baked sweet potatoe because I will make any excuse in the world to eat sweet potatoe. (Hey, look! It’s thursday! Better have a sweet potatoe!) And, to round things out – and to give my trips to the bathroom that very special aroma – I went with asparagus as a side.
This was the first time since I’ve decided to actually learn a bit about cooking that I made a series of completely avoidable mistakes. While I have never been “good” at cooking (no matter how liberal I become with my definition of the word), I screwed up in a few ways that I am even embarrassed to admit. When I was looking at the marinade recipe, I completely missed the part that said, “Let it sit for two hours,” even though my girlfriend had said as much to me in person when I asked her about the same thing. This put my dinner two hours behind schedule when I finally got around to making it. In spite of making a quick sandwich to stave off the hunger that was rapidly setting in, that two hours passed as quickly as it does when you are in High School detention. The lesson learned here is that even if you think you are listening, you probably should pay even closer attention to what your girlfriend is saying to you at all times. (With the sub-lesson that, much like when you are cooking with a crockpot, when you are marinading steak you should start earlier than you think you should.)
I baked the potatoe in much the same way many others do: I wrapped in in tin foil, pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees, and threw it in for about an hour. The potatoe came out great. For the asparagus, I cooked them in a pan using grapeseed oil, and put a little salt & pepper on them before eating. I have a terrible time gauging when things are done, and my only criticism here was that I could have cooked them a bit longer. They were particularly thick pieces of asparagus, and clearly needed more time to cook through entirely.
For the marinade, I used many of the usual ingredients that dads have been telling their sons & daughters to use for generations: soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, garlic salt, olive oil and mustard. I am quite curious as to what other people use for their marinades, as I can see that this part of the cooking process to really be experimental. When I was a kid, I was all about eating meat with steak sauce or ketchup, so the idea that you could marinade a steak and then eat it to enjoy these flavors that had soaked in seems very magical to me, and I’ll be curious to try out other ideas. I could see an entire buffet of different sauces to fit other occasions, and I’ll be curious to dive in to the kitchen lab to see how these turn out once I have more ideas.
Due to the two-hour delay in dinner and the three fingers of whiskey I had consumed, I not only managed to fill the entire house with smoke, but cut myself – twice – while trying to sear the first piece of steak. (It’s a special skill that I do not recommend you try to develop.) In my idiocy, I did not cut the steak into pan-sized pieces before I marinaded them, and in trying to cut them up, managed to nick myself on the nuckle. No real bleeding, but it was enough to distract me. (I also cut the inside of my wrist on the door latch when trying to dispose of some garbage, too.) The lesson learned here is: no matter how much you think you’ve planned ahead, you should probably plan ahead a little more. Cooking is like becoming a serial killer: you want to make sure you cover ALL the bases before shit gets serious.
So I threw the first cut of meat into a completely dry pan that I had made as hot as the surface of the sun. During my faulty “steak-research,” I had stumbled upon a page that said, “You want to sear your meat in a very hot, dry pan.” In spite of my instinct to get a few different recommendations and split the differences, I decided to go with this one idea instead. Many of you are laughing at me right now, as you are able to envision my dropping the steak in the pan, turning to throw away the piece of plastic I had in my hand, cutting the inside of my wrist on the door latch for the garbage, turning away in pain, and then turning back to see smoke billowing into my face from my stove. It was complete chaos. I picked up the steak with tongs and turned it over, thinking that this was somehow normal, but a few seconds later, not only was the smoke even thicker, but I was having trouble seeing. I quickly managed to retrieve a plate, pulled the steak out of the pan, and turned off the stove. By then, the damage had been done: most of the apartment was completely filled with smoke, my hand was cut up, and the cat was completely baffled as to what was going on, and chose that moment to start meowing with a certain kind of fervency that could only be the cat equivalent of saying, “Uhm, I think something is seriously wrong, dude.”
The lesson learned here is that you should never cook anything on the highest temperature possible in a dry pan. (And, as a sub-lesson: don’t go with the first solution you find, no matter how sure the page says it might be.)
At this point, I needed to take a break and regroup. I opened every window, both doors, and turned on the fans, in spite of the fact that I was cold and the sun had already set. As I was using magazines to wave the smoke out, the cat kept following me around, as if to punctuate every flailing movement with the comment, “No, really, what the fuck were you thinking? I’d like to know.” I returned to my research, and found a few other sites that recommended cooking skirt steaks in a pan with a light amount of oil in it, and at a much lower temperature. I wrapped up my wounds, went back into the kitchen, cleaned up what I could of the ridiculous mess I had made, and assessed how bad the damage was.
As you can probably see in the picture above, there are a few spots on the steak that were, ahem, “blackened.” (Cajun style!) But the cut of meat did not look too bad on the whole. I put it in the dramatically-cooler, better prepared pan and finished cooking both sides. It was slightly pink on the inside, which seemed to me a safe sign that it wasn’t a total loss. I added some butter and cinnamon to my sweet potatoe, and cautiously sat down to try my dinner. To my complete delight, it wasn’t actually that bad. While there were a couple of bites that were a little more Well Done than I would have liked, the meal was not ruined, and was actually pretty tasty, in spite of my wounds and overwhelmed-by-smoke senses of smell and taste.
To make sure I wasn’t crazy, I cooked another piece of the steak using this revised, much more sane method, and while everything in the house still smelled and tasted smokey, the steak came out pretty good. I had this confirmed by my girlfriend, and while she didn’t seem to be thrilled that I had potentially ruined one of her pans, or that the house smelled like there had been a disastrous fire, she did say that the steak was pretty good. (Though, I think the trade off of offering her a piece of tasty steak still didn’t win out when I had to explain why my had was bandaged twice, the house smelled awful, and I kept hinting at needing to find a new pan.)
But: delicious steak! I can’t say it was a total failure, right?