Oh, my WORD, y’all, this one made me so CRANKY! I had been looking forward to this one so much, after the Munsters-ish last menu, and yet….
THE MENU: Tart Apple Bistro Salad, Hanger Steak with Caramelized Shallots, Oven-Baked Shoe String Fries, Caramel Pudding
Suggested order: Make custard and refrigerate; marinate steak and caramelize shallots; cook steak while cutting potatoes into matchsticks (ok, Martha, are they shoe strings or matchsticks?!); make vinaigrette and assemble salad while steak rests.
The salad: The recipe calls for romaine, frisée, half of a tart green apple, chives and fresh parsley. I went to two stores and neither had frisée, not even in a mix. Did something happen to the frisée crop this year? Should we be alarmed? I just doubled up on the romaine, and added extra chives. The dressing calls for olive oil, champagne vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey and coarse salt. I substituted white balsamic vinegar for the champagne vinegar because I had it on hand.
The results: As you can see, the salad is very green. All green, in fact. My husband sat down and asked what it was, thinking I had set out a bowl of lettuce and called it a salad. Honestly, would Martha ever do such a thing? As it happens the salad could have used the frisée to add a bit of bitterness. Also, I think that once you add an apple to a salad you should be legally bound to add bleu cheese and maybe pecans. The salad could have used something else for texture—a nut, a crouton, etc. The dressing was excellent. I was worried that it was be too sweet but it was perfectly balanced. (Full disclosure: Ms. Stewart’s Caesar salad recipe is my favorite. She knows her salads, if nothing else).
The steak and shallots: The instructions say to cut 5 shallots in half, brown them in olive oil, and cook them over low heat until caramelized. Easy peasy, except expecting anything to happen on my stove while the burner is on low is a misguided effort. This issue came up last week in thickening the soup. I live in Reality Appliance Land (albeit on the wrong side of the tracks), while she’s probably cooking on her Viking. Naturally I cranked up my ghetto-rific electric burner and all was fine.
I’ve had hanger steak a few times in restaurants, but never cooked it at home. The butcher shop seemed to be the only store to carry it. That’s fine because that means it’s locally raised, free range meat. I have a huge inner battle going on about eating meat—I try to be a pescatarian, but then I crave meat and so I eat a little, and then I feel guilty. I love cows. They are so cute, with those big brown eyes. Off-topic anecdote alert: We recently watched a cow eye dissection at the science museum (I know!) and a mother in the audience—one of those artsy, hip moms, with close-cropped hair and funky earrings—asked if cows ever have eyes that are blue or green. I’m sorry, but we live in Virginia, not NYC, have you really never seen a cow in person? Get thee to the bovine birthing barn at the next state fair, lady!
Anyway, the hanger steak I got was in several pieces, not one long, loin-ish piece as MS seemed to require (she specified 1 ½ lbs, in a piece approximately 10” x 3”). They went into a marinade of Chianti vinegar (which was supposed to be sherry vinegar), Dijon mustard, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and olive oil for about 30-40 minutes (had called for 20, but we were running behind with the other menu items). Then they were cooked in a skillet to medium rare.
The results: The shallots were amazing; why wouldn’t they be? I should have tripled the amount, though.
The instructions said to dry the meat, then season with salt and pepper, heat 2 T of olive oil in the skillet, and add the meat. After a minute or two it became obvious that there was too much oil and liquid in the pan to ever get the meat to brown on the outside, so I had to dump most of the oil out. We did eventually get a seared outer edge, but not as much as is shown in the photograph in the book. The flavor of the “crust” was delicious, but the middle was kind of meh and didn’t have much flavor. I would use the marinade again on a different cut of meat.
The Shoe String Fries: The recipe called for cutting two russet potatoes into shoe strings, tossing them in oil and salt and baking them on a cookie sheet.
The results: We had a technical problem that was entirely our fault. The husband was enlisted to cut the potatoes (did I mention that I had to do everything one-handed as my fingers are still bandaged?) using a mandoline. They turned out uneven in size; the skinny grated ones burned on the pan, while others never cooked. We didn’t have any extra potatoes so we couldn’t start over. We ended up with two hash-brown patty kind of things, and while not exactly pretty, they were delicious. I was so sad to see all the others potatoes go to waste. I love potatoes more than cows, maybe.
The Caramel Pudding: Just typing this fills me with rage.
The book calls this an unbaked version of a crème caramel. You essentially make a pudding/custard (we have already established how I feel about custards), and top it with a caramel sauce when served. There is a sidebar that acknowledges that traditionally caramel is made by cooking the sugar and water together without stirring but washing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush to prevent sugar crystals from forming. The cookbook instructs to heat the sugar in a skillet (?) without stirring until the edges melt and turn clear. Then it’s to be stirred until amber, and taken off the heat. At this point, the water is added in slowly, then it’s cooled. Ha!
The pudding involves dissolving gelatin in a bit of water (ha ha), simmering milk, cream, salt and sugar, mixing half into the eggs and yolks, then adding it back to the cream mixture, adding the gelatin and thickening it a bit. Then it’s put into an ice bath, and stirred until cool. Refrigerate until set, about 30 minutes (ha ha ha).
The results: The first batch of caramel solidified when the water was added. Martha warned that this might happen, and advised to heat it over medium until it re-melted. Well, it never fully melted. I ended up throwing out the caramel lump, and was left with caramel water that tasted burned, despite the golden color. I am getting irritated.
Moving on to the pudding: the first step is to dissolve the gelatin in water, except that there’s not enough water to dissolve it and she doesn’t specify to use warm water, as Julia Child does. My husband has made many of Julia’s gelatinous desserts, such as the blancmange, so luckily he told me the proper way to do this. Of course this didn’t prevent the mixture from becoming like rubber cement by the time I had to add it to the cream mixture. I manage to finish the pudding, and cool it in the ice bath, which is a pain in the ass because I had to remember to make extra ice early in the day. I am getting more irritated by the minute.
While the potatoes were baking and the steak was marinating I attempted a second batch of the sauce. This time, I managed to get the solids to re-melt OR SO I THOUGHT.
When served, this was a disaster. The caramel had gotten more solid and some of it had crystallized, like old honey in a jar. The pudding below the skin hadn’t set, and was soupy. It also had no flavor—it needed some vanilla, at least. I have looked up several other recipes for crème caramel, and all of them say to cook the caramel the traditional way. I made several batches of fleur de sel caramel last month, so I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to this stuff.
If you will recall, the directions said to make the dessert first. By the time I messed up two batches of caramel and dealt with the ice bath, I was getting cranky. Then, after having to dump out the oil in order to cook the meat properly, and messing up the potatoes, I had pretty much decided I hated this meal before I even ate it. Most of it tasted good, though.
It took 2 hours and 15 minutes to make the meal. She must be on crack to think this could be done in an hour. It took 40 minutes just to finish the first round of caramel and the pudding, not including the chill time. By the time we were done eating my cut fingers were throbbing, I was exhausted, and ending up missing Brit-pop night at the local bar. Damn you, Martha!
Salad: B+ This would probably be a A with the frisee or some cheese. The dressing is definitely an A.
Steak and shallots: B+ for the steak; A for the shallots
Potatoes: A for flavor, C for execution
Caramel pudding: D. I gave this a big fat F, but my husband evidently was charmed by its potential and gave it a C-.