A Pearl of a Steak: A Gastronomical Winter’s Tale

It began with a text message from a close friend who had just taken a job at a new butcher shop in the West Village.  We plotted a “Monday night meat feast” featuring some star elements from her new store.  There was a long weekend’s worth of work to get through first but the scarlet crown of Monday night’s approach was something to look forward to.  As a private brunch caterer, Sundays are often the busiest days, but the sun went down at the end of the day like it always does and I sank into sweet dreams of steak.  While I slept, however, the weather took a turn for the worse; snow fell all night and all morning and come evening, no one had the energy to come together for a feast of any kind.  We were too intent on staying warm and dry and shaking off the grumpy feelings of too much Monday snow after a balmy winter Sunday that we all believed foretold the end of the season.  Ian and I instead scrounged up some ingredients and made a sultry pot of chana saag to serve with rice.  A remarkably easy and satisfying dish, all its contents were already milling around our pantry and it filled the house with aromas of fresh ginger and curry.  There would be no need to leave the house at all that night.  We cracked open one of the bottles of wine we’d bought for the meat feast and settled onto the couch to take in the warmth of the food and the wine and to lose ourselves in a film starring Meryl Streep.

Tuesday morning rolled in like a snow plough, icy and dim with the early warm light of streetlamps reflecting off white ground.  I was up before the sun for an opening shift at the BKLYN Larder, the cheese and provisions shop I’ve been working at for the last ten months.  The opening shifts are a blessing and a curse because although you’re in the store by 7am, you’re also out by 4, and you still have a free evening ahead of you.  The minutiae of the morning shift unfolded as usual: the bread display was stacked and the cheeses were unwrapped and coddled and scraped and wrapped again, then stacked into a display of their own.  Yesterday was organized by milk type, today by region of origin.  A change of scenery keeps us interested.  Time couldn’t seem to move quickly enough.  By some miracle of utmost determination, I managed to stay awake through the whole shift and take off promptly at four with a crusty loaf of bread under my arm.  I received another text from Galen: “I got a bone-in dry-aged rib-eye — all those hyphens spell LUXURY.”  I probably drooled on myself on the Subway platform.  Galen told me also to bring a sharp knife since hers are less than stellar.  I responded enthusiastically, reveling in the chance to show off the newest addition to my knife rack: an 8” full-tang carbon steel and reclaimed pecan wood chef’s knife that feels like a dream in your hand and wields like an Elven sword.  I slipped it into its sheath and Ian placed it in the tote bag alongside the bread and the wine.  We’re ready to go.

My boots are cracked in places and slush is seeping into my socks.  Ian and I are ravenous, despite desperately snacking on leftover pasta in the moments before departing.  Grated beets in a sage brown butter sauce tossed with penne rigate, toasted pistachios and pecorino ginepro.  I almost felt guilty indulging in such a divine snack before the feast to which we were about to trek.  We walked to the train in near silence behind a man smoking a pungent Black & Mild.  I began rambling about something I can’t remember and Ian issued sweet, conciliatory nods, half-listening and half lost in though about what I can only assume was a 15th century Italian painting by Filippino Lippi.  He told me about it on the train and showed me an image or two he’d saved on his phone, and suddenly we were at our stop.  We glanced at a map before we exited with Ian leading the way.  I told him that I was positive we should walk to the right when he believed we go left.  In a moment severely indicative of our relationship as a whole, he conceded to follow me until I realized I was wrong, after which we turned around and went back the way he knew was right the whole time.  I made a sheepish statement about my lack of direction and maybe fell a little bit more in love.

Galen’s apartment is at the top of a three-story building in Bushwick.  The stripped paint and loose boards in the stairway belie her inherent glamour, but the dim, cozy light and warm, warped wood provide the perfect landscape for her house of bones.  We walked through the threshold into a warm hovel thick with the smell of fresh garlic and thyme.  We passed by the complete reconstructed skeleton of a rat neatly arranged on a tabletop and tossed our coats onto a simple craft chair adorned with the scapulae of what Galen told us are probably deer, since “they’re not quite big enough to be bovine.”  Galen had just had the sides of her hair freshly shaved and was sporting luscious copper curls on top.  We followed her into the kitchen and met her roommate Halley, furiously chopping garlic by the stove.  Galen told us we were off to a bit of a late start but we can really get going now that the sous chefs have arrived.  I’m honored to be a sous in her kitchen.

With each of us equipped with a glass of rye on the rocks we set out to pull together the menu.  Galen’s 28 day dry-aged steak was coming to room temperature on the counter, seeping in the flavors of the crushed Maldon salt flakes, cracked black pepper, chopped garlic and fresh thyme.  I started coarsely chopping parsley, cilantro, and mint for a refreshing herb salad inspired by chef Yotam Ottolenghi.: assorted fresh herbs and arugula comingle with olive oil lightly infused with flash-fried sage and cracked black pepper.  We set the salad aside while the marrow bones, rubbed in grey fleur de sel, were slid into the oven to roast, whole heads of garlic softening at their side.  We sipped our whiskey and moved onto our first wine, an unctuous, full-bodied Nero D’Avola, while we chatted about our lives and what we think they’re missing.  Our behemoth steak loomed to the side, daring us to forget about it.

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We heated the cast iron skillet, scraped the garlic and herbs off the top of the steak, pressed it in to place.  A centimeter larger and it wouldn’t even have fit.  After a three-minute sear on one side, we flipped it and seared it again, and then slipped it into a hot oven to finish.  We tossed the herb scrapings into the pan to crisp up in the beautifully rendered fat.  The palpable excitement in the air held us for the next few minutes before the steak came out to rest, a thing of pure beauty.  The roasted garlic and bones followed, and we tore into the hot bread, slathering it in buttery marrow and squishing the soft, sweet cloves on top.  More Maldon and cracked pepper.   A sip of red wine.  We’d just arrived on a new plane of culinary indulgence and it was still only the first course.

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Our huddle pulled back and the bones were now dry and the garlic only husks; the overhead lights were turned off as the remainder of our meal was to be lit only by candlelight.  A Latin melody wailed from the speakers in the living room.  Our steak was ready.  Galen unsheathed the steel blade and made a firm but delicate incision against the grain of the meat.  A ribbon of scarlet flesh fell aside on the butcher block.  Another draw of the knife yielded another ribbon of red.  As if by magic, more wine filled our glasses and our own blood ran warm with the alcohol and the anticipation.  We rubbed the fat-fried garlic and thyme into the delicate bands and Galen and I shared a surreptitious bite while Ian and Halley had their backs turned; a mutinous but necessary act.  A subtle moan of pleasure snuck from Galen’s lips and gave us away.  Ian and Halley rushed over to the stove and one glance shared between the four of us confirmed that dinner was ready.  Hand over hand the strips of meat leapt off the block.  The plates remained in a stack by the sink, ignored in favor of the sheer carnality of hovering around a pile meat and shoveling it into our mouths with our hands.  One particularly rare mouthful sent a trickle of blood red juice down the contours of my neck.  We sank to the floor and continued with our feast, any notion of forks and plates, or tables and chairs lost to the absolute power of this steak.  We opened the second bottle of wine, a slightly spicier Spanish red, and took grand gulps in between bites.  The salad we prepared earlier we ate in pinches from the bowl, providing an herbaceous cleanse that kept every bite tasting as savory and satisfying as the first.  We scraped bread across the juice that clung to the cutting board.  We gnawed at the bones until we were convinced there was nothing left to savor.

Lying on the floor in the clunky heap of my own human body, bones and flesh and skin arranged ever so neatly and ever so alive, I said to Galen, “this is the meal to which all future meals will be compared.”  Tipsy wine glasses littered the floor and a luscious Japanese milk chocolate candy was taken from the fridge for our dessert.  We pecked at fresh berries and sipped Cynar on the rocks, hoping the ambrosial artichoke digestif would revive us.  I recalled a quote from Jeanette Winterson’s preface to the novel Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes about the effect that the novel could leave on a person, and this meal was exactly the same:

“it [was] like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass.  You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work.  From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.” 

            I looked to the contented and contemplative faces of the friends I had gathered with, swirled the dark elixir around in my green crystal glass and downed the rest of it in one gulp.  Pearl-lined, indeed.


2 thoughts on “A Pearl of a Steak: A Gastronomical Winter’s Tale

  1. This was a treat and SUCH a tease to read!!! I want red meat blood dribbling down my chin…This is so you. I see you eating. I wish I could be there. I would have brought wine and chocolate. I love you.

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