Bistecca di Sienna

A great number of years ago, my wife (at the time) and I spent a couple of weeks wandering around Italy.  During our travels, we spent a lovely afternoon in Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, and had lunch at a place that looked out at the town square.

Lunch was, quite literally, one of the more fantastic meals I’ve had in my life, and was the seminal moment that got me really thinking about food – I mean, I’d enjoyed food up to that point, and could follow a recipe, but I’d never really sat down and thought about it – the flavor combinations, the textural combinations, and almost more importantly, how seemingly non-compatible things can go into something that becomes much, much more than the sum of it’s parts.

When I returned from Italy, I returned back to day-to-day life, and shelved all but the memory of that meal.  But, I could still vividly remember the flavors and the look, and how it made my belly so, so, very happy.  Eventually, I realized that if I was ever going to have that again, I’d just have to make it up from those memories.

Shopping list:

  • A decent (but not expensive) balsamic vinegar
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Enough 8-10 ounce New York Strip (or equivalent) steaks for everyone.
  • A bag of arugula – remember that they’re served on a bed
  • A wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese.
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Chives (optional)

Start out with a simple balsamic vinaigrette: 1 cup of olive oil to 1/3 cup of a decent balsamic vinegar.  Put the vinegar in the bowl along with some chives and a couple cloves of smooshed garlic, drizzle the oil in slowly, while whisking vigorously to make a homogenous blend.  Now, the vinegar doesn’t have to be super-fancy, but it can’t be garbage either.  My recommendation is to find a bottle with the imprimatur of the Modena Balsamic consortium and run with it, but if you already have one that you like, that’s okay too.  Divide off about 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette for plating.

Next, a couple of decent steaks – nothing too fancy, but I’ve found that a New York Strip works best.  A tough piece of meat is too much, but on the other hand, a filet is just going to fall apart, and/or lose it’s beefiness.  Perforate the steaks a few times with a fork, and into a Ziploc bag it goes, followed by that lovely Earth balsamic emulsion.  Bag-O-Steak goes into the fridge, and gets flipped and fondled every half an hour or so.  I figure the minimum marinating time is an hour, but two hours is right about perfect – I don’t want the muscle tissue to get broken down, I just want the flavors to get into the steaks.

-as a side note, right about now is a great time for a nice Chianti, and maybe a caprese Salad or some bruschetta.  I’m not a huge fan of fava beans, and I almost never eat liver.

Once the meat is ready, though, it’s go time.  Get a large skillet and set the stove somewhere around medium high.  Pan-searing and caramelizing the balsamic is definitely the name of the game here.  It’s all about bringing out the sweet qualities of the vinegar, and infusing that rich beef flavor with it.  Along with the steaks, I generally add about half the marinade to cook for good measure, to make sure that that’s going to happen.

When the steaks are nice and seared on the outside, but barely warm in the middle, they come off for plating.  Serve them on a bed of arugula, and drizzle some of the vinaigrette over everything.  Then top them off with a couple of Pecorino Romano cheese shavings.

Sounds weird, I know, but the sharpness of the arugula, the sweetness of the steak, and the earthiness of the goat-milk cheese all come together in a way that, well, just needs to be experienced.