Friday, June 11, 2010


I've never been a fan of steakhouses. I eat less red meat than ever before, but I'm certainly not against eating a well-grilled steak. But steakhouses in my experience do a terrible job. It seems to me that they spend all that time looking for quality cuts of meat and completely ignore the rest of the meal. Or they are absurdly dumb in the way they present a steak to their customers. For instance, try Morton's the nationwide chain. They individually wrap their various cuts in plastic wrap and wheel it raw to your table so you can select, a la Denny's, the kind of steak you want. It's about as elevated as a pre-packaged sandwich at your local 7-11.

And don't get me started on side dishes. If you're going to have the chutzpah to charge $40 for a steak, then I think you should do better than to plunk down a massive baked potato with a mess of side condiments on the side. Maybe that potato cost you $1 and the sour cream, bacon bits, chives and butter another $1. And maybe that filet, aside from being the dullest, least flavorful cut imaginable, cost the restaurant $6. What--no green vegetable? Oh yes, those are a la carte and will cost you extra. Are you kidding? Salads are a joke—over-dressed, and lacking any kind of finesse, salads in steakhouses is heavy and ponderous. So once you've plowed your way through a 16-ounce+ steak, and eaten your a la carte sides (there is also the bread basket with mostly bad bread), you're ready for dessert. Cheesecake is very popular at steakhouses or chocolate cake. They are invariably heavy and effortful to eat as well.

This long rant is a preamble to a cookbook I didn't think I would review. But after a dismal and expensive experience recently at Portland's most popular and obscenely expensive steakhouse, I was more than ready for the creative and delicious way that Rick Tramonto addresses the subject in his new book, STEAK WITH FRIENDS: At Home, With Rick Tramonto (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $35.00; ISBN: 978-0-7407-9257-1) with Mary Goodbody. Here's a corrective spit in the eye to mediocre steakhouses everywhere.

Tramonto enjoys a national reputation for his high-profile Chicago-based restaurants: Tru, Tramonto's Steak and Seafood, RT Sushi Bar and Lounge, is the recipient of numerous James Beard Awards, among many others. In this lavishly photographed cookbook, Tramonto provides clear and precise steps for preparing the perfect steak. Most of steak recipes here are for the outdoor grill, but he also offers his interpretations of classic steak house preparations such as Beef Wellington, Steak Diane, Steak au Poivre, and Filet Oscar. STEAK WITH FRIENDS keeps steak front and center, but there are other alternatives big in flavor and presentation: Grilled Pork Chops with Mushroom-Sausage Stuffing, Stuffed Leg of Lamb with Grilled Ramp Pesto, Grilled Chicken with Roasted Squash Salad, Cedar-Plank Salmon with Mustard and Maple and Grilled Shrimp with Garlic and Ginger.

For me the book is most interesting when it explores creative and delicious side dishes, and embellishments such as toppers, rubs and glazes (flavored butters, crusts, herb and dry spice rubs, fois gras, and bone marrow) as well as sauces, dressings, and marinades that avoid the typical overkill of the steakhouse. Salsa Verde, Creole Rémoulade, Mornay Sauce, Mignonette, Spicy Soy Marinade, and Lemon Aioli are just a small sample offered here.

Rick Tramonto's side dishes are gloriously in-yer-face big statements that match meat. Bread Pudding with Gruyère and Shitake Mushrooms, Twice-Baked Potatoes with Irish Cheddar and Truffled Mac and Cheese made me pause just before reaching for my cholesterol medications. But who could resist these brawny, yet refined sides? Turning a bit healthier, I can't wait to try Grilled Broccoli Rabe, or Roasted Beets with Charred Fennel and Orange or Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts (made naughty with pancetta and an optional Bérnaise Sauce).

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Irish Cheddar

I have always found these to be crowd pleasers, whether I am making dinner for a group of friends or for Eileen and our three

boys. The potatoes are terrific alongside grilled steak or any other meat, and they can be prepared up to a day ahead of time and refrigerated before the second baking. I like Irish Cheddar with them, but any other Cheddar would be delicious, or even feta or goat cheese. Have fun with it! Serves 4

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Irish Cheddar
4 large russet potatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
¾ cup half-and-half
½ cup sour cream, plus additional for serving
1½ cups shredded Irish Cheddar cheese or your favorite Cheddar
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon chopped chives

Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Scrub the potatoes under cold, running water, pat dry, and rub with the olive oil. Pierce several times with a fork and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, or until fork-tender. The potatoes may need a little more time, depending on their size. Remove the potatoes from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 375°F.
Let the potatoes cool until just cool enough to handle. Cut them lengthwise in half, taking care to keep the skins intact. Scoop the flesh from the skins and reserve the shells.
Force the potato flesh through the medium disk of a food mill or a ricer into a bowl. Add the half-and-half, sour cream, 1 cup of the Cheddar, the scallions, and melted butter and mix gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon or pipe the potato mixture into the empty potato skin shells. Top with the remaining ½ cup Cheddar and the Parmesan. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet. (At this point, the potatoes can be loosely covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
Bake the potatoes for 35 to 40 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Top each potato half with a tablespoon of sour cream and sprinkle with chives. Serve immediately.

—From Steak with Friends: At Home, with Rick Tramonto by Rick Tramonto with Mary Goodbody/Andrews McMeel Publishing

There are plenty of good starters, both hot and cold, soups, big sandwiches and salads that won't deaden the appetite, and if you've got anything left in the tank after one of these repasts, you can always go for broke with Vertical Banana Splits, Killer Chocolate Pudding, Lemon Meringue Tart, my personal favorite--Pumpkin Cheesecake with Ameretti Crust and Pepitas.

The book is also packed with lots of good advice on wines, cocktails, and other inside-chefy stuff that will make you a better cook, such as the best advice I've ever read about how to select and properly grill the perfect steak (a valuable chart for rare, medium, and medium well steaks that are thick, thicker and thickest).

The steakhouse experience should be a festive one. So instead subjecting yourself to a credit card meltdown at a cynical and arrogant meat emporium with indifferently prepared food, grab a copy of STEAK WITH FRIENDS, set a date, and grill your guests into a blissful state of steak nirvana.

Bread Pudding with Gruyère and Shiitake Mushrooms

I like to surprise my friends with savory bread puddings; most people expect bread pudding to be sweet and so this is a conversation starter. Essentially it is just another form of bread stuffing or dressing and is therefore a great way to use leftover brioche or any good, rustic bread. Have fun with the ingredients—you can add sausage or bacon to the pudding or use different herbs and other kinds of mushrooms. Let your imagination run wild! Serves 12

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced
2 large leeks, white and some green parts, trimmed and chopped (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup white wine
12 slices brioche bread, about ½ inch thick, torn into rough 1-inch pieces
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons sherry, Madeira, brandy, or Cognac
5 large eggs

Butter an 8-inch square baking pan with 3 tablespoons of the butter.

In a large sauté pan, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. When melted, add the mushrooms and leeks and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened. Stir in the garlic and thyme and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add the wine and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until nearly all the liquid evaporates.

Transfer to a large mixing bowl, add the bread, ½ cup of Gruyère, and ½ cup of Parmesan, and toss well. Transfer to the prepared baking pan.

In a small bowl, stir the half-and-half with the sherry. Add the eggs and whisk well. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the bread. With the back of a spoon or spatula, press gently on the bread to insure that it is completely submerged. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Top the bread pudding with the remaining ½ cup Gruyère and ½ cup Parmesan, spreading the cheese evenly. Cover loosely with foil and bake for about 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for 20 minutes longer, or until the pudding is golden brown. Let the pudding cool for a few minutes before cutting into 2-inch squares for serving.
Steak with Friends: At Home, with Rick Tramonto
by Rick Tramonto with Mary Goodbody/Andrews McMeel Publishing

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