I won’t lie to you — I like steak. To be specific, I like pan-seared steak. It’s the roar of the hood fan as it comes up to speed; the exhilaration and anticipation of the pop, crackle, and sizzle of red meat on a hot pan; and the wisps of white smoke curling around the steak’s edges, like a passionate embrace that gently kisses the bits of ground black peppercorn and fat. And, as always, the resulting taste of the brown butter against the crispy-edged meat. This kind of carnivorous zeal should be illegal.
Something as simple as pan-seared steak doesn’t need much adornment — think of a classic Steak Diane, an Au Poivre, or one topped with a sauce Bearnaise or a simple compound butter. If you are anything like me, a mess of caramelized onions is about as good as it gets.
Nevertheless, I am always looking to improve on a good thing. And, as always, I am surprised at some of the places where you can discover improvement. Like when I sat down to a table at a mom-and-pop joint, a Cuban restaurant called El Siboney, while visiting Key West not long ago. I ordered something I normally wouldn’t when eating at a Cuban restaurant: a steak.
It must have been fate. To make a long story short, after devouring the sizzling hot skirt steak marinated in mojo and speckled with bits of onion tossed with parsley, I vowed to learn this steak’s secrets. As with most things Floribbean, when I can’t figure it out myself, I defer to one chef: Norman Van Aken. I cracked open one of his many cookbooks, New World Kitchen, and went directly to his recipe for Bistec de Palomillo. Just as I figured, the answers to my questions were there on the pages laid out before me.
Not one to leave well enough alone, I contacted Chef Van Aken. The answers begged more questions: What was the difference between Bistec de Palomillo and Bistec Encebollado? It turns out the first uses sirloin that is pounded thin, and the other uses skirt steak. As all great chefs do, he had some updates for those willing to stray from tradition, like using a chipotle vinegar in his mojo, and topping with cebollas fritas (fried egg-battered onions).
For my purposes here — at least for today — I am sticking to tradition: to the taste of quickly seared minced red onion and the mystery of a good mojo that rings true to what I tasted in Key West. For the latter, I already know that there is none better than Chef Van Akens’ Classic Sour Orange Mojo.
Five tips for better pan searing:
1. Use the right skillet. I personally like cast iron, but I also know that any heavy-bottomed pan — like stainless steel — will suffice. You need something that will distribute the heat evenly.
2. Make sure the pan is hot enough, but not too hot. I can’t stress this enough — practice makes perfect. To me the ideal temperature is just before the oil starts to smoke. If I drop something into the oiled pan and it sizzles immediately (with vigor but not violently), then I am ready to sear my steak.
3. I always — even if I am going to marinate — salt and then air dry my steaks, chicken breasts, or pork chops in the refrigerator for at least 2 to 4 hours, and most of the time overnight. Drying out the surface in this manner will allow for good caramelization that merely patting dry never will.
4. Butter and beef are great together. If you clarify butter, it is a great fat for searing. If you can’t be bothered, use a high-heat oil, like grapeseed. Toward the end of the sear, add a couple of teaspoons of butter and baste the steak with the butter-oil mixture. Be careful not to let the butter burn.
5. Even though you are pan-searing, it is very important to let the cooked steak rest, just as if you were grilling. For me, I like the fact that a steak needs a rest because it gives me time to wrap up and get the side dishes to the table. Look at the rest time as a positive, not a bother.
Cuban Style Skirt Steak ( serves 4 )
For the mojo:
6 garlic cloves
1 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 to 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup equal parts lime and orange juice (or 1/3 cup sour orange juice)
1 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the steak:
1 1/2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed
1 cup red onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 lime, quartered
- Place the olive oil into a small saucepan and place it over medium-low heat. While it is warming — you do not want it to get too hot — place the salt, garlic, cumin, and Scotch bonnet into a mortar and beat them up a bit with the pestle.
- Add the warm oil to the mortar and let the seasonings steep for 10 minutes or longer. Whisk in the juices and vinegar. Season with pepper to taste.
- I think the mojo is at its best after 24 hours. Store any unused mojo in the fridge.
- Season the skirt steak with salt at the same time you start to make the mojo. If you plan to let the mojo meld overnight, let the skirt steak do the same with the salt by placing it uncovered on a cooling rack and into the fridge.
- Shake or stir the mojo really well. Ladle the mojo over the skirt steak, making sure to get lots of peppers, garlic, and sour juice into the mix. Let the steak marinate no more than an hour. If you marinate them for too long, you wind up hiding the beef flavor behind the marinade flavors; the whole idea of this steak is to let the marinade be just strong enough to be a mystery.
- While the steak is marinating, heat a skillet over high heat. Add a splash of oil to the hot pan and then the red onions. Quickly sear the onions, trying not to let them soften a whole lot. Remove the onions to a bowl and let them cool before stirring in the parsley.
- Heat a large heavy-bottomed skilled over medium-high to high heat. Once the pan is very hot, pour a few glugs of oil into the pan. It should be enough to generously coat the bottom.
- Drain the steaks of the marinade and pick off any stuck-on garlic and peppers.
- Gently lay the steaks into the sauté pan, being careful not to splash hot oil. Sear the steaks. Cook each side of the skirt steak until deeply caramelized.
- Place the skirt steak onto a platter and shower them with the red onion and parsley mixture. Serve immediately with lime on the side for each diner to squeeze over their steak.