By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
There is no getting around it: Poaching a prime rib of beef in eight pounds of butter is extravagant. In this economy, spending $125 on just the entree of a dinner for 12 had better lead to spectacular results.
In San Francisco chef Michael Mina's hands, it certainly can. Mina devised the butter-poaching method at his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco 4 1/2 years ago and now uses it as the focal point for his Bourbon Steak concept, coming this week to Georgetown.
But could it work for a home cook, particularly one interested in pulling out all the stops for Christmas dinner? Chef on Call started with what we hoped would be a solution and then went to look for the problem.
Victoria Marquez, 30, a social science analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services, charmed us. Her mother, Toni, is a terrific cook who puts out a Martha Stewart-like standing-rib repast at the family home in Gaithersburg every year and even clips rose petals for a dessert garnish. But Toni thinks it's nearing time to pass the torch.
"I would love to wow the Christmas gang with an amazing meal," Victoria wrote in an e-mail. "The best compliment I could receive would be, 'You're just like your mother.' "
Someone who actually aspires to be like her mother deserves a reward. So for Marquez, Christmas occurred Nov. 6, when Mina and his 27-year-old executive chef, David Varley, showed up at her Connecticut Avenue one-bedroom, unloaded groceries and presented a menu: toasted chestnut soup, butter-poached standing rib roast, side dishes of fingerling potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots, and kabocha squash sticky toffee puddings for dessert.
Mina, 40, could not have been more amiable. Six feet tall, dark and boyish, he is also soft-spoken, but that doesn't mean he lacks drive. Twenty years after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., his Mina Group (Andre Agassi is a partner) owns 15 restaurants, six of which opened in the past year.
Mina's two signature concepts are trios (interpreting one ingredient three ways) and butter-poaching. At Bourbon Steak, he applies the technique to porterhouses, rib-eyes and the like, but for Christmas at home with his wife and two young sons, he has poached the more celebratory cut of prime rib. In Marquez's kitchen, he demonstrated by heating a deep pan of clarified butter to 165 degrees before submerging a four-pound rib roast in it and baking it in a 300-degree oven for about 90 minutes until it reached an internal temperature of 127, just under medium-rare.
"The butter seals the prime rib," said Mina, wearing a black chef's coat, black pants and black Prada loafers. "You can look in the pan when it's done; there's not a drop of juice in there, and that's the trick." If the butter is too hot, the juice will run out and the meat will be ruined. That's why Bourbon Steak uses "immersion circulators" to maintain pans of clarified butter (or olive oil for lamb, bacon fat for pork, duck fat for chicken) at constant temperatures.
Varley says the technique has redefined expectations about cooking protein.
"This is edge-to-edge cooking," he said, meaning that when you slice into the meat, the doneness of the cross-section is uniform. (That also occurs in sous vide, the technique of cooking in vacuum-pack bags in carefully controlled water baths, but Mina finds butter a sexier sell than plastic.) "Gone are the days where you see a gray margin around the outside; a bull's-eye, blood-red center; and a no man's land in between. The entire eye is rare."
Indeed, when the roast came out of the oven, very little juice had been released, and it was quite plump. Still, something was missing.
"Now you have to add the love," Mina said. That meant searing the meat over high heat to caramelize its exterior and create the crusty, roasty meat flavor that carnivores crave.
While the roast was poaching, Mina talked to Marquez about how to achieve complexity of flavor in dishes that seemed simple. The words "layering," "caramelizing" and "balance" came up over and over.
By layering, he meant maximizing flavor along every step of a recipe and weaving a profile throughout a menu. The sachet that perfumed the soup, for instance, included some of the same herbs (rosemary, bay leaf) that Mina employed to infuse the poaching butter; he then carried those herbs through to the other side dishes. Everything in the soup was caramelized: the butter, the chestnuts, the honey, the vinegar.
As for balance, "there are four things you're always tasting for," Mina said. "Acidity, sweetness, spiciness and richness. If you add sweetness, you want to add acid or spiciness or both. When you add fat, you have to add acid to balance it out."
Varley pureed the soup, and Mina tested Marquez's tasting skills.
"How is it?" he asked.
"It's excellent," she said.
"Nah. Taste it again. Let's see what you're tasting for. Tell me what it needs."
"It doesn't need anything," she said. "It's perfection."
Mina shook his head no, and Marquez tasted again.
Mina grinned. "It needs some salt and pepper. We'll cook it down and garnish it with quenelles of mascarpone, which will add fat, and green peppercorn, which will add spice."
Marquez asked what quenelles were and was told they are convex dollops shaped with spoons. Mina showed her how to form one, then invited her to try. "You mean I have to pronounce them and make them?" she asked.
The finished soup bowled her over. "It is so good, I'm out of adjectives," she said.
As he and Varley took Marquez through the other dishes, Mina made sure his student was tasting everything as she went. The Brussels sprouts: acidity and sweetness from diced apples, richness from bacon, spice from crushed juniper berries. The carrots: vinegar, orange juice, onions, honey, cumin. Balance.
The chefs also drove home the importance of being organized; Mina laid out a plan for the correct order in which to prepare the dishes and how to hold them until service.
"You baste the roast one more time with a little butter, put it out on the table all shiny and you'll be a big shot," Mina said. At lesson's end, that's just what he did. When he sliced the meat, it was exactly as advertised: rosy through and through, succulent and silken.
He and Mina had described everything so logically that Marquez said she would be up to the task of reproducing the meal for Christmas. The best advice Mina offered that day: "Make one thing at a time, and do every step right."
That will work if Marquez spreads out over two full days what Varley and Mina accomplished in 3 1/2 hours using several pre-prepped components. Even though the chefs left behind lots of goodies, including vacuum-sealed packets of beef jus, finished soup, homemade bacon and three quarts of clarified butter, Marquez says she plans to make everything from scratch on Christmas, with her brother's help.
No one seemed to worry much that this was an expensive meal. Marquez did ask how much it would cost, but she clearly got a kick out of the flashiness. "My relatives will say, 'People are probably paying a hundred dollars to eat this' " at Bourbon Steak, she said. (Varley said it would be a lot more than that.)
Nonetheless, Marquez won't need to worry about the grocery bill, which we estimated would run about $270, not including pantry staples. "My mother will be buying everything anyway," she said.
Looks as though Mom might be passing her debit card along with the torch.
David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Chef on Call column appears monthly.