Richard Fox pays homage to that classic pub combo of steak and chips
Steak and chips is in my top-five all time favourite meals: a slab of meat seared over a fierce flame, executed with a primeval simplicity that harks back to the days of our hairier forefathers. Never has a dish so basic in preparation, and stark in presentation, created such an impact - and transcended every strata of the dining experience.
I have tucked into a prime piece of sirloin, rough cut chips served with a bowl of Hellmans in my local boozer; sampled achingly-tender fillet, Pont-Neuf chips and béarnaise sauce in the starred surroundings of Bibendum on the Fulham Road. I've marvelled at the tableside gueridon preparation of steak tartar with a side serving of pommes frites in the cavernous retro-glory of la Coupolle in Paris. A greater diversification of location, ambience, décor and price would be hard to find, but all the same dish - and nothing to choose between them. Now that's what I call a classic combo.
While the basic concept - "take meat, will cook, add chips" (excepting tartar) - is fairly rudimentary, there are still enough stages in the process for things to go awry. And that negative process can start before the animal has even been killed. Lets look at the processes then from a field-to-fork perspective to give us the maximum chance of serving up a plate of eye-closing sensual pleasure, rather than an empty feeling of unrequited love.
Without wishing to sound too evangelical - which I am when it comes to provenance - the way the animal has lived, died, and then been hung is fundamental to the quality of a steak eating experience.
If you really want to get fantastic detail on this, I suggest reading The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fernley- Whittingstall, published by Hodder and Stoughton. But in essence, you're looking for beef from suckler herds that have been extensively grazed rather than dairy-cross cattle fed on artificial feed. It should then have been hung for a minimum of two weeks and, visually, the cuts should be well-marbled, more ivory than white, and be deep red rather than bright pink.
Having established your supplier, it's time to choose your cut. For our classic, "with chips", we're looking at fillet, sirloin, rump and rib-eye (in descending order of cost per pound). It's important to realise with steak that the most expensive cut is not necessarily the most desirable from a taste-versus-texture point of view.
While sirloin may be tenderer than rump, it may not pack the intensity of flavour. And while fillet is often seen as the connoisseur's or luxury choice, its tenderness, like lamb fillet, can often be at the expense of flavour. Obviously you need a cut that fits in - cost and style-wise - with the rest of your menu.
As far as the actual cooking of all these cuts is concerned, methodology is identical: season well with salt and pepper and place in a hot frying pan or on to a chargrill. When a golden brown crust forms on the outer surface of the meat, season the other side and turn. If the cut is a thick cut of fillet, it then goes into the oven until cooked to the required degree. Depending upon oven or oven temperature, this will be about 10 minutes for rare, 15 to 20 minutes for medium and 25 minutes for well done.
Having removed your cooked cut from the oven, pan or char-grill, it's time to rest - and I don't mean the staff! The proper resting of the meat is as important to the way it eats as the cooking itself. With the meat fibres having tightened up under the intensity of heat from cooking they need to relax again to regain tenderness, and for no less than three or four minutes.
By the way, a handy little tip for testing the degree of "doneness" is to press the flesh at the base of the ball of your thumb with the fourth finger of the same hand: the degree of "give" in the flesh indicates rare. For medium: do the same thing using the middle finger; and for well done, the forefinger.
So now we've selected our cut and cooked it, it's time to decide what to serve with it (apart from the chips). I suggest sticking to the classics here - the reason they're classics is because they're so damn tasty and go so well with our chosen meat. The two main players here are béarnaise sauce (hollandaise with tarragon), and poivre (pepper sauce).
Although the classic béarnaise is made from a white wine/vinegar reduction with tarragon stalks, you can make a perfectly good-quality reproduction by simply whisking a couple of egg yolks with a tablespoon of white wine vinegar over a bain marie until thick, then adding warm, clarified butter - a little at a time until you have a good, thick emulsion - and then simply stirring in some fresh-chopped tarragon. Cover the finished sauce with cling film and keep in a warm place throughout service. This is a particular winner with the fillet.
A thick, creamy and peppery sauce is fabulous with sirloin. If you're pan-frying, remove the steak when it's cooked and then flame some brandy in the same pan before adding your poivre sauce. Other garnishes may be as simple as a slice of tarragon infused butter melted on top of the finished steak, along with a bunch of fresh, peppery watercress.
Whatever you do serve alongside, just remember that it's just the support act and should never over-power, smother or complicate the celebration of a truly-glorious cut of traditional British meat.
We are talking exclusively here about steak - and chips. It would be a travesty for all involved if a great piece of steak was let down by a haphazard approach to the art of making good chips. In many ways, this is more difficult to get right than the meat itself. There are so many variables to deal with: the potato variety, the blanching temperature, blanching time, the thickness and uniformity of the chip, cleanliness of the oil, finishing temperature and seasoning.
I would recommend cutting a good starchy potato like a Maris Piper or King Edward into thick chips and then soaking in water. Drain well in batches in a tea towel, and then fry for about five minutes in clean oil at 160°C. Although the chips may start to blister, they shouldn't colour; drain them well and allow to cool. For service fry them for a couple of minutes - or until golden brown in oil no less than 190°C. Finally toss in salt and black pepper before serving.
Steak and chips is so simple and so classic, with so many connotations of sauce and cut that you could very easily build a national reputation for it. Try a steak night one night a week, and at the very worst you'll find out which one should be a regular menu fixture - my guess is: you'll be spoilt for choice.