Turning next-to-nothing into something special with simple weeknight meals

December 9, 2013

My favorite meals I make aren’t the complicated ones planned for days and prepped for hours because I’m celebrating something. It’s the simple ones thrown together fast because it’s 8 o’clock on a Monday and I have to eat something.

They’re not always home runs, but when they are, they can turn a dull Monday evening into something special. When they aren’t, what’s learned can be applied on a future Monday night.

In 45 minutes of cooking and prep — less than half of it active, and the timing easy to coordinate — I had a hit today starting out with just the meat and some shallots. The rest, out of necessity, used ingredients likely to be laying around the average kitchen — at least kitchens in the south, or whose cooks spent time in the south.

To be fair, it wasn’t just any meat. Over the weekend, my roommate was making a trip to Whole Foods and invited me to tag along. Mindful of blowing my Whole Paycheck — for day-to-day cooking, I generally stick to farmers markets and basic grocery stores — I limited myself to a few things that jumped out a me. A buffalo rib-eye steak was among those, in part because I had already selected some shallots, which are in a stand-by steak recipe I use.

So, I had my main dish, but, wanting nothing to do with the grocery store on the eve of an impending snowstorm, was limited to what I had in my vegetable bowl and pantry for sides.

The other week I gave in and finally got some supermarket tomatoes, and my last one was pushing even its freakish shelf-life. We can roast that. So, there’s a vegetable.

Starch? No potatoes. No rice, as hard as that is to imagine. There’s quinoa but I just had that yesterday. Bread, but I don’t want just bread. Ah, but I always have grits, which, if, you haven’t discovered, aren’t just for breakfast. Well, I always do, except right now, as tonight I had just enough for one serving, which I devoured.

While I didn’t have all of the ingredients, or, with a grumbling stomach, all of the time, I have a go-to baked grits recipe, too — the steak and tomatoes were destined for the oven anyway, so might as well have something heartier than just stove-cooked — that I modified to be quicker and, because of what I had on hand, slightly lighter.

After popping out to The Wine Source (fortunately I’m just a few blocks way) for red wine for the steak’s reduction sauce, putting it all together, here is roughly what I did:

  • Following directions on the canister, boil water for the grits, stir them in, and let them simmer. Making just one serving, and, with baking to crispin them up, if you’re in a hurry, feel free to leave them a little runnier than normal. I think I had mine simmer a little over 10 minutes.
  • While the grits are simmering, after pre-heating the oven to 380 degrees, a temperature I figured would work for everything, cut the tomato in half, slice it, cut the slices in half, dump the halves in a roasting pan and sprinkle them with olive oil, dried oregano, dried basil, salt and pepper.
  • buffalo-steakWhen the grits are done simmering, remove them from the heat, add a splash of milk, about a quarter stick of butter, and a half teaspoon or so of pepper, then grate in a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano — pretty much any hard cheese with do — and stir until everything is combined.
  • That’s all the active work for the tomatoes and grits. Put them in the oven and set your timer for 30 minutes. The buffalo steak, which gets seared first, goes in at the halfway point.
  • Chopping the shallots for the steak is probably the most involved part of this, in part because your eyes will likely need a few breaks. Before you do that, get out the buffalo steak (feel free to sub in a different meat like beef or lamb and/or cut, as long as it’s not overly thin) and grind salt and pepper onto both sides. You can also get out some dried tarragon, the only other component in the reduction sauce, and reserve a half cup of dry red wine. If you plan to drink any with dinner, put in the fridge to chill after you chop the shallots. Without further ado, now chop the shallots.
  • When the timer hits 20 minutes, heat a skillet on medium-high. After a minute, drizzle in some olive oil, swirl it around, let it heat a little more, and throw in the steak. Sear it about two minutes a side, transfer to a foil-covered pan, and put in the oven. While I based this on a beef recipe, if you use buffalo, be aware that buffalo is leaner than beef, so cooks faster. If you use beef or something else fattier, you’ll likely need to increase the cooking time, unless it’s thin. For medium doneness, my buffalo, which was about 1 and a half inches thick, took 13 minutes. To avoid overcooking, after 10 minutes, check it by cutting into it and eyeing the color.
  • After checking the meat, in the same skillet in which you seared the steak, sautee the shallots over medium heat until soft. You shouldn’t need any extra oil; if you do, just add a little. If the shallots are ready before the meat, just remove from the heat, and put it back on medium when you  take the steak out.
  • When the steak is done, put it on a plate to rest, crank the skillet’s heat up to medium high, pour in the wine, tap in some tarragon and let it reduce, about three minutes. If you don’t have wine wine or cooking wine, balsamic vinegar and sugar is a good alternative.
  • At this point, even if your steak cooked quickly, the grits and tomatoes should be ready as well. Get those out of the oven, plate everything, and spoon the sauce over the steak. If the steak sauce or tomato juices seep into your grits, it’s not a bad thing.
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