Steak Frites: Recreating a French Classic

Just back from a trip to Washington, D.C., I wanted to post about a quintessential French brasserie favorite which had been right under my nose for several years… a dish called Steak Frites. A snow storm kept me in the Capital for an extra day, which led to a second meal at Le Diplomate, the town’s new and very French eatery on 14th street. Never having ordered Steak Frites before (though it is an oft offered menu item in many places), I was completely bowled over by the great pleasure I had eating this extremely simple dish: steak with fries, accompanied with compound butter and aioli. This was the stuff of simple pleasures, the embodiment of steak and potatoes.

Once back home, I set out to learn to fry my own potatoes (done it 4 times now!) and to make the best compound butter to accentuate steak. The combination of steak (whether pan fried and finished in the oven or simply grilled), butter, fries and aioli cannot be beat. French audiences may have given popularity to this dish, but it certainly has universal appeal to the home cook looking to satisfy those at the table who are interested in simple meat-and-potatoes satisfaction.

A note on the steaks: your best will do. I have made petit filets and have made hangar steaks; but any steak grilled or fried to perfection will be perfect here.

A note on the fries: home-cooked fries are a pleasure. Take the time to try the recipe posted here, taken from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. The aroma of freshly fried frites is intoxicating, and worth a try…

A note on aioli: while we may use ketchup and mustard as dressings for fries from In and Out, try to make this simple, rustic sauce. It truly elevates the meal.

A note on compound butter: called “Hotel Butter” or “Maitre D’Hotel Butter” here, use a good quality European butter if you can. While sometimes frugal… I found that a good, high-butterfat selection yielded a recognizable result when melted atop a gloriously seared steak. The slight additional cost was worth the price.

Enjoy this dish in any capacity; and know that Steak Frites is a meal that has the potential to truly delight the people across your table. Elevate simple ingredients to reach new heights in this traditional dish. A photo galley and recipes follow. Enjoy!


Pommes Frites (French Fries)_________________________________________________
The russet potato is the best for fries because of its high starch content and its shape.

Large russet potatoes (2 per person), washed
Peanut oil for deep frying
Kosher Salt

Set out a large bowl of cold water. Using a potato cutter, a mandoline, or a knife, cut each potato into sticks ¼ inch thick and 4 ½ inches long and place in the water. Discard any cuts that are irregular; they’ll cook unevenly. When all the potatoes have been cut, change the water several times until the starch has been rinsed from the potatoes and the water remains clear. (The potatoes can be refrigerated in the cold water for several hours).

For the first frying: Fill a deep fryer or a large heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of good peanut oil for the best flavor and heat to 320 degrees.

Remove the potatoes from the water and drain well on paper towels. Place a handful of potatoes in the hot oil, using a basket insert if you have one; shake the basket a few times or stir the potatoes. Do not crowd the potatoes; there should be at least twice as much oil as potatoes. Fry until the potatoes are cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes; they shouldn’t be any darker than a very pale gold. Remove the fries from the oil and drain o paper towels. Repeat with the remaining potatoes. (The blanched potatoes can be held for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature.) Reserve the oil in the fryer or pot.

For the second frying: Reheat the oil to 375 degrees. Add one portion of the fries at a time and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the potatoes are a deep gold with a crisp exterior. Quickly drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve.

Aioli (Garlic Mayonnaise)________________________________________________________
Aioli, a pungent olive oil mayonnaise flavored with garlic, is remarkably good with grilled fish, and is traditionally served with the fish stew called a Bourride. For the fullest flavor, the garlic should be pounded in a mortar with the egg yolks, though most cooks now compromise by chopping the garlic as finely as possible with a knife. (A food processor also works in this application.)

2 egg yolks
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped, more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, more to taste
Salt and white pepper
1 ½ cups olive oil

If you have the mortar and pestle, put the egg yolks, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in the mortar and pound with the pestle until the mixture thickens lightly, about 1 minute. Pounding develops the flavor of the garlic. Gradually beat in the oil a few drops at a time until the aioli starts to thicken and emulsify. After adding about 2 tablespoons of the oil, the mixture should be quite thick. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and continue adding the remaining oil more quickly, pouring it in a very slow, thin stream while stirring constantly with a whisk or an immersion blender. (If added too quickly, the sauce may separate.) If you are not using a mortar and pestle, whisk the sauce in a bowl from the start.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and with more garlic if you wish. Traditionally, the sauce should be thick enough to hold a spoon upright. Like homemade mayonnaise, aioli may be covered tightly and stored in the refrigerator for no more than 12 hours. At serving time, let it come to room temperature before you stir it or it may separate.

Makes 1 ½ cups

Maitre D’Hotel Butter (Thomas Keller)________________________________________________
It is such a simple idea, but we sometimes forget how wonderful good, fresh butter is smeared on meat. Adding seasoning, such as aromatic herbs, some salt and acid, for a preparation called a compound butter, deepens the pleasure. Butter made with chopped parsley and lemon juice, the most common form of compound butter, is called beurre de maitre d’hotel. It’s superb on steaks, chicken, and fish – an all-purpose sauce.

Aside from using excellent butter, I am interested in the handling of the parsley and the choice of acid. Many cooks are taught to rinse parsley and to wring it out in a towel, a treatment that will prolong its shelf life for a day or two. Don’t do this – you’ll wash away the flavor. You want the bright specs of green for visual interest, and the slightly bitter green chlorophyll taste goes well with meat. Regarding the acid, while lemon goes well and is customary, vinegar is an excellent choice too. I think a sherry vinegar goes especially well with grilled meats.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons chopped Italian parsley
1 ½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Put the butter in a small bowl and stir with a spoon or stiff spatula until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

Cut a piece of plastic wrap and form the butter into a rough log about 4 inches long, about 2 inches from one end of the plastic wrap. Roll up the butter in the plastic, then twist the ends to form a compact log about 1 ¼ inches in diameter. (The butter can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen, well wrapped, for up to 2 months.)

Makes 6 tablespoons


Good Eating!

~Jonathan Dye

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