Thursday, June 14, 2012

The ultimate in Italian barbecue(?): Bistecca alla Fiorentina

At Ristoro Di’ Cambi in Florence in June 2012
This past weekend I celebrated my birthday, and no, I won’t tell you how old I am. I prefer to think of myself as “well-aged”. Since I’m the main chef in the family, I decided to make my own birthday dinner.

As mentioned here already, a year ago Vicki and I were in Italy researching for the crime novel I’m currently writing and our one big meal out was in Florence where I had the best darn bit of beef it’s ever been my pleasure to negotiate: the justly famous bistecca alla Fiorentina. We went to a place that specializes in this iconic dish: Ristoro Di’ Cambi in the Oltrarno section of Florence. They did not let us down.

For some reason I hadn’t equated Italians with North American’s near fetish for cooking slabs of meat over charcoal. Stupid, I know, but there it is.

Nowhere to be seen, though, were those gleaming silver monstrosities you see lined up every spring at your local Home Depot. The only barbecues we saw on our trip were the very basic little round types with spindly legs and a grill on the top, the kind where you throw some charcoal in, light it up with a bit of paper and twigs, then throw the meat on. I asked an Italian about cooking outdoors using propane and he looked at me as if I were mad.

After using the fantastic charcoal available in Italy, I could see why. It burns clean and very hot. This same person told me that most of it is made with oak. We could certainly see evidence of this in groves of the trees on the sides of many hills throughout Tuscany, some under cultivation for centuries.

You need the best lump charcoal to cook bistecca properly. Briquettes won’t cut it because they don’t burn hot enough. Since the meat is very thick, by necessity, you need to sear it over very hot coals, then spread out the fire leaving most of it on one side of your barbecue, raise the grill several inches and finish the meat over a lower heat. If done correctly, it comes out with a deep mahogany color with no burning, and after letting it rest sufficiently before carving, the inside is rare at the center, more done at the edge, but not at all dry and with very little leakage of juices. In short, after having this dish a few times now, I believe it’s the best way to cook a steak.

First and foremost, in Italy the only proper beef comes from Chianina cows, a breed you see all over Tuscany, dotting the hillsides in small herds. This breed is quite large and grows rapidly. The meat also tends to be fattier than what we’re used to on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, it’s also grass-fed which makes a huge difference in the flavor.

The cut used for bistecca is what we would call a porterhouse. A porterhouse has a larger portion of the tenderloin than the related T-bone cut and on the opposite side of the T-shaped bone is the strip loin. In Italy, the thickness of the bistecca is dictated by the thickness of the bone, so with a big animal, the piece can be quite thick and large. Italian restaurants sell it “per etto” but you get the whole thing so you can expect a steak up to a kilogram. I’d suggest that one steak should be ordered for 2 or 3 people. It will be about 2 inches thick. Only use meat that has been well-aged, so you need to trust your butcher.

As for preparation, the meat is left to shine on its own. Seasoning is left to primo olive oil, salt and pepper and maybe a rub from a cut clove of garlic. All of this is supposed to be done after cooking, by the way. Some restaurants in Italy apparently serve it with wedges of lemon. That’s it. No fancy rubs or sauces, no herbs.

My birthday dinner. I got skunked on the asparagus!
My birthday dinner was for 6, so we were looking for two porterhouse steaks. The place I originally ordered from (Beretta Meats, a usually reliable organic source) messed up and had cut two 1-inch thick porterhouses which I could not accept and which they could not rectify (the person taking their phone orders should listen a little better from now on), so we were left scrambling. Fortunately, I remembered being told about an excellent Italian butcher on Toronto’s Bloor Street, so we went down there.

Gasparro’s is a wonderful place. I dealt with Nick, an enthusiastic man who knows what good food is and where to source it. His shop sells Mennonite free-range chicken and eggs, and the display was filled with cuts of beef, pork and lamb, all locally sourced, and store-made sausage. Nick talked me into buying two rib steaks he cut on the spot from a long rack, and I went for it because the 28-day aged meat looked fantastic with wonderful marbling throughout. After dinner on Sunday, we had to agree that Nick knew what he was talking about. While not strictly a bistecca alla Fiorentina, the meat was tender, juicy and delicious.

Anyway, you carnivores are probably getting a tad peckish at this point, so here’s the recipe.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine Steak)

1 two-inch, or traditionally, 3-fingers high porterhouse steak (2 pounds or more)
Olive oil (the good stuff only!)
large grain sea salt (we use a Welsh version, smoked over oak for extra flavor)
freshly ground black pepper
one garlic clove, peeled and halved (optional)

1. Make sure your steak is room temperature and completely dry. I take a steak this thick out of the fridge a good two hours before cooking. That way, the center is not really cold anymore. If it is, your finished steak is going to be dry and tasteless on the outside before the inside is even warm.

2. Build a really intense charcoal fire with the best lump charcoal you can find (it will burn hotter). Heat the grill for only a minute or two before putting on the steak to avoid having it burn into the meat. It should be about 2 inches from the coals. I rubbed ours with a bit of olive oil seconds before putting on the two steaks.

3. Cook the steak 3 minutes on each side, searing it well. Now, raise the grill about 2 inches, bank most of the fire to one side (with a few coals left on the opposite side), and put your steak at the cooler end. Cook each side an additional 5 minutes (assuming you want the steak rare – which you should!), and finally spread out the coals again and turn the steak up onto its end bone and cook another 6-7 minutes. This evens out the cooking as the bone spreads the heat into the center of the steak. It’s very important (unless you’re highly skilled at barbecuing meat) to watch the temperature at the center of the meat. For rare, you want it to be around 125°F, for medium 140°. If you want it more done than that, it’s up to you, but I can guarantee the results will be tough and dry, especially on the outside of the meat. You can’t trust the poke method to see if a cut this thick is done on the inside. I’m very good at that, but since this steak will be pretty expensive, I don’t trust myself to get it right. An instant read thermometer is a good (and cheap) way to get it right!

4. You will want your steak to rest for a good 10 minutes to get the juices to migrate back to the core of the meat, so this is the time to lightly brush it with olive oil, grind some pepper over it and lightly salt it. Using salt that’s not finely ground allows it to not completely melt, giving you small bursts of saltiness as you eat that are quite lovely. If you are using the optional garlic addition, rub the meat on both sides before you brush on the olive oil.

5. Remove the meat from the bone and slice it. Serve it on heated plates (especially important if you’re serving outdoors. Let the birthday boy or a favored guest nibble the meat left on the bone!

The traditional accompaniment in Italy is boiled canellini beans (yet another example of why Tuscans are disparagingly referred to as “bean-eaters” in the rest of Italy) that have been seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. For wine, an excellent Chianti Classico Reserva is a perfect choice, or maybe a Brunello, but you want something “hefty” – and good. Don’t cheap out here!

For my birthday, we served this with a few pieces of buttered spinach and cheese ravioli from our favorite place for fresh pasta, Bologna Pastificio (with freshly-grated Parmesan from Zito’s), and local asparagus.

For dessert I made a Beethoven Torte, but that’s a recipe for another day.

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