It’s not everyday that is devoted to cooking a single, grand meal, although it should be. When we have free time, a moment to spare, considering and cooking a single meal is most often how we choose to spend that time. Those moments when we cast aside all else and simply pay attention to our tummies, to our hedonic urges, and indulge them, these are the moments to be savored, the moments that remind us life can be beautiful, slow and satisfying.
Such a day occurred, one day, recently.
An aged rib steak, 45 days old and at least 2 inches thick, was pulled out and left on the counter top, drowned in good olive oil and covered in various herbs pulled haphazardly from our property in upstate New York. Potatoes were set to simmer slowly in a solution of well water, salt, shallots, garlic, bay leaf and more herbs. Black kale — oh you stalwart green, you — was clipped from the garden along with a smattering of flowers, tops and other final autumn efforts. Salad greens, green leaf, red leaf, arugula — we have the still warm October sun to thank — small and mellow, were also snipped and left to stay cool and crisp in the shade.
Jori had a ceramic container full of anchovies she cured under olive oil and salt. Anchovies and steak; anchovies and steak and butter; anchovies and steak and butter and garlic; to which we decided we would also add some parsley. We had one lone lemon in the fridge, which obviously had a place on the greens and over the steak, when it was charred and hot from the grill.
This was much to consider. Much to consider on a day spent only considering these things.
At this point of consideration, tea time called. Tea time on a day such as this called for a special kind of tea. Jori made a proprietary concoction of asam black tea with wild apple peels, lemon peel, sage leaves and local honey while I made a fire in the fire pit. First, start the fire in the pit and then the grill, an order to all things is important on a day of such consideration. One must be warm enough to sit and enjoy the tea, as taking tea while shivering is wholly uncivilized. The pit was fueled with large logs, the beefiest we had in the cord. The tea was fueled with Murray McDavid, a fine 12-year-old Scotch aged in Latour barrels. Yes, tea is good.
A couple cups into tea time and we realized the day’s events could go one of two ways: we remain sedentary and red-nosed, or we answer our tummies’ call and spring in to action. Not being ones to sit idle for too long, and having strong carnivorous tendencies, we addressed the tempering meat. A fire of hard wood charcoal was ignited; grape vines were chopped with the hatchet to a manageable size; and the butter, having achieved a malleable stage, was cut in preparation to be mounted by anchovy, garlic and parsley. A coarse battuto of the anchovy, garlic and parsley was spooned on top of the butter and set upon with cleaver and hunger. I swayed in a near affected style as I smashed the butter on the wooden cutting board with the broad side of the cleaver, relishing the smooth texture as it gave way to gentle pressure, pale yellow fat mottled with small slices of anchovy, specks of parsley and chunks of garlic. I smashed and swayed and smashed and swayed. I chopped fast and slow and I chopped gratuitously. Hypnotized, I molded the butter into compact squares and then had at it until the flattened, amoeboid shapes courted the edge of the board and woke me from my daydreams. I left it a loosely formed log, hand molded — not a simulacrum of an artisan compound butter, but the real thing — still on the board and sitting in the shade, just cool enough to keep shape.
Jori had poured another cup of tea and moved the onions, fennel, Brussels sprouts and black kale to the grill. The broccoli tops, which were delicate and sparingly flowered, would be tossed in later. I crushed the the gently cooked potatoes with my fat hands and covered them in olive oil and salt and more herbs, rubbing them — again, with my fat hands — and left them to queue beside the grill.
The grape vines burn quickly. Throw them into a hot fire and you best have your protein at the ready. I choose to char the meat first, move it to the side of the grill, a hot but indirect spot, and then toss the vines over the hot coals, close the grill and force the smoke over the steak. This confident hunk of western New York beef charred and smoked for a good 30 minutes, maybe more. We had finished half the bottle of Scotch and the teapot was nearly empty.
On an occasion such as this there is no manual to consult on the question of whether you switch to red wine with the steak or stay on Scotch. An impetuous and amateur hedonist may scoff and pompously refuse to dignify the question with a response — that is, of course one should switch to wine. But, my friends, this was a day left to the tummies and not pretensions. Halfway into a bottle of Scotch accompanied only by tea and perhaps some leftovers sporadically nibbled on only to ward off a great hunger, the acidity of the grape is likely to cause indigestion in the most tolerant and robust bellies. Experience under our accommodating belts, we stuck with small pours, “schnorts” as Jori calls them, of the Speyside malt.
The service of a considered meal such as this requires some sort of flourish, a flag acknowledging all our anticipation and calculated preparation. I cut handfuls of wild thyme and set the sprigs afire on the hot grill, then placed the burning thyme into a cocotte and used it as a bed for our steak and thick slices of anchovy butter. As it rested in the radiant warmth of the kitchen, meat must rest, undisturbed, fresh from the fire, we inhaled the lusty thyme smoke, arranged our plates, our glasses of scotch, grilled potatoes, young greens and smoky, charred vegetables, a frame for the evening’s protagonist.
The first minutes of eating are quiet, meditative, only to be interrupted by a cathartic sigh, smile or, in our case, an expletive.
Sometime past tea time, our pot sat empty by the sink, our bellies full, glasses streaked with greasy fingerprints, remnants of the day’s feast clinging to bowls and scattered over the same cutting board used to chop bits into butter, our table sat silent and we settled in to sleep, and left clean-up to the next morning.