Craig Claiborne did not give one tiny damn about where his beef came came from. He didn’t care whether the cow had a happy life or a cruel death. He didn’t have the slightest idea that the creature that was to provide his prime beef spent its last weeks confined to a narrow pen, barely able to move, and gorging on corn that made it literally sick. He knew nothing of the foul waste that flowed from those feedlots into nearby streams. He had no notion of the disastrous effects that the highly industrialized and corporate American corn and beef markets had on small farmers in other countries.
When Craig published his and Pierre Franey’s recipe for steak au poivre à la crème in the Craig Claiborne Journal of February 15, 1974, Michael Pollan had just turned nineteen years old and was a student at Bennington College in Vermont. He didn’t know much, if anything, about beef either, yet.
Craig had been dead for six years when Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, and the well-informed American beef eater’s life would never be the same again. The dilemma is still very much with us. There are a number of problems in beef production, but the biggest by far is “finishing”—that is, fattening—cows on corn.
(That fat is the “marbling” that is so highly prized in prime meat. It is also quite similar to the stuff that was clogging Craig Claiborne’s arterial plumbing so thoroughly that he required quadruple coronary bypass surgery in 1993, complications from which pretty much ruined the last seven years of his life.)
Alice Waters, as you might expect, a personal friend of Michael Pollan’s, was among the first widely known restaurateurs to decide to serve only grass-fed, organic beef. She hired a consultant to travel first nearby and then ever farther from Berkeley in quest of grass-fed beef that wasn’t tough as leather and tasted good. I took part in a beef tasting one afternoon at Chez Panisse, judging the best that Alice’s forager had found. It ranged from mediocre down. I had dinner recently at Chez Panisse and was served a tournedos of grass-fed beef—from the filet, the tenderest cut on the animal—and it was...mighty chewy. And it didn’t really taste so good either.
Yet of course it’s possible! Consider the American pronghorn, more commonly known as the antelope. This magnificent animal can sprint to sixty miles per hour and cruise at forty-five. As you might imagine, there’s very little fat on an antelope. But the meat is superb—the tenderloin silkily tender. Other grass-fed grazers, including elk, mule deer, and bison, all manage to produce delicious, more or less tender meat, at least in some cuts. It’s hard to say what accounts for that, but it may have something to do with the kind of lives they lead—fresh air, clean water, natural food, low stress, quick death.
Tom and Patty Agnew, in Sweet Grass County, Montana, raise magnificent grass-fed cattle. They attribute the tenderness and deep flavor of their beef to a combination of factors that takes real dedication to achieve: generations of attentive breeding for meat quality; the fact that the animals are “handled quietly and extremely humanely”—finishing them on rich alfalfa hay; and dry-aging the carcasses for three weeks (an expensive process, because the meat loses a good deal of moisture as it gains greatly in flavor).
Contrary to widespread opinion, careful freezing does no harm to good beef, and you can buy frozen Agnew beef at agnewranch.com.
Now to the dish already! For twelve people Craig calls for four one-and-a-half pound shell steaks. (“Shell steak” is New-Yorkese for New York strip.) That will give you really nice thick steaks and reasonable eight-ounce servings. Obviously you can cut the recipe down to any number, but do please try to use a steak at least an inch thick. You could do it for one person with a filet.
Craig then rinses three tablespoons of canned green peppercorns, crushes one tablespoon of them, and presses those into the sides of the steaks. These green things were very popular back in the seventies, later to be succeeded by the decidedly bizarre Sichuan pepper, which isn’t really pepper at all. Green peppercorns are interesting, and milder, but the classic pepper for this dish is good old black. (If you decide to go with black, do try to find nice aromatic peppercorns in one of those spice departments with a lot of turnover, and don’t grind them in a mill—you should crush them, because you want bigger pieces than a peppermill will give you. A mortar and pestle are just right for the job, but you can also fold the peppercorns in a kitchen towel and smash ’em with a hammer, which can be quite satisfying. Careful if you have a marble countertop, however. Forget Sichuan, by the way.)
Craig cooks the steaks in a big heavy skillet in oil and butter, but a friend of mine taught me a couple of years ago a truly great method using no fat at all—just a cast iron skillet heated to really really really hot, and then just a couple of minutes on each side. The resultant caramelization of the meat is gorgeous, and there’s a lot less splattering of grease. You need serious ventilation for this trick. A thick steak benefits from a careful browning of the fatty edges as well. Usually you have to hold them upright with tongs.
Then you let the steaks finish in a low oven, on a rack in a pan you’ve already heated there. If you’ve got all the time in the world, 275º is not too low, but you can suit yourself according to how much of a hurry you’re in. The low heat gives you a uniform doneness rather than the well-to-rare gradation you get on a hot grill or in a typical sauté. At 125º they’re perfect, and 130º is still fine, and thanks to the low oven they’re not going to keep cooking very much off the heat as they do when they come straight from a very hot pan or grill. In any case you’re still going to want to rest them somewhere merely warm—100º or so—for twenty minutes.
After your cast iron pan has cooled to merely hot, there may or may not be enough fat to pour out. If you need to do it, try to keep the stray peppercorns in the pan. Add some butter now, and a couple of teaspoons of shallots per person, and cook until they’re translucent. Now deglaze the pan with a generous pour of red wine, scraping hard to get up all that nice fond, and let it reduce to very little. Craig’s recipe doesn’t call for it, but some chefs throw in a bit of brandy here and let it burn or boil off—it’s a nice touch. Now add about a tablespoon of cream per person, plus any juices that have accumulated around the meat, and cook till till the sauce just thickens. Add the remaining green peppercorns (rinsed, uncrushed). (If you’re using black pepper, don’t add more to the sauce—the meat will be fiery enough.) Finish the sauce by swirling in a little butter, just enough to give it a pretty gloss.
Salt the steak to taste, slice it diagonally across the grain about a third of an inch thick, and pass the sauce, warning your guests that a little may go a long way—it’s strong.