Its my Birthday and for some strange reason I always think of food on my birthday. It is the one day in the year when I can justify spending a few pennies on some favourite morsel or other for myself, within reason, of course!
Steak is always the first thing that jumps to mind; beef is one of those wonderful ingredients that will always stop me from becoming a vegetarian. Although it is expensive and I am the only real steak eater in the family, it is one of those things that even if I could never afford it again, it would always be there on the far edges of my consciousness, just waiting to be eaten or dreamed about. Nope, vegetarianism is not going to happen in a hurry.
The trouble with steak is getting a good one. I have been constantly disappointed with steak over the years from restaurants – I like mine blue-ish, but that means it needs to rest properly and be served on a warm plate with any sauce put on at the very last moment or served separately. But even in some fine establishments, I have had the impression that the meat has been dropped into the pan from a height, dumped onto a plate on the pass under ferociously hot lights, complete with sauce, then bunged at me about two minutes later.
This is assuming that the meat was half decent in the first place. The best steaks have inevitably been the ones I have cooked myself, but that has required access to a really good butcher – one that cares about both animal and customer. This seems an increasingly rare thing. We are told by the spoilt TV chefs to ignore the supermarkets and shop in our local high street butcher. What they forget to mention is that many high street butchers are quite simply rubbish. When you get a good one, they are amazing, but that seems a rarity, sadly.
The best one I came across was in Ireland, the father of friend.
He was an old time butcher that used to have a small abattoir out back. That had gone (small abattoirs are near impossible with modern safety requirements – requirements that are important) but he still knew the history of every joint of meat from field to fork. When I was introduced to him, I was cooking for his daughter and friends that evening and I needed a small cut of fillet steak to serve seared with a herb coating as a carpaccio with black tomatoes. I looked at the offerings on display, which looked pretty good, then asked if he had something a little blacker (mature). His face lit up. Suddenly this rural Irishman became an Anglophile. No one ever asked for that these days, he explained. He rushed out the back and returned with a huge lump of cow, from which he carefully extracted the finest and blackest fillet you ever saw. So well hung was it that when I served it later that day, my girlfriend did not even notice it was raw (good thing – turns out she would never have eaten it if I had explained!)
A fine dinner companion is also important.
Too often these days my lunch companion is a small white dog who waits impatiently for scraps from my lunch – a disappointment if I am careless enough to eat something she does not like!
Over the years, my favourite dinner companion has been my friend Jonathan. I am perhaps a slightly better cook than he (and he is a pretty good cook in his own right), but he is the more accomplished gastronaut. To take him to a bad restaurant is like hitting a puppy, but take him to somewhere that hits the mark and he is a complete joy! He is not snobbish – the establishment could be a greasy spoon – but the food needs to be the best of its kind.
We once spent a very happy luncheon at Christopher’s in Covent Garden; a steak and lobster grill. I think I went the lobster route that day, poached and grilled with some wonderful sauce. It is one of those places where media people hang out and I seem to remember there were a couple of people I knew hanging around, but it did not matter. The food was wonderful and we talked like mad about everything, bitched about everyone and loved every mouthful.
So, my birthday wish?
An inch and a half thick T-Bone (I love that forgotten, old fashioned cut) from a certain Irish butcher, served rare with a pepper and truffle sauce and a pint of Guinness on the side. Oh, better chuck half a tomato on the plate out of respect for healthy dining.
And my birthday reality?
Probably a curry from down the road, which won’t be great, but at least someone else did the cooking!