Last month while visiting my mom in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh I was asked to cook for an 11 person dinner party to celebrate the 83rd birthday of my godmother’s mother. While preparing hors d’oeuvres and our main courses, my godmother’s son, a college student studying business who had recently turned 21 told me that he was preparing to move out of his fraternity house and into his FIRST APARTMENT in the coming month. He then asked me “what could I learn to cook that could be a signature dish?” I asked him what he meant by “signature” and he told me that he wanted to learn how to cook something healthy and easy that didn’t require a lot of fancy kitchen equipment but that still had a little bit of flair and pizzaz.
He wanted to have some basic dishes under his belt, for even though he and his family have traveled and eaten their way around the world he was still unsure of himself in the kitchen. He was about to move into his first real apartment and wanted to be able to invite a girl over and cook her a simple dinner, presumably without necessitating her discrete deposition of inedible food in a napkin.
I discussed this idea with several women and came to the conclusion that a simple dinner cooked at home need merely be that; simple. I would strongly recommend that no one try cooking something for the first time when aiming to impress (unless you are trained professional of course…). Another good rule to follow is: Keep it light. Lots of starch, sauce, and fat rarely puts you in the mood for romance (rather you might be inclined to put on sweatpants and install yourself as a permanent, unresponsive couch fixture for the remainder of the night). Essentially: keep it simple, keep it light, and make your food with love (it shows). Here’s one such meal to get you thinking.
Grilled Black-Pepper Steak with Sofrito, arugula, and grilled pita bread
2 Large, ripe tomatoes
1 medium-sized yellow onion
1 small, red bell pepper
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 pound baby arugula
Extra virgin olive oil
Block of Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
1-2 rounds of store-bought pita bread
Start by lighting the grill, then take the steaks out of the refrigerator and rub them all over with kosher salt to start the tenderizing and seasoning process. Put the steaks on a plate and cover them lightly with plastic or another plate and let them sit at room temperature while you prepare the rest of the meal.
Make Sofrito: Dice the tomatoes, pepper, and onion into small, even-sized pieces (1/4” squares). Minced the garlic finely and gently sauté all four ingredients with 1 tablespoons of olive oil, your minced thyme leaves, and a pinch of salt for 15-30 minutes. If you have a blender, puree the cooked sofrito to a smooth consistency and season it to taste with salt and pepper. Return it to the pan (after it has been wiped) and hold to the side.
Grill Steaks: Now that you have made your sauce (that can be reheated right before dinner), it’s time to grill the steaks (see my Grilling Tips article for perfect grilling techniques). (See below for instructions if you don’t have a grill.) Coat each side of the steaks with coarsely-ground black pepper (from a pepper mill is best) and lay them down on a hot grill pointing at 1 o’clock and 7 o’clock for a couple minutes. After the steaks have nice grill marks, pick them up and set them down again, this time pointing at 11 o’clock and 5 o’clock. After a couple more minutes flip the steaks onto their uncooked side and let them finish cooking (just a couple more minutes at most. For medium-rare take the steaks off the grill once a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the steak reads 128F-130F). Place the steaks on a clean, warm plate and let them rest for 5 minutes while you make the salad and grill your pita bread.
Grill Pita: To grill the pita bread, simply rub each side with a very light coating of olive oil. Lay the pita bread down on the hot grill, but DON’T WALK AWAY! It will burn within a minute. All you need is to warm the bread and create some quick grill marks. Around 30 seconds per side will be fine. When the bread is grilled, sprinkle it lightly with coarse salt, cut it into wedges, and arrange them on the plate to go under the salad.
Serve: Now, place the arugula in a large glass, stainless steel, or plastic bowl. Sprinkle the greens with a pinch of salt and a couple grinds of fresh pepper. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon over the greens (make sure to catch any seeds) and drizzle on a couple of teaspoons worth of good olive oil. Now, toss the salad to coat the greens. Place a small handful of dressed arugula on one side of each dinner plate (on top of the pita bread) and top the salad with a couple of parmesan shavings (use a vegetable peeler on your block of cheese). Next, blot the bottom of your steaks and place one on each plate. To finish, spoon a couple of spoonfuls of the warm sofrito on top of each steak.
Wine Suggestion: Serve this steak with a soft, earthy red wine like René Barbier: A Spanish Mediterranean red that consistently rates highly in wine reviews and at a mere $5 per bottle is perfect for first apartment budgets! It’s a favorite of mine that I am equally content to cook with as well as to drink!
If you don’t have a grill:
You can just as easily (easier, actually) cook the steak in a heavy pan (cast iron is the best) or in your oven broiler. To pan roast the steak, start by seasoning the meat as describe and letting it come to room temperature. Then heat between 1/8″ oil in your heaviest skillet. Once the oil is hot, place the steak in the pan and avoid moving it at all for a minute or two (make sure you pat the steak dry before cooking or it won’t sear well). Flip the steak, searing the other side until is it medium-rare. Let the steak rest for the same 5 minutes that you would if you cooked it on the grill.
To broil your steak, make sure your broiler is turned on and pre-heated for at least 20 minutes before you need it. Season the steak and place it on the broiler rack medium-distance from the heat source. Check the meat periodically, starting after 5 minutes, until medium-rare.