When I was seventeen, I had the good luck of moving to Paris to start my college education. Back then, I was a disgustingly self-entitled brat who thought it was perfectly normal to live it up in Paris at the tender age of seventeen and I would get seriously annoyed at my parents for calling me every day to check up on me (mom had daily visions of my dead, hacked-up body lying in a Parisian sewer, which only intensified when I didn’t answer the phone). Despite her visions, my favorite pastimes, during my first year in Paris, did not include getting mutilated, killed or floating in sewers. Instead, my favorite pastimes were: chain-smoking, playing backgammon and eating steaks at a place called Hippo with two friends, both conveniently named Alex (distinguished by the clever and literal nicknames of ‘Big Alex’ and ‘Russian Alex’). Now, Hippo was, at best, a run-of-the-mill steakhouse chain and, at worst, a bit of a dump, but back then, it was the best thing ever. In 1998, sitting at Hippo’s and eating a juicy steak with sauce béarnaise was what made life good. I’ve had many good steaks since but the ones from Hippo’s were somehow most memorable and delicious. So, here goes my homage to those days – Mesdames et messieurs: Filet de bœuf avec sauce béarnaise…
2Tbs white wine vinegar
2 shallots, chopped
1tsp white peppercorns, lightly crushed
2Tbs tarragon, chopped
3 egg yolks
250g (8.5oz) butter
1tsp chervil, chopped
juice of ½ lemon
Start with the sauce first. Now before you begin, let me caution you that making this sauce is a pain in the neck and it requires a strong forearm/whisking muscle. But when all is said and done and eaten, it is truly, truly worth it.
Clarify the butter in a small pot (this means: melt the butter over low heat and take it off the heat when it starts to foam; let it stand till the milk solids [aka the white stuff] sinks to the bottom). Carefully pour the butter into a measuring cup, making sure that the milk solids stay in the pot and all you have in the cup is a clear butter liquid. Put the water, vinegar, peppercorns, 1Tbs of tarragon and the shallots in a pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about one minute or till reduced to about 2Tbs (this all happens very fast, so make sure you don’t let it boil dry). Take the liquid off the heat, let it cool and strain into a heatproof bowl, discarding the flavorings. Place the bowl over a pot of steaming water (bain-marie/double-boiler), add the egg yolks and whisk for about 5 minutes till the mixture is thick and creamy (this is where the whisking muscle comes in and let me tell you, 5 minutes of whisking will make you cry like a baby, if you’re a wimp like me). Take the bowl off the heat and slowly whisk in the clarified butter till the sauce is thick and glossy. Add a splash of warm water if the sauce gets too thick. Add the lemon juice, cayenne and stir in 1Tbs of chopped tarragon and 1Tbs of chopped chervil.
On to the steaks: heat up two Tbs of butter on a large pan till slightly foaming. Season the steaks with salt and pepper and fry for 3-4 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Serve with the sauce and feel free to pretend that you’re an idealistic, slightly spoiled and completely carefree seventeen year-old living in Paris.
Adapted from: The Cook’s Book: Techniques and tips from the world’s master chefs by Jill Norman (this is an awesome, awesome cook book, which is quickly becoming my cookery bible, it covers everything and anything I can think of, in a straightforward and clear manner)