And the steak itself is open to interpretation. Between the cut, the marinade, the cooking method, the sauces and/or crusts, two steaks could become different animals all together. There’s no formula, no universal constant. The measure of a steak dinner comes from the people eating it.
So a match of steak dinners is anyone’s game, but we here at the Spinning Plate thought our favorite steak could stand up to the toughest challenger: my father. Several years ago he and his friend Larry inaugurated Chuck Wagon dinner—a Friday or Saturday night devoted to steak dinners and male bonding. Initially my mother called the ritual Boy’s Date Night, but my father rechristened it Chuck Wagon to reflect the cowboy spirit. Over the years, Chuck Wagon has expanded to welcome countless guests. It now holds a hallowed position in our socializing, serving as a rite of passage for our circle of friends.
We called a special Chuck Wagon to stage our steak dinner show down. Eight guests judged the steaks on a 50-point scale: 20 for steak, 15 for the three sides we each had to make, and 15 for presentation. Neither of our dinners was remotely like anything cowboys would have eaten.
My father went off of a classic steakhouse theme—potatoes au gratin, fresh asparagus, sautéed mushrooms and bleu cheese sauce on the steak. Angela and I did a variation on surf and turf, with a crab-stuffed mushroom as one of our sides. Accompanying it was a mini wedge salad and dauphinoise potatoes. The steak was finished with an herb crust and herb compound butter. The overall effect was eclectic, but rooted in steak dinner traditions.
Prior to the competition, I had no doubt that our steak dinner would be the unequivocal victor. Once the judging began, the satisfied nods and enthusiastic murmurs from the judges boosted my confidence. Then it was my dad’s turn. As the judges ate, he circled the table, reminding them of all the times he made them dinner. As if echoing these threats, Larry grunted excessively between bites of steak. I suppose he thought he could influence the other judges by conveying his supreme gastronomic satisfaction. No such luck; my father tried his best to work over the judges, but taste buds don’t lie.
The opposition lost out on the bleu cheese sauce. While some deem the heavy cream and cognac concoction nothing short of heavenly, others considered it too potent. One judge scored my father’s steak with a harsh 10 out of 20.
“The steak was a 20 but the sauce was a 0,”said the judge, who asked to not be named out of fear of retaliation.
The potato element was a win for us. Potatoes are an essential component to many steak dinners, and apparently they can make or break the meal. I knew going in that my dad would pull his potatoes au gratin trick … and I knew where that would lead him: a prodigious casserole of thick potato slices covered in bright orange sauce. To counteract, I used a mandolin to thinly shave my potatoes. They were then baked in an herb-infused cream sauce, complementing the steak rather than overpowering it.
But it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize my father’s entry. The end result was in fact a paper-thin win for the Spinning Plate. Both dinners had their champions.
Defeat was bitter for my father, who was still reeling from his chili throwdown loss last January. He declared that Chuck Wagon would henceforth be closed to all but him and Larry.
“Then it will be boy’s date night again,” said my mother.
– Catherine M.
Herb Crusted Steak
– 4 skirt steaks or filets
– 2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
– 2 tbsp dried thyme
– 2 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
– 1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
– 1 tbsp dried sage leaves
– 4 tsp garlic powder
– 4 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
– Kosher salt
– Fresh ground black pepper
– Extra virgin olive oil
Season steaks liberally with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Worcestershire sauce. Let sit for 15-20 minutes, until steaks reach room temperature. Heat extra virgin olive oil in a large pan until it just begins to smoke. Combine fresh and dried herbs in a bowl, then apply crust to steak. Place steaks down in pan. They will sizzle and pop. Don’t be afraid. Depending on the thickness of the steaks, cook 2-3 minutes on each side, until a dark crust forms. Top with herb compound butter (recipe follows)
Compound Herb Butter
– 1 stick room temperature salted butter
– 1 tbsp. chives, chopped
– 1 tbsp. parsley, chopped
You can use any kind of herbs you want for this recipe. Mix butter and herbs in a small bowl with a fork. When well-combined, place onto a sheet of plastic wrap and roll it into a cylinder. Allow to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before using.