Frugal Foodie: Bourbon Steak’s David Varley

Whether you like your steaks a rare crimson or a well-done pink, grilling them doesn’t have to put you in the red. Bourbon Steak’s David Varley shows you how with a steak dinner for four for less than $25.

“Who wants gray, soggy steak?” asks David Varley as he presses a piece of skirt steak between two paper towels. He knows the question is too ridiculous to wait for an answer, so he continues, explaining that the key to a good steak on the grill is removing the excess surface moisture.

For this Frugal Foodie, Varley—executive chef at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel—agreed to whip up a steak dinner for four for less than $25 (the budget doesn’t include standard pantry items such as sugar, flour, and olive oil). He’s not going to let this steakhouse-tastes-on-a-burger-joint-budget affect the quality, so we drive to H-Mart, an Asian grocery store with significantly lower prices and hard-to-find ingredients. After much debate in front of the store’s meat fridge, Varley chooses a skirt steak. He rounds out his purchase with Chinese eggplant, sugar-snap peas, a cucumber, red potatoes, apricots, a lime, and heavy cream. Grand total: $20.63.

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Skirt steak—a long, flat cut of meat from a cow’s belly—tends to be flavorful but tougher than other cuts of meat. Varley cuts the skirt steak into four even pieces, pats them dry with paper towels, and seasons them with salt and pepper. The drier the steak, the less steam comes off the meat and the crispier it will be on the outside. Salting the meat when it’s raw draws out a little more moisture and also helps the caramelization process.

As the steaks dry, Varley tends to the rest of dinner. He blends a cucumber with green grapes for a gazpacho. He steams the sugar-snap peas and adds a touch of butter. He stuffs two Chinese eggplants. And he puts his own spin on apricot streusel.

He returns to the steaks, patting them dry a second time before taking them out to the grill. There, Varley places them over medium-high-heat charcoals—outside the center of the grill but not at the edges. He turns the meat frequently, explaining that this keeps the juices inside the meat and not dripping through the grate onto the coals.

Varley applies the touch test to the steaks, pressing the tongs into the meat to see how much give they have. The firmer the meat, the more well done it is. He removes the steaks from the grill and lets them rest while he prepares a salsa verde.

Soon, I’m digging into a pale-green cucumber soup, deep-purple eggplants, bright-green sugar-snap peas, soft red potatoes, and perfectly caramelized steaks topped with the vibrant salsa verde. There’s not a touch of gray in this rainbow-colored dinner palette.

All recipes serve four.

Skirt Steak with Salsa Verde

2 large skirt steaks (about 20 ounces)
1 lime, juiced
4 sprigs cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil as needed

Cut the steak into four slices. Remove the meat’s surface moisture by patting the steaks down with a paper towel. Season the steaks with salt and pepper.
Cook the steak on a grill over medium-high heat, turning frequently until it reaches the desired doneness. When it’s done, set aside the steaks to rest.
Combine the remaining ingredients for the salsa verde and season. Top the steaks with salsa verde and serve.

Cucumber Gazpacho

2 cups green grapes, plus a few more for garnish
3 cucumbers, peeled
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 slice sourdough bread, toasted
½ cup toasted walnuts, plus a few more for garnish
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper as needed

In a blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with garnish of green grapes and more toasted walnuts.

Crushed Potatoes

8 to 10 small red potatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt as needed
Freshly cracked pepper as needed
Parsley, chopped, as needed
Thyme as needed
Olive oil as needed

Fill a saucepan with water and add salt until it tastes like salt water. Add the potatoes and garlic. Bring the liquid to a low boil and cook the potatoes until fork tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and garlic and season them with pepper. Top with parsley and thyme leaves. Drizzle the potatoes liberally with olive oil. Crush lightly with the back of a fork. Adjust seasoning.

Stuffed Eggplant

2 eggplants
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Lemon zest as needed
Rosemary as needed
Salt and pepper as needed

Preheat the oven to 380 degrees.

Slice the eggplants in half and cut out their centers. Reserve the eggplant halves and dice each eggplant’s center. Season with salt and pepper.

In a pan set over medium-high heat, sweat the thinly sliced garlic in the olive oil. Add the eggplant. Mix in the bread crumbs. Add the vinegar, lemon zest, and rosemary. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the mixture and stuff each eggplant half. Bake for 20 minutes.

Sugar-Snap Peas

1 pound sugar-snap peas
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan set over medium-high heat, cook the peas with a few tablespoons of water. Cook until just tender, about 2 minutes.
Drain. Stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper.

Apricot Streusel

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
2 cups whole milk, plus another splash
12 dried apricots
3 tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon cornstarch
¼ cup flour
¼ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
Pinch of salt
4 fresh, ripe apricots, halved and pitted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a pot, bring the toasted coriander seeds, 2 cups of milk, and dried apricots to a boil. Pulse the mixture in a blender with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks, corn starch, remaining tablespoon of sugar, and a splash of milk. Whisk until the mixture is firm.

Over low heat, whisk the yolk mixture into the milk/apricot mixture. Add 1 tablespoon butter and keep mixing until the liquid is no longer lumpy.

Spoon the mixture into 4 individual bowls. Top each with 2 halves of fresh apricot.

In a separate mixing bowl, combine the flour, the brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter, and a pinch of salt. Top the apricots with the mixture, then bake for 15 minutes.

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