Every once in a while, don’t you crave a steak — a thick, juicy, medium rare steak with a crusty sear on the outside and all that delicious umami flavor? This is never a problem in the summer — A steak grilled on the barbecue at the height of summer Is delicious and easy to come by. In the winter though, it’s difficult to achieve that same degree of satisfaction.
I’ll forego the bundled-up pit master, wrapped in ski parka, Shetland sweater, wool beanie and thick gloves, pacing around the outdoor grill, stamping his feet and checking his watch in the dark — the entrée wouldn’t live up to the suffering. And you don’t always want to make a big deal and “go out to dinner” for a simple steak, so back to the kitchen.
I’ve tried various indoor steak cooking ideas — mainly broiling or pan-frying, that set off the smoke alarm and create a greasy haze in the kitchen that has to be blown out the back door with fans while a cold draft blows in, but never produced a very satisfying steak.
This winter I came upon a new idea that was so logical and well-considered I knew it had to work. The process is called “reverse sear” and the idea is you cook the the steak in the oven at a low temperature until the interior reaches the desired state of done-ness then finish it on top of the stove in a super-hot cast-iron fry-pan, but only for a few minutes. It’s already cooked, you are just creating that lovely sear on the outside.
Holy baked potatoes! It does work! It’s even better than a grilled steak in the summer because you aren’t guessing if it’s over done or too rare — it’s cooked through at precisely the right temperature. I can now enjoy a perfect steak in the winter, every once in a while, and share the news with you. Cook the steak you like — I’ve tried it with a New York and a top sirloin,
both of average thickness, and a thick filet mignon. Having the meat at room temperature before you start the process is important. The steaks were delicious out of the pan, but the herb-butter sauce is a nice upgrade. I can only say, if you’re craving a steak, give it a try, you’ll be amazed.
Reverse sear steak
Learning how to reverse-sear means you can serve steakhouse quality meals in your own kitchen; steaks with a deeply browned crust and an inside that is evenly cooked. This method is especially helpful when cooking thick steaks; it allows the meat to cook exactly to your taste without overcooking or even burning the exterior of the steak. Although this steak is delicious straight out of the skillet, we added a buttery wine pan sauce to finish off the dish. The recipe for the herb butter added to the sauce makes more than you will need and is very handy to have around to dress up a pot of rice or vegetables at the last minute. Recipe by Jasmine
Smith. Active Time:15 minutes, total time: 50 minutes
• 1 (1 pound, 4-ounces) boneless beef strip steak (11/2-inch thick), at room temperature
• 1teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
• 5teaspoons freshly cracked 4-peppercorn blend, divided
• ½ cup (4ounces) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced shallot (from 1small shallot)
• 1teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
• 1tablespoon grapeseed oil (Mazola works just fine)
• ¼ cup dry red wine
• ½ cup unsalted beef broth
DIRECTIONS >> Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Sprinkle steak with salt and 1 teaspoon of the pepper. Place steak on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven until a thermometer inserted in thickest portion of meat registers 115degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare (the steak will cook more when it is finished in the skillet), about 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, place butter, shallot, thyme and remaining 4 teaspoons pepper in a small bowl; fold mixture together using a spatula until thoroughly combined. Cover and chill the compound butter for about 30 minutes, or store in an airtight container in refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Heat oil in a 12-inch castiron skillet over high until oil shimmers and just begins to smoke. Add steak; cook until golden brown, 1 minute per side. Transfer steak to a cutting board.
Remove skillet from heat, add wine to skillet, and let mixture reduce, stirring constantly, until reduced by half, about 15 seconds. Add broth. Return skillet to heat over mediumhigh and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring constantly, until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add 2 tablespoons compound butter and whisk until butter has melted and sauce emulsifies. Season with additional salt to taste.
“My idea was to transform these ingredients,” Pepe says, “and also to separate them because they have different cooking times.”
This is where the dehydrator comes in. He uses the machine to turn tomato sauce into flavor-packed tomato sheets (a more delicate version of fruit leather) and dries the olives and capers into rough powders. The mushrooms are dusted with flour and deep-fried. The basil is pureed with olive oil and ice cubes (to preserve the color). The only ingredients baked in the oven with the dough are the mozzarella, the artichokes and the prosciutto cotto. After the pizza is cooked, Pepe places torn bits of the tomato sheets on top, then sprinkles on the dehydrated olives and capers plus oregano, fried mushrooms, drops of oil from strained anchovies and dots of the basil puree.
“Dignity is given back to the pizza,” he says.
It all sounds good, yet for those of us who came of age at a time when chefs were rejecting processed foods in favor of seasonal, locally grown ingredients presented as simply as possible, it’s disconcerting at first to hear about Pepe’s explorations. Especially when he opens a computer and plays a video demonstrating his old and new pizza capricciosa. Pepe’s old-style capricciosa looks pretty tasty in the video — it’s impossible for him to make a badlooking
pizza. The first segment ends with a lovely shot of wood aflame in a pizza oven. Then as the focus shifts to his new capricciosa, the romantic wood fire image changes to a shot of an electric pizza oven being switched on with the press of a button.
Does this mean Pepe is rejecting the tradition of wood-fueled pizza ovens?
“For me,” Pepe says, “after the wood-fired oven, the electric oven is next. It’s the ideal alternative.”
But he’s not giving up his wood-burning oven just yet. It’s true that he’s started working with an electric oven, open in the front and dome-shaped like a traditional pizza oven, which can reach 500 degrees Celsius (that’s 942 degrees Fahrenheit) in about an hour. For now, however, the electric oven is something Pepe uses on the road to spread the gospel of pizza, as well as a tool he envisions for home use.
He also likes that electric ovens are better for the environment. And given that more and more places in the world are phasing out wood- and gas-powered stoves — consider last year’s Los Angeles City Council ban on gas appliances in new homes and commercial buildings — the next generation of pizza chefs will need artisans like Pepe to figure out how to work with electric ovens.
“We want to use technology and innovation,” Pepe says, “but we shouldn’t lose the ability to hand-make food. We shouldn’t forget our own technology as humans. So many times we
let technology come into our life and we ignore ourselves. We cancel ourselves.”
Pepe has always blended innovation with artisan tradition. His most famous early pizza, the Margherita sbagliata, or “mistaken margherita,” brings a chef’s ingenuity to a classic recipe that few would have dared to change 10 years ago when Pepe opened his restaurant.
“Italians figure their classic dishes don’t need to be messed with,” says Italybased food writer and early Pepe advocate Faith Willinger in the “Chef’s Table” episode. “I mean, it’s considered a sin.”
But Pepe felt that two of the star ingredients on a Margherita, the basil and tomatoes, weren’t being treated with the dignity they deserved. “Why put a fantastic tomato in an oven at 400 degrees [Celsius, 752 degrees Fahrenheit]?” he says in “Chef’s Table.” “Then I thought about the basil leaf. Many people don’t eat it. They discard it. So I created this reduction of basil and local oil.”
Only mozzarella and olive oil are put on the dough before Pepe’s Margherita is baked. Then his pizza makers use squeeze bottles to form red geometric lines of tomato passata and dots of basil reduction on top of the melted cheese. The pizza looks like a modernist piece of art when it arrives at the table.
Of course, squeeze bottles — and, for that matter, dehydrated sheets of tomatoes for the capricciosa pizza — may not seem like the expected tools of an artisan pizza chef. But when
you taste Pepe’s pizza you understand.
I first ate Pepe’s pizza in late 2013, a little more than a year after he broke away from his family’s traditional pizzeria in Caiazzo and opened his own restaurant a five-minute walk away. I’d gone there with the late Jonathan Gold (who was my husband and this paper’s restaurant critic) to meet Mozza chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton, who had eaten at Pepe in Grani a few months earlier and declared its pizza the best she’d ever eaten.
“It feels almost as if Franco invented pizza and everyone else is just copying him,” she told Jonathan for a 2014 Food & Wine story he wrote about Pepe. “It’s like chefs doing molecular cuisine after Ferran Adrià at El Bulli.”
What struck me at the time was the way this single pizzeria — which makes up to 1,000 pizzas nightly for crowds that in non-COVID times can wait hours
for a table — supports a whole ecosystem of local farmers and producers. Piennolo tomatoes and apricots are grown on the sides of Mt. Vesuvius just more than an hour’s drive away. And we saw bufala mozzarella being made for Pepe just down the road from Caiazzo. I also fell in love with Pepe’s no-machine dough-making skill, which results in a crust that is light to the touch — pull a piece off the edge to experience its elasticity — but so substantial in flavor that you can practically taste the time that went into making it.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the craftsmanship of the handmade dough and intense flavors of the local produce on top of the pizza that you might forget to notice the more modern innovations Pepe has brought to the world of pizza.
Even here in California, where pizza has undergone multiple transformations, we haven’t seen pizza like
Pepe’s. He was an early proponent of the pizza tasting menus that have popped up around Italy, and designed a tasting-room table with a view through the center of the table to the kitchen below.
He’s also reworked the concept of Naples’ fried pizza into something lighter — a cone of airy fried dough filled with melted cheese, arugula pesto and a dusting of flavorful dehydrated olives or rounds of puffy fried dough divided into four pieces, each unsauced but artfully topped with a floret of thinly sliced mortadella, a dab of bufala ricotta and threads of lemon zest.
“It’s like eating a cloud,” Silverton says of Pepe’s fried pizza in the “Chef’s Table” episode.
Lately, Pepe’s been working with a nutritionist to come up with a collection of pizzas that are healthier and easier to digest, with fewer carbohydrates than a typical pizza. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Pepe is experimenting with electric ovens and other technology.
It’s all part of his quest to elevate the standing of pizza in the world of cuisine while preserving its populist roots and artisan traditions. It’s a balancing act he’s worked hard to maintain while setting a course for pizza’s future. But for all his talk about technology and innovation, Pepe, like a true chef, knows there is one thing that matters above all else for pizza lovers around the world.
“For me,” he says firmly, “there is one universal language. Flavor.”