There is a tendency among beginning cooks to follow the Dalia Lama's statment about approaching cooking and love with reckless abandon a bit too freely. I say this from experience. You look at a recipe, and think "nice, but you know, it would be better if you...." Well, maybe it would be, but many times, it won't be. Or there will be some fundamental change that occurs in the whole dish, as a result of your change, that you have to be aware of.
Let me give an example. There are times when you can substitute butter for olive oil for vegetable oil, and vice versa. And then there are times where, well, you just can't. If, for example, you are going to slow saute a vegetable on the stovetop, and you think it may taste better with butter instead of oil, you are going to have to worry about the lower temperature at which butter burns. If you heat butter for too long, at too high a temperature, it scortches. Your food will NOT taste better than if you had used oil. In a case like that, if you want the taste of butter, I would say you should add butter at the END of the cooking. Looking at the other end of things, in cooking risotto, you are frequently called upon to "mount" the rice at the end, with a small knob of butter. You may be avoiding butter and want to use olive oil instead. Well, olive oil does not coat and get absorbed the way butter does. It also has a very distinct taste. So if you have been working very hard at making a classic risotto milanese, where the key ingredients are your stock and your saffron, you will lose that flavor to olive oil. The solution here? Leave out the butter, and don't add the oil.
There are many other examples I can give. Just one more before we go to recipes and cooking. I've used this one before. I have a wonderful Indian curry recipe in my repertoire, involving chicken and cashews. The cashews can be salted or unsalted, toasted or not, but they must be toasted. If you've eaten cashews, you know that buttery, mouthfilling feeling you get from them. I gave my recipe to my friend, who made it and complained it didn't work. "Oh, I made one change. I used sunflower seeds instead of cashews. Cashews are too expensive."
Do I need to go on about that one?
Ok, so here we are with the recipe. I was planning to cook a flank steak. Coincidentally, a recipe showed up in the New York Times, with an article, that talked about how it was an interpretation of a cuban type of dish. The recipe calls for orange juice, oregano leaves, and a flank steak, of course. I pulled something out of the freezer that looked like a flank steak to me, and thawed it. Then this morning, I opened the package and saw that what I thought was flank steak, was in fact skirt steak.
There is a very big difference between the two. Flank steak is thick, usually from the rump of the animal, and somewhat chewy. Skirt steak is the diaphragm of the animal. It is very THIN - almost like those minute steaks we all used to eat (or those disgraceful "steakums" you used to be able to buy for sandwiches, that were really processed, pressed meat by products). If it's a quarter inch thick, it's thick. And skirt steak is very chewy. Remember that the more a muscle works, the tougher it gets. This is the diaphragm of the animal. Animals breathe all day.
See what I mean? So this had to be done differently than the flank steak would have been done. Then in reading through the recipe, I had some more thoughts. The recipe talks about the use of sweet oranges in Cuban cooking. Well, that's wrong. Cuban cooking uses "seville" oranges, or "marmalade" oranges, or other sour or bitter oranges . These are oranges that you, literally, cannot eat out of hand. They will pucker up your mouth and make you very unhappy (Just ask Guy. I gave him one for lunch once. I SWEAR it was an accident. To this day, I don't think he believes me). The standard way to adjust for sweet citrus when you need sour, is to add lemon or lime juice.
As it happens, I still have some small mandarins from the last box that Eric and Kim sent me. But what I also have is a container of frozen orange juice and frozen lemon juice, from their harvest. This is a good thing to keep in mind. How many kinds of frozen orange juice or lemonade can you buy? If you wind up with a bumper crop of citrus, freeze the juice. So, instead of sweet orange juice only, I combined orange, lemon and lime. Because skirt steak takes up a greater volume of space than a flank steak, I increased the amount to a cup, from the recipe's half cup (for a pound and a half of meat). This is combined with 2 tablespoons of olive oil (no change from me), and two cloves of garlic, which I smash. Then a big fat tablespoon of fresh oregano leaves.
Digression here. Oregano may be the one and only herb that is more useful dried than fresh. And, strictly speaking, I should be using a variety known as "mexican" oregano, which has a sharper flavor than mediterranean oregano. Fresh oregano has been called, by some cooks, "vulgar" tasting. I don't disagree, but sometimes there is a place for vulgar in the kitchen, besides Annalena's foul mouth.
Cuban cooking has a bit of spice to it, but not a searing heat. So the teaspoon of cumin stayed, but I was generous with it. The recipe also called for a teaspoon of salt, which I omitted, because I had salted the meat overnight, as I usually do. Then a grind of pepper. I left out the grated orange peel, for a couple of reasons. The peel was supposed to balance the lack of sour, which I had put back with the limes. Also, because skirt steak is cooked faster and hotter than flank steak, the peel would burn.
Now, all of these ingredients, according to the recipe, should be put together in a blender and combined then poured over the meat. Well, that's well and good, but to be honest, you don't need to. The blending of the ingredients makes a smoother paste, which is not a bad thing if you want a lot of it to stick to the meat. You don't. What you're doing in a marinade like this is hoping that the oil and juice emulsion will also carry the flavors of the spices. The sugar in the juice will help it all to literally "stick" to the meat and carmelize it. In fact, this does happen, and it's a general tip for when you are in fact marinating and you want more flavor. Don't use a LOT of a sugar containing ingredient, but use a bit. You'll get more color and more flavor from the other ingredients.
I also changed the recipe in the instructions to pour the marinade over the meat. There isn't enough marinade here to do that and get all of the meat covered and soaked. So here's another tip. Get a sealable plastic bag, and put everthing in that and seal it up. It works much better. Let it sit for about thirty minutes.
In the last ten minutes of marinating, start heating up your griddle or frying pan, and wipe it with a paper soaked in olive oil. For skirt steak, you're going to have to cut the meat into manageable sized pieces a few steps ago (like when you're salting it overnight, or at the latest, when it goes in the bag). When it's nice and hot, take the meat out of the bag, run your fingers over it to get the excess solids off of the meat, and sear it QUICKLY. No more than two minutes a side. Let it rest, and then make sure to slice it on the bias so that you can eat it without chewing forever.
The acid in this marinade will help to break down the sturdy muscle tissue, but it won't make it that soft. If you want tender meat, you should stick to something else. What I will tell you, however, is that there is very little in the beef field that is as tasty, and as "beefy" as a skirt steak. And while I've gone on for longer than usual today, if you center on the recipe, you'll see how little work you really spend cooking. Give it a try.