Last week in reviewing a new steakhouse, The Bourbon Grill at El Gancho, I mentioned that I like to buy nice cuts of beef and cook steaks at home. I do this because a) it’s cheaper and b) I think it’s fun, plus c) I get to drink as much wine as I want while I’m cooking and d) I don’t have to put on real pants to do any of it. Win.
As I said, this doesn't really work for things like prime rib because a) it requires a Flintstone-sized roast, which b) is quite expensive and c) is just too much effort for a Tuesday night.
Filet mignon is another story. Yes, it's expensive if you buy two prepackaged steaks in the meat section at the grocery store. But here's a great secret: You can save a lot by buying a whole tenderloin and trimming it yourself. Last week at Costco, I bought a 7-pound tenderloin (USDA Choice, because Prime wasn't available) for $82 and turned it into 11 smallish filets, half a pound of what I called stir-fry slices and a pound of cubed meat, perfect for beef stroganoff or bourguignon or whatever you want to do with super tender little beef chunks.
That's less than $7 for a filet mignon. Not bad, eh?
If Costco doesn't work for you, ask the meat counter attendant at your favorite grocery store if they'll sell you a whole tenderloin.
When you get it home, make a little bed of paper towels on the kitchen counter, near the sink. Then, holding the meat over the sink, cut open the plastic and allow the liquid to drain. Set the meat on the paper towels and pat it dry. Move it to the cutting board.
The best bargain in tenderloin isn't very pretty; it's a lumpy shape, all covered with weird chunks of fat and silverskin. This is why you paid less than $12 per pound for tenderloin. But believe me, it's worth it.
Now get familiar with your tenderloin. Notice there's a flat, skinny end to the meat and a wide, fat end. There's also a long piece of meat kind of stuck all along one side. We're going to separate this into three pieces.
First, use your fingers to peel off all the sheathing of fat and connective tissue that envelops the meat.
Pretty quickly, you see the three parts emerge. Pull the membrane away from the central part of the meat and use your knife to gently separate the chain (that long, skinny strip) from the tenderloin.
Put the chain on a plate or a piece of foil; we'll deal with it later.
Now, remove the other piece—the miniature roast that makes up half of the fat end of the tenderloin— and put it with the chain.
Next, we need to remove the silverskin, that long, shiny piece of tissue that runs the length of the tenderloin. Start at the bottom, and get the tip of your knife under the silverskin. If you've successfully removed the skin from a piece of salmon, use that same technique here. Lift and wiggle the silverskin as you gently work your knife underneath it, trying to take off as little meat as possible. It's not easy to do this well, so you may have some cleanup to do.
Now, you should have a pretty tenderloin.
Lay out another plate or piece of foil for the trimmings you want to keep for another purpose.
I like a little steak (4-6 ounces), and my dude likes a big one (6-8 ounces), plus I'm kind of fussy, so I use my kitchen scale to weigh out the pieces.
I cut the steaks and then weigh each one, wrap it in plastic and then in foil, and use a Sharpie to write the weight and the date on it.
I used trim and portion tenderloins all the time back when I worked in restaurants, and it was important to get them as uniform as possible, so that every customer's steak weighed as much as you promised, and they all looked equal when they came to the table.
But at home, this is probably not as important, so just cut steaks that look good to you. It's nice to have a variety of weights and thicknesses to reach for in the freezer.
A good piece of tenderloin is delicious when seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked in a hot cast iron pan. A little olive oil in the pan is good. Cooking the steak in beef fat is great.
If you want to dress it up a little, make a little sour cherry sauce while the cooked steaks are resting. Add some olive oil or beef fat to the pan if it's dry. Sauté a minced shallot or ¼ cup minced onion over medium heat, just until they're translucent. Add ¼ cup of port, cognac, madeira, sherry or whatever, and let it simmer until it's almost gone. Throw in a handful of dried tart cherries and ½ cup low-sodium beef. Simmer for a few minutes while the cherries plump and the sauce thickens. If you have demi-glace in the fridge, drop in a couple tablespoons of that. Otherwise, you can do butter. Or you can leave it. Either way, season the sauce with salt and pepper and pour it over your steaks.