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Rookie Chef Tries His Hand at Dinner

April 2, 2010

Bill Oram interned with me at The Washington Post. Earlier this week, he asked me for dinner recipes to make for his girlfriend. I was happy to oblige, provided he write about the experience:

I came from a casserole family. It’s not a knock on my tuna-and-noodle loving parents, nor is it an indictment of my tastes. I very much enjoy cooking. The problem is that I’m not good at it. I can follow a recipe to the teaspoon and still find a way to screw it up. A French-trained chef friend insists the secret is controlling the heat. Again, that’s something I’ve never mastered. My eggs inevitably turn out gray on the bottom, and the edges curl upward, like the disbelieving dead chefs, rising halfway from their graves  to offer scorn.

Bill's dinner looks so good, I'm tempted to make it myself!

So how does a bad cook wind up on a blog dedicated to good food? Well, this is a redemption story. Earlier this week I wanted to make dinner — something simple yet elegant for my girlfriend. We recently moved to a new city, and since she unpacked while I worked, I thought something nice was in order. So I turned to Ishita Singh, the proprietress of this blog, who by all accounts could whip up a five course meal with one hand while dribbling a basketball with the other. [Ed. note: Undeserved flattery was a requirement for his post.]

Her recommendation: flank steak, goat cheese and spinach pasta and pancetta-wrapped asparagus.


But I went with it. The idea of me whipping up something that even sounded gourmet historically would have scared me out of the kitchen.

The thing with this dish, however, is that it’s easy. It sounds daunting, but all it took was a quick, inexpensive visit to the grocery store and about an hour and a half’s worth of cooking. I marinated the flank in cheap merlot (also a good pairing for meal), A1, steak seasoning and salt and pepper and threw it on the grill. Next, I olive-oiled and seasoned eight spears of asparagus in pancetta and baked them in the oven at 375˚F for 20 minutes. The pasta may have been easiest of all: I softened a package of goat cheese and mixed in some thawed spinach. Once my penne had cooked, I mixed in my green-and-goat mixture.

What I didn’t take into account when planning and preparing this fancy looking meal, however, is that my girlfriend — who is not exactly Ken Kesey when it comes to experimenting (with food) — dislikes both goat cheese and spinach. The asparagus, however, was a huge hit. So was the steak.

Even if you miss a step or overcook any of the components, we’ve all been told time and again it ends up in the same place; a mish-mash of tasty ingredients. Like a casserole.

Note (from 10/12): Here’s the recipe, in case you too have a significant other to impress. Or just want to treat yourself to a nice dinner.

For the red wine-marinated flank steak:

– 1 pound flank steak

– 1/3 cup olive oil

– 1/3 cup Merlot or other red wine

– 1/4 cup A1 steak sauce (or any other steak sauce you like)

1) Put the olive oil, Merlot and steak sauce in a large Ziploc bag and mix well. Place the steak in the bag, making sure that the marinade covers it completely. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

2) Heat up a grill until it’s screaming hot (as Rachael Ray would say). Remove the steak from the marinade and salt and pepper one side. Place that side on the hot grill and salt and pepper the side facing up. After 4-5 minutes, flip. It should take another 4 minutes on that side for a medium-rare steak.

3) Take the steak off the grill and let it rest under an tin foil tent for at least 10 minutes before cutting.

For the pancetta-wrapped asparagus:

– 8 spears asparagus

– 4 slices pancetta, thinly cut

1) Cut the stems off the asparagus. Toss the stalks with salt and pepper before wrapping one slice of pancetta around two stalks. Repeat for the rest of the asparagus.

2) Spread the spears out on a lined baking sheet and roast for 2o minutes at 375˚F.

For the spinach and goat cheese pasta:

– 1 pound pasta (I’ve only used penne or fusilli, but any short pasta will do)

– 10-ounce package of frozen spinach

– 6 ounces goat cheese or cream cheese, softened

1) Thaw the spinach and squeeze out all of the excess liquid (Put the spinach in a dishcloth or cheesecloth and wring as though your life depended on it). Mix in the softened cheese.

2) Prepare the pasta, per the usual instructions. When draining the pasta, reserve some of the cooking water.

3) Toss the pasta with the spinach and cheese sauce. Add pasta water to thin the sauce if necessary.

*Keith made this pasta (along with his famous garlic bread and PB&J ice cream sandwiches, yum) the first time he ever cooked for me. Needless to say, it really does work wonders!

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