Thursday, May 6, 2004
A Mixed Marriage Made in Heaven: Bovine and Mollusk
By ROGER M. GRACE
Steak smothered in onions is commonly found on menus. So is steak smothered in mushrooms. There’s something even better: steak smothered in oysters.
Oysters are an ideal concomitant of beef. If that doesn’t immediately strike you as a truism, just ask an Australian.
“Down under,” they serve a dish called “carpetbag steak.” It starts with a thick cut of beef, upon which surgery is performed. A deep incision is made, Sydney rock oysters are crammed in the pocket (generally after being dipped in Worcester sauce), and the opening is sealed with skewers. This “turf and surf” amalgam is then cooked, most often rare, either pan-fried or broiled in the oven.
Other ingredients sometimes included in the pocket are butter, lemon juice, parsley, bread crumbs, or shredded cheese.
The dish became popular in Sydney in about 1950, and has spread to Great Britain, South Africa, and elsewhere, with local variations. Smoked oysters are, regrettably, sometimes substituted for fresh ones.
Although associated with Australia, the dish is not Australian in origin. It’s generally agreed that it was concocted in the U.S., though its history is foggy.
Among the restaurants serving carpetbag steak well before the Aussies latched onto it was Chasen’s here in Los Angeles, an eatery that opened in 1936 as “Chasen’s Southern Pit,” a six-table rib and chili joint. By the time it closed in 1995, it was a fabled and elegant hang-out for Hollywood stars and for a former star who had become a United States president.
Some suspect that just as the Shirley Temple cocktail was concocted there, so was the carpetbag steak.
In the United States, the dish is more often than not referred to as “carpetbagger steak,” rather than “carpetbag steak.” The former term doesn’t make sense; the latter does.
After the Civil War, there were exploitative Northerners who forayed to the South with their belongings in satchels fashioned from carpets who gained local offices. The carpetbags were stuffed; so, likening a steak that is stuffed to a carpetbag is strained but comprehensible.
The term “carpetbagger,” on the other hand, referred to the people carrying the carpetbags. It’s applied modernly to a person who seeks office in an area in which the person is a newcomer. To liken a steak to people who are profiteers new to the scene doesn’t seem apt.
It was about 20 years ago that my wife, Jo-Ann, cooked a carpetbag steak, using an old recipe. I recall that rather than closing the pocket with skewers, as they do in Australia, she sewed the meat with twine.
I can’t find the recipe in her cookbooks; she might have come across it in a magazine or newspaper. Perhaps it was a reprint of that appearing in “Cooking a la Ritz” by Louis Diat, published in 1941 (believed to be the first recipe for the dish in print). At least, the recipe she used was a close facsimile. Diat’s recipe instructed:
“Have the butcher cut steak from the sirloin 11/2 to 2 inches thick, and then cut through the center to make a pocket. Stuff this pocket with raw oysters, seasoned with salt an pepper. Then sew the edges of pocket together.
“Broil about fifteen minutes on each side….”
Jo-Ann was not enthralled with the dish. Being an avid aficionado of beef, she sees no need for A1 Sauce or other such enhancements on steaks, so it probably should not have been a surprise that she did not find the addition of oysters to be an improvement to the meat. To me, the dish seemed bland, but promising. It needed something to boost the flavor (like the Worchester sauce used by the Australians). And, to my half-Norwegian taste buds, the proportion of beef to oyster needed to be inverted—that is, more oyster, less beef.
So, when we have steak, Jo-Ann has a large cut, generally seasoned only with garlic powder and sea salt, and I’m apt to have a filet, with mounds of sautéed oysters. The oysters are splashed with Chinese oyster sauce and swished around in the pan shortly before I pour them over the steak.
While the origin of carpetbag steak is uncertain, it is known that the combining of beef and oysters did not start with that dish. Early American recipes called for smothering steaks with oysters, or adding oysters to the pot shortly before the meat was done.
Beef and oyster pie was also a dish known in the 19th century, and perhaps before that.
To beef purists like my wife, this column will have no relevance. But if you like beef and will entertain the prospect that its flavor just might profit from the addition of oysters, try it.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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