- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

It was the only choice when we stopped at a roadside cafe. The proprietor took out his pan and fried fresh steaks at the bar as I watched, fascinated. After a quick sizzle on each side, he transferred the meat to plates and went to work on the sauce. A dusting of chopped shallots and garlic and then came the wine, poured from an open, unlabeled bottle.

We were in Burgundy, so that bottle had a pedigree. Before my eyes, the wine was boiled almost to a glaze to concentrate and mellow the flavor — the key step, I discovered, when I went home and tried the procedure myself. Fresh herbs and cubes of cold butter, swirled in the warm sauce until melted, completed the dish.

What fun I’ve had testing this recipe using three steaks side-by-side in identical pans with three different wines. One was an obscure red from Chile, price $3.50; the label did not even specify the region of origin. Predictably, the flavor was thin. In total contrast came a fruity Californian shiraz at about $7; full-bodied and tannic, I reckoned it was bound to make its mark in the pan. The pick of the bunch appeared to be a well-rounded pinot noir from Oregon — velvety and rich, though at $15, a bit pricey for cooking.

These characteristics came through clearly in the finished sauce. The anonymous Chilean wine faded to nothing, so all I could taste were herbs and butter. The shiraz delivered plenty of body and united the flavorings to yield a bold, dark sauce — a bit crude, perhaps, but with lots of character. The pinot noir (same grape as my original Burgundian experience) was equally balanced but more subtle with multiple layers of flavor.

Steak marchand de vin — literally, wine merchant’s steak — is the time-honored way to use up that open half bottle that’s a bit over the hill. Be warned — you may think that no one will notice, but they will. What goes into the pan to deglaze those lovely steak juices will come out clearly the other side in the sauce. There’s no cheating here.



All my wine sauces, even the simplest, made an improvement to plain pan-fried steak. For a special occasion, I might splurge on a pinot noir or its equivalent — after all, only half a bottle is needed, so there’s plenty left for the table. But for everyday and the family, I’d fall back on the old rule: If you can drink it, it’s good for cooking.

Any portion-size steak will do for marchand de vin: fillet, T-bone or rib (French entrecote), so choose your favorite. The way to test if a steak is done just right is to press the meat in the center with your finger (Don’t worry, you won’t get burned). If soft, the steak is rare; if slightly resistant, the meat will be medium; if firm, it is well done (and likely to be dry). However you like it cooked, steak marchand de vin is a dream for the busy cook, taking less than 15 minutes total.

At the table, I tasted each of my cooking wines with its steak partner, and the shiraz and the pinot noir did well, echoing and reinforcing the underlying flavors in the sauce. So I’d recommend that you serve the same wine as you’ve used for cooking — unless, of course, this is a special occasion, and you invest in an outstanding bottle. Keep this strictly for drinking, as the nuances of a great vintage wine will be lost as soon as it is heated.

Steak marchand de vin

The main recipe for steak marchand de vin is just a beginning. Below you’ll find a couple of variations on the classic red wine and herbs, so you can suit your mood and your guests. For example, I sometimes add chopped anchovy and extra garlic to the sauce for a Mediterranean flavor. And in Dijon, the home of mild French mustard, the sauce for steak is made with white wine, mustard and cream. As accompaniment, the French make the world’s best fries — cut skinny and fried to pale golden and crisp. They would always be my personal choice for steak marchand de vin, but some people go for garlic mashed potatoes or a floury baked potato.

4 individual steaks, cut 3/4 to 1 inch thick

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, divided

2 shallots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ bottle (325 ml) red wine

2 tablespoons chopped curly parsley

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or basil

2 tablespoons cold butter, cut in pieces

Season steaks on both sides with pepper and a very little salt. Heat half the oil in a large skillet or heavy frying pan; add steaks and fry over high heat until brown, about 2 minutes. Turn steaks, lower heat to medium and continue cooking 2 to 5 minutes, depending on their thickness and how well you like them done. Set them aside on a dish to keep warm.

Heat remaining oil in pan, add shallot and garlic and saute, stirring, until beginning to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine and simmer, stirring to dissolve pan juices, until reduced almost to a glaze, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in parsley, chives, tarragon or basil, and any juices that have run from the meat. Take pan from the heat. Add butter, whisking in a few pieces at a time so it softens and thickens sauce without melting to oil. Taste and adjust seasoning, spoon sauce over steaks and serve at once. Serves 4.

Variations:

Mediterranean steak marchand de vin: Omit the chives and tarragon or basil in steak marchand de vin and use flat-leaf instead of curly-leaf parsley. Double the amount of garlic and add a finely chopped anchovy fillet with the red wine.

Steak Dijonnaise: Substitute white wine, preferably a chardonnay, for the red wine in steak marchand de vin. After adding herbs, take pan from the heat and whisk in 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and 2/3 cup heavy whipping cream. Bring sauce just back to a boil, take again from the heat and whisk in butter. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more mustard, if you like.

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