My mom used to describe the steak she ate at the fancy restaurant “in town” each year on Valentine’s Day as so buttery and salty that it “tasted like popcorn.” That’s been my benchmark for success when I'm cooking steak ever since. I’ve done that a lot in the past year as all of our special, steak-eating occasions have been spent at home. For my last birthday, which fell 10 days after New York City initiated its stay-at-home orders, I wore a colorful shift dress, my partner put on my roommate’s flouncy gold blouse, and we doused a ribeye in butter and salt. We ate the popcorn steak on my bedspread, but it felt like being at a corner table at a restaurant where the lights are dim and flattering—which was all that I wanted for my birthday, and all that so many of us want this Valentine’s Day.
I use Alton Brown’s pan-seared ribeye recipe, plus the gobs of butter my granny preferred, the fat ratio my papa taught me, and a few tips from friends I’ve gathered over the years. It’s a perfect steak to cook on a Valentine’s Day, where the only safe restaurant is the one in your or your partner’s house: It melts in your mouth, creates the feeling of a special occasion, and, as a bonus, leaves your kitchen smelling like butter for days—the smell of love lingers in the drawers and cabinets.
Step one: Gather your supplies
It’s best to pick out the steak in person if you can safely go to a grocery store. Ribeye filets are too small and not fatty enough. What you want is a boneless ribeye, which my grandpa, who farmed cattle and bought roses for my granny until the day he died, always ordered in restaurants. He wanted fat that he could chew on and pick out of his teeth with his fingers. When I think about love, I remember the way my papa used to steal the white blobs of fat off my dinner plate after I’d cut it off my steak, saying, “That’s the best part, girl!” You’re looking for a ribeye with the Papa ratio of fat: marbled around the edges, and maybe with a vein of white through the center. That’s where the flavor is, he said, and it’s true.
For two people, a one-pound ribeye is perfect. Two half-pound ribeyes also work, but it’s more fun to cook a bigass steak if you’ve got the right skillet. Otherwise, you need canola oil, salt, pepper, an onion (optional), and a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron skillet. A steak knife is also optional, because, ideally, your steak will slice neatly with a butter knife when you’re through.
Step two: Salt your steak
Alton Brown says nothing about salting your steak before cooking it, but my friend Kelsey—the last person to make me dinner before the pandemic—advises salting it 24 hours in advance, which I find helps with the popcorn aspect. The dinner she made us in late February was also steak, served on top of caramelized onions. We drank red wine, then room-temperature mezcal as an aperitif—salty, tart, then smoky—talking about writing, museums, and all the lovely things we talked about before every conversation became about masks, loneliness, and death (or palpably, ineffectively avoided them).
Step three: Preheat the oven and caramelize onions
A few hours before you plan on cooking your steak—sometime around late afternoon on Valentine’s Day—put the bottle of wine you bought for the occasion in the refrigerator and take out your salted steak to bring it to room temperature. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees and put on an outfit that you haven’t worn in months, and maybe even shoes.
I recommend serving your steak on top of onions like Kelsey's. You and your partner can take turns turning them over in the skillet with a wooden spoon, complaining about the amount of time it takes for onions to caramelize and, of course, adding in pats of butter as you go. Start sweating while you slowly stir your onion in its pool of butter and reminisce about the summer day you spent painting your bedroom with the windows closed, listening to hours of R.E.M., becoming woozy on paint fumes and Michael Stipe’s voice, and saying “I love you” for the first time while you sweated through your underwear and rinsed the brushes out in the bathtub.
When it's done after about 30 minutes, set the onion aside on a big platter and wipe the skillet clean; you want a dry skillet for your steak, or you'll cause a fog-machine situation in your kitchen.
Step four: Sear your steak
Heat the skillet back up until it's hot enough to make a splash of water to dance. Wipe your steak dry, grind pepper onto it, and rub it down with canola oil. Ask your partner to handle the steak for you when it becomes too unbearable to handle raw meat like that.
Place the steak on the hot skillet while your partner removes the batteries from the smoke alarm, which is already chirping from the low-slung ceilings in your apartment/restaurant. Feel the inevitable surge of adrenaline that you do every time the smoke alarm goes off (a lot, over the past year). Sweat a little more. Start dropping globs of butter on the pan. Add so much that it feels wrong and fills the entire apartment with sweet-smelling steam. Using a spoon, give the steak its own little butter bath, scooping the melted butter from the bottom of the skillet and pouring it over the sizzling ribeye.
Flip the steak after 30 seconds and cook it on the other side for an additional 30 seconds, repeating the butter stuff, even adding a few more tablespoons. Repeatedly ask your partner, “Do you think that was 30 seconds?” It probably was, and, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter—it’s your ribeye.
Step five: Check the steak's color and taste
Your ribeye is, by now, starting to smell a little like popcorn, right? Place it in the preheated oven for four to six minutes, flipping it over halfway through. Spend this time watching your partner clean dishes in his golden blouse, and think about how it must be true that opposites attract because you’d prefer to leave the dishes sitting overnight and deal with them in the morning. Wonder how it is that your partner handles your proclivity toward a messy kitchen and think about how lucky you are. Flip your steak.
When the timer goes off, remember you don’t own a meat thermometer, and ask your partner to slice into the steak to check its color. Ask, “Is that too red?” as if either of you have an eye for the subtle differences in timing that can make or break these kinds of things. Decide that it’s done after cutting several more tiny slices into the steak. Cut a fatty corner off the steak and pop it into your mouth with your fingers to taste it like Papa did, despite that, for the duration of their 60-plus years of marriage, his wife was always on him to “stop doing that!” Realize that the steak requires almost no chewing. Let it rest for a few minutes, or for as long as you can stand to wait.
Step six: Serve and eat
After your steak has settled, move it onto the plate with the caramelized onions. Bring the chilled bottle of wine, which cost two to five dollars more than you usually spend, out of the refrigerator, and decide where you’ll eat. Settle on the bedroom—a private place, and such a treat to eat steak in bed!—and ask your partner to spread out the old quilt you used to bring to the park so the steak and onion juices don’t wreck your duvet. Avoid the temptation to light any candles! They provide ambience but, as my friend Aleks advised, the smell from the candle messes with your sense of taste, altering slightly the experience of this perfect meal you’ve just prepared.
Set the bottle of wine on the floor and place the platter of onions and steak between the two of you so you can share it—fewer dishes to clean, and also a bit of a classic Lady and the Tramp situation. Cheers your first bites on the ends of your forks. Chew together, turning the steak over in your mouth slowly like a good tongue kiss, and feel the butter coating the insides of your cheeks. Eat it so slowly that it goes cold on the plate but still tastes incredible. Leave all the pieces of fat on; think of your Papa saying in his big, deep voice, “That’s where all the flavor is!” Think about how it would feel to love someone for more than 60 years, to know their habit of cutting into steak too soon “just to check it,” to tolerate all the little pinches of fat they steal from your plate. Swallow, and talk about how the steak really does taste like popcorn, and now you understand what your mom was always going on and on about for days after her Valentine’s date.
Remember you left the oven on, and that’s why it’s so warm in your small apartment, despite the cold outside. Leave it on a little longer because nothing is worth getting up and dissolving the room you and your partner have created over your perfect steak; the oven can wait, you have all the time in the world, no one is waiting to take this intimate table. Finish your steak and say to your partner, “I think that was our best work yet.” Kiss and discover how much butter feels like Chapstick. Pile the dishes in the sink and realize your stomach is too full to bother with doing the rest of the dishes. They can wait till tomorrow.
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