Really, I’m not kidding.
Now, this is not a meal that I recommend you reach for every week (as much as you might want to), because between the fries and the bérnaise it is a real artery menace. But, once you get some confidence with the sauce , and get your timing down for the fries, it is a meal that is totally doable on a weeknight, and mastering a classic French sauce is a great confidence builder for a novice cook.
I first introduced my kids to bérnaise back in Paris when I was practicing in our apartment kitchen for my first term final exam at Le Cordon Bleu. I knew that the sauce was one of a handful of possible dishes we would need to prepare as our “technical dish” in the exam, and I wanted to be so comfortable with it that I could do it blind-folded. It was then that my twelve year old son, Gridley Studley (don't ask*) begrudgingly took some on his plate to try with the entrecôte we were having for dinner. The poor little fella just about wet himself with excitement as he returned for second, and even third helpings of the bérnaise. Before the night was out, he was rooting through the fridge to see what else he could find that would taste good dipped into the buttery golden concoction.
* (for the purposes of my writing here, Gridley Studley will be referred to as Grid, because his full name is too long to type repeatedly, and as much as his swaggering, 16 year old ego might like it, I refuse to refer to him by the only other logical contraction of his name, that being Stud.)
No surprise, Grid got the call for sous chef for this meal. He has asked me to make bérnaise for him SO many times over the years, that it was absolutely time for him to learn how to make it himself. About an hour before we wanted to put the steaks on the grill, we took them from the fridge to allow them to warm to room temperature. We also cut our potatoes on a mandoline ( Matfer Mandoline 2000S ) and set them into a large bowl of cold water to start rinsing off the starch.
A brief aside – I love my mandoline, it is an awesome and irreplaceable part of my kitchen tool inventory, but I have to tell you that the freakin’ thing scares me to death. I guess I’ve seen too many people lose bits and pieces of fingers and nails over the years to be totally comfortable using it. Watching my son use it to slice the potatoes was scarier for me than watching him drive a car for the first time……just thinking about it now is giving me the heebie jeebies. PLEASE be very careful when using a mandoline, and ALWAYS use the food guide provided with it to keep your fingers as far away from the blade as possible.
Next, we started our reduction of shallots, peppercorns, wine, and vinegar for the bérnaise , and when it was finished set it aside. We then prepared some fresh native asparagus to toss onto the grill when the steaks were done, by snapping off the woody ends, rinsing them under cold water and drying them on a kitchen towel.
Prior to throwing the steaks on the grill, we dropped our fries into 325℉ oil for their first stage of cooking.
When they were done, we removed them to a sheet tray covered with paper towels to await their final “crisping” fry. Our steaks were seasoned with just salt and pepper, cooked on our gas grill to medium rare, and brought inside to rest before plating ( a good rule of thumb is to allow steaks / chops to rest for at least as long as they took to cook. In this instance, cooking time was 8 minutes, and they rested, covered with foil, for 8-9 minutes prior to serving).
While the steaks were resting, Grid finished the bérnaise like a seasoned professional (I guess he was paying attention all those times I made it for him), while I gave the fries their final 2-3 minute stint in 375℉ oil. I also tossed the asparagus, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, onto the hot grill for a quick roast. The fries were dumped onto a paper towel covered sheet tray, and sprinkled with rosemary salt when they had finished cooking.
There is a lot to do in the few minutes after the steaks are cooked and are resting, so it is a perfect meal for a team approach in the kitchen, you know what they say about many hands.
Grid was justifiably proud as we plated all the efforts of his work. He now knows his first classic French sauce, and how to make killer fries. I watched him smile through the whole meal as everyone seated at the table lost themselves in rapturous moans as they ate his delicious food….. a just reward indeed.
Cheers – Steve
Sauce Bernaise (adapted from Le Cordon Bleu)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup white wine or tarragon vinegar
1 large shallot, finely chopped
10 white peppercorns, crushed
3 or 4 fresh tarragon stems, finely chopped
3 or 4 fresh chervil stems, finely chopped (optional)
4 large egg yolks with 4 tablespoons water
2 1/3 sticks butter, clarified
1 – 2 tbs fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped
Clarify butter and set aside in a 1 cup measure, keeping it warm if possible. Add the wine, vinegar, shallots, peppercorns, and the chopped fresh herb stems into a small sauce pan and place over medium heat. Cook until the liquid is almost wholly evaporated, leaving the shallots just moist. Remove from the heat and reserve until the steaks are resting at which point you will finish your sauce.
To finish the sauce, place the yolks and water into the pan with the reserved shallots, and cook over low-medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture achieves the consistency of a loose mayonnaise. Remove from the heat, and drop-by drop start to whisk in the clarified butter. It is important to start incorporating the butter slowly, until your emulsion is well formed. Once the emulsion is well established, and the bernaise starts to thicken, you can add the butter a little more quickly, a few tablespoons at a time, whisking all the while. Make sure each addition of butter is fully incorporated before adding another. Once all the butter has been added, you should have a nice thick (think mayonnaise) bernaise. Press the mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a clean pan to remove the solids. Season to taste with salt, add the freshly minced tarragon leaves (and chervil, if using). If you would like your bernaise a little more sauce-like, you can thin it by whisking in some warm water a tablespoon at a time until it reaches your desired consistency.
French Fries (Pommes Frites)
1 large russet potato (per person)
Peanut oil for frying (you may substitute corn or canola oil if peanut is unavailable)
Fresh chopped herbs such as thyme or rosemary (for a seasoned salt, if desired)
Prepare a very large bowl of cold water in which to soak the cut potatoes.
Wash each potato and then slice, using a julienne cutter attachment on a mandoline, to a 1/4" by 1/4' thickness. If you don't have a mandoline, or just prefer thicker fries, you can hand cut them to a larger size, they will just take longer to cook. Agitate the fries in the water bath with your hands to shake loose the starch from the potatoes, drain and refresh with more cold water until all of the surface starch is removed from the fries, and the water runs clear when poured from the bowl. Drain cut potatoes and lay them onto a double thick layer of paper towels to dry before frying.
Place at least 5-6 inches of oil into a large, heavy dutch oven (such as a Le Creuset French Oven ) and, using a fry thermometer to check, heat the oil to 325 F degrees. Make sure NOT to fill your pan more than 2/3 full of oil, as the fries will bubble violently when first dropped into the pot, and you don't want the oil to boil over. The fries are cooked in two stages, first at 325 F degrees for about 5 minutes, until just starting to brown, then later at 375 F degrees to crisp them. In batches (each the size of two large handfuls of fries), perform the first cooking, stirring the fries gently in the oil to keep them from sticking to each other. When lightly browned (about 5 minutes) remove the fries to a paper-towel lined sheet tray to await their final cooking.
Just before serving the meal, heat the oil to 375 F degrees, and again cooking in batches, fry the potatoes for another 2-3 minutes to brown and crisp them. Remove the finished fries to a towel lined tray to dry, and season immediately with salt. For an extra treat, add some very finely chopped thyme, or rosemary to your salt.