My first experience of American serving sizes came in the summer of ’77. We were taking a circuitous journey back to the UK after a three year posting in Hong Kong with our four year old son.
Having been blown out of Kai Tak airport by the approach of a typhoon, it was a relief after a thirteen hour flight when we landed in the welcoming warmth of Oahu, one of the larger Hawaiian Islands. It was the height of the tourist season and, as we drove along the coast to our beachside hotel, we were wide eyed at the dress and size of the vacationers filling the pavements. Having lived on an island where being 6ft tall in a tropical downpour meant that your eyes were on the level with the tops of a sea of Chinese umbrellas, we were used to standing out in a crowd, but not because we were a great deal slimmer than the average.
Waikiki was jammed with walking tents of hibiscus printed muumuus, and pastel shorts straining at their seams. We felt pale and ill fed in comparison. That first evening we were too tired to make it to supper and decided on the easy option of a take away pizza on the beach. A family-size margherita seemed like a sensible choice, washed down with a coke or two.
This was, I think, my first pizza. We had passed through Rome five or so years before but I don’t remember eating one there. In London, Pizza Express in Wardour Street opened in 1965, but at that point would have been considered too expensive a ‘treat’ for lowly bank clerks. No, this was my first sighting of an ‘American Style’ pizza on a Hawaiian beach in my mid-twenties. The box was so large that we could hardly balance it on a bench. Overwhelmed by its size and its 20 or so portions, we didn’t quite know where to start. I’m ashamed to say, we ate maybe a quarter and threw the rest away. It was too much, too rich and the waste was on a massive scale. I didn’t eat pizza again for quite a number of years.
Later we lived in Boston for a while, now with two small kids in tow. I loved every minute, despite temperatures reaching so far down the minus scale that balaclavas had to be worn to minimise face burns. Boston and the Maine coast were famous for seafood and especially lobsters. For years, if you were lucky and they were in season, you could buy a fresh lobster at Logan Airport and take it back to London as hand luggage, slinging it into the overhead locker, in its chilled and sealed container. I’m not sure you’d get it through security today!
Maine lobsters are easily twice the size of English ones. I naively thought that one would never tire of eating freshly cooked lobster, dripping with melted butter, but I was proved wrong when a girlfriend and I, on a business trip to New York, ordered a lobster each at Smith and Wollensky’s. As a surf and turf restaurant, you could have a combination of both, but we decided our true allegiance was with the lobster and we’d saved up our appetites all day for this feast. Napkins were tied officiously around our necks, metal implements were arranged ready for cracking and hooking. Then with a flurry of sleek waitering, Larry and Lara were placed in front of us with a flourish; a heap of red crustaceanness, a tangle of gigantic claws, jointed legs and tentacles. Our hearts sank as much as our glasses steamed up at the task in front of us. I can only hope that the kitchen staff were allowed to take home the two-thirds we left, as we had no room in our busy schedule for doggy bags.
The next challenge in the portion sizes was always going to be steak. Even the smallest steak in the US often weighed in at 10oz. I managed to circumvent this trial until business took me to Texas, the state of all things cow. My larger-than-life boss and I had to entertain an important client in Plano and, as a trencherman of the highest order, he insisted we take him to the best ‘steak’ restaurant in town. Hoping I could push my leftovers under a pile of thick cut chips, I ordered the smallest possible sirloin, cooked rare.
It was entirely my fault, perhaps with the urge to impress my guest, that I emphasised the ‘rare’ part to the waiter in the expectation that the Dallas chef would consider that ‘rare’ meant cooking the meat until there was just a show of pink in the middle. My plate arrived covered with a blow-torched slab of beef which, when cut, revealed a wobbly pale pink interior. I had also forgotten, in my keenness to show solidarity with all things Texan whilst demonstrating my European foodie credibility, that American beef is not hung as it is in the UK.
Hanging makes the muscle fibres soften and become more elastic, which in turn makes the meat more relaxed and tender, never mind less juicy. A chew or two in, things got out of hand. A chunk of indigestible and un-chewable meat became stuck in my throat. At first, I just couldn’t swallow, then I had trouble breathing, and then panic set in. My boss alerted to this catastrophe by the strangled sounds coming from his account manager, leapt out of his seat and gave me a hearty thwack on the back. The half chewed piece of meat flew out across the table towards my erstwhile client. It was the most recounted story in the office for a good year.
My steak days only recovered in France when, like many Francophile Brits, a faux filet or an onglet and frites is the first meal we turn to on arrival. It’s the combination of texture and more gamey taste that hits the spot, or maybe the combination of garlic butter, or the fact that you know when you order ‘saignant’ that the outsides will be succulently browned and seasoned and the inside a moist red.
It has taken me a while to find a supply of beautifully cut onglet in London. The Chez Gerard chain used to have it on their menu, as did the Le Garrick restaurant. But it wasn’t until I discovered the online butchers Turner and George that I was able to experiment with an onglet at home.
Onglet is cut from the diaphragm of the cow, in the top of a corner snuck against the filet (see diagram above). In the 50s it might have been sold as flank, although I have a suspicion that it was treated as ‘butchers steak’ and kept for personal use only. Now it can be found as hangar steak but, unlike in France, I’ve never found it in a supermarket in the UK, which is a pity as it’s cheap, packed with taste, and comparatively fat-free.
Fail-safe, Flash Fried Onglet with garlic butter.
1 onglet – weight approx 250 grams.
2 garlic cloves – smashed
1 large heaped tablespoon of butter
Ground salt and black pepper
This will depend on how you like your steak cooked. Man likes his very rare, I’m more a medium-rare person. So, I cut the onglet in half. No, that’s not true. Man has a slightly larger bit, so its two thirds for him and a third for me, for no other reason than he needs a few more calories because of gender, size, age, and level of exercise. We both eat less protein now, so it’s probably 100 grams for me and 150 grams for him.
As the onglet comes in the sausage shape of a loin, I tenderise it with a meat hammer. My half I flatten into flash fry thickness and Man’s into a 2-3 cm thickness. That way they take the same time to cook. It’s important to have a heavy clean pan, which I leave to heat up on the hob for approx. 5 minutes – the steak surface needs to sizzle and shrink when it touches the hot surface. I salt each side before putting it into the pan and allow no more than a minute each side, pressing down with a fish slice before removing to a warmed plate to rest.
Turn off the heat under the pan. Mix the butter with the smashed garlic, and add to pan. There will still be enough heat to melt and cook the garlic. Return the steaks to the pan just to cover them with the garlic butter and then grind over black pepper to taste.
I normally serve this with baked sweet potato, or pureed celeriac, or polenta, and then some seasonal green like runner beans, tender stem broccoli, or brussels sprouts which I steam or boil first until ‘al dente’, then also roll them over in the remains of the garlic butter. The best-est of fast foods.