La Cocina Espanol: Entrecot con Queso Cabrales

One of the last meals Dave and I put together ourselves (well, I put it together, but Dave helped in other ways about which I'll elaborate later) was steak in a blue cheese sauce made from the local pungent, delicious cheese: queso cabrales. I have always had a special fondness for blue cheese, which is a cheese you can't mess around with, and the queso cabrales variety did not disappoint. Made from cow's milk mixed with sheep and goat's milk, it is a true regional speciality (only cheese made from herds in Asturias--the region where we were staying--wrapped in leaves and aged in mountain caves, can be called queso cabrales). That meant one very good thing and one very bad thing, namely, (the good) that the cheese we had was so delicious and unique that it was truly an amazing experience to eat and (the bad) it is utterly, ridiculously impossible to find and enjoy anywhere else.*

We first sampled the cheese in a restaurant in Potes, the largest town near our house. I'd been looking forward to sampling local cheese for days (we passed a queseria--a cheese shop--and I almost yanked the wheel out of Dave's hands to stop there) and was delighted to find the restaurant offered a cheese plate as a tapa. When we finally got the platter, overflowing with about 8 different varieties (cue glazed eyes, watering mouth, romantic music), we wished there was some kind of guide to show what we were eating, since the cheeses were so distinct and delicious we were curious as to know what they all were. The queso cabrales, though, was immediately distinguishable, being the only blue cheese on the platter. We both sampled some, loading a little on a piece of bread, taking a tentative bite, and sitting back in our chairs like we'd been punched in the face. Queso cabrales is strong, especially in comparison to the mild goat and sheep's cheese that also scattered the plate. The sharp pungency of blue cheese was especially evident here, where each tiny bite released a cloud of distinct aroma. Dave decided that it was a little too strong for him (he favored a smoother goat cheese along with a block of apple honey jelly), but I was intrigued.

Thumbing through our Spanish foods cookbook, I found a recipe for steak and queso cabrales that I knew we had to try. I love love love steak paired with fine cheese (I still idly dream of a filet mignon topped with gouda that Jenna and Steve served at their rehearsal dinner...)--the charred and smoky meat is enriched by the salty fattiness or sharp flavors of the cheese. While Dave campaigned for seafood--for some reason he really wanted some octopus--I argued that we were far from the ocean, in cow country, with access to a delicious cheese we couldn't find anywhere else in the world. Defeated yet hungry, he agreed.

The steak was to be pan-fried and drenched in a sauce made from lemon juice, white wine, paprika, and melted queso cabrales. Ok, this sounds pretty easy and, in fact, it probably could have been. The only problem was that the recipe called for a very small amount of white wine, leaving me and Dave with most of the bottle, plus the entire bottle of red we'd bought for the meal. Since we were leaving the next day and facing the prospect of downing a bottle of wine each, we hit it early, hoping to get rid of the white before dinner and leaving the red for a leisurely meal. To summarize, 2 bottles of wine + 2 Americanos + 2 empty stomachs + 1 long day filled with hiking in the sun + hot pots and pans = not a good idea. We are lucky we didn't burn down the house, let alone end up with a halfway edible meal. I think the real problem was, without any measuring spoons, I was left to guess some sort of workable ratio for the liquids to cheese, which left the sauce far too liquidy for my tastes. Also, my normal methods for pan frying steak--stick it in a warm oven first for 2-3 minutes--were thrown off without an oven, and I had to resort to the messy and smoky method of turn up the heat and get out the kitchen.

While the end result in Spain tasted ok, I knew with closer attention to the ratios I could end up with something creamy and delicious. Yesterday, I visited the supermarket to see what kind of queso cabrales substitute I could come up with. I went with a basic crumbled blue cheese, which came nowhere near close the sharpness of queso cabrales, but at least still preserved the musty, distinct odor of blue cheese. Carefully measured and melted, the sauce came out so so good: thick and creamy, tangy and full. The meal also benefited from my vastly improved methods for pan-frying steak (I used low heat, a thick steak, and a very good pan). The steak in of itself was delicious--lightly seared edges giving way to a tender and buttery center--but coated with a layer of the cheese sauce became something entirely unique, if not quite the epicurean delight of the real thing.

1/4 pound queso cabrales or crumbled blue cheese
4 teaspoons white wine
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed
dash paprika
dash pepper
steak, at least 1 inch thick
clarified butter for frying

About an hour before cooking, season sides of steak with salt and paper, cover in paper towels, and sit out at room temperature
In a double boiler, melt the cheese and add the white wine, lemon juice, garlic, paprika, and pepper.
Stir constantly until all the cheese is melted and the sauce is creamy
Place steak into oven and turn heat on to about 200 degrees
3-4 minutes later, remove steak from oven and place on a heavy-duty, buttered frying pan over medium heat
Cook untouched for about 4 minutes
Flip and cook for another 4 minutes, then another 90 seconds on each side
Remove steak from heat, drizzle with cheese sauce, and serve

*As with most things, thanks to the magic of the Internets you can order queso cabrales online. It is, wait for it, $137 for 6 pounds at Gourmet Food Ideas. Dave and I got a pound in Asturias for about 6 euro.

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