Valentine's Day is upon us, and our passions have been supersized. It's the time of year when we crave not just love, but true love; not just romance, but fiery romance; and not just dinner, but a really good dinner, preferably involving a fat, juicy steak. And on that last point, to at least a few top chefs in the Vail Valley, this means prime-grade ribeye.
When searching for finest quality in beef, though, there's more to consider than freshness and cut. Modern agricultural mass production - not to mention issues of food safety - have sparked an appreciation for how food is produced and where it comes from, especially when it comes to beef. Discriminating consumers demand to know where and how the cattle were raised, fed and butchered, because more than any other factor, these have the most impact on flavor, quality and nutritional value.
Factory farm raised cattle, for example, are typically kept in crowded pens, injected with growth hormones, and fed a diet of grains to fatten them quickly. Their meat is higher in cholesterol and lower in nutritional value than cattle allowed to graze naturally, according to a 2010 study published in Nutrition Journal comparing grass-fed versus grain-fed beef.
Beef for two
Nathan Stanbaugh, national director of food service sales for Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kansas, credits an investment in "pasture to plate" details for his company's emergence as a culinary darling.
"Our pure-bred Black Angus cattle are pasture-raised on small family farms and processed in our private plant, designed for humane handling [with the help of renowned animal welfare consultant Temple Grandin]," Stanbaugh said. "This is not only the right thing to do, it also creates exceptional taste and tenderness."
Taste and tenderness were what seduced Richard Hinojosa, executive chef at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail. After hearing the Creekstone hype (the glowing March 24, 2010 New York Times article, "Beef From Creekstone Impresses New York Chefs," nicely sums this up), Larkspur brought in samples for a blind tasting. Creekstone won, forks down, and the 41-ounce tomahawk ribeye is now featured on the restaurant's dinner menu.
"When I want pure beef bliss, I want a big, seared ribeye," Hinojosa said. "They tend to have the best marbling, which results in the most flavor."
Hinojosa lightly marinates his ribeye in olive oil, herbs and garlic; seasons it with salt and coarse ground black pepper; then hard-sears it for a carmelized crust with flavor intensity and crisp contrast to the tender interior. The ribeye is then roasted at high temperature, finished with a simple beurre fondue, and "rested" for 15 minutes before serving, to retain its juiciness.
"In my opinion," Hinojosa said, "this is the king of steaks."
At 41 ounces, it's easily shared with the queen.
David Walford, executive chef at Beaver Creek's Splendido restaurant, also features Creekside's tomahawk ribeye, called "Cote de Boeuf" on his menu, and designed for two. Rubbed in olive oil, salted and peppered, the steak is pan-seared, finished in a special oak-fired oven at 700 degrees, and carved at tableside.
"I worked for a season at a restaurant in Burgundy, France," said Splendido's dining room manager Patrick Mildrum, "and the theater of carving this gorgeous steak at the table was really memorable. It's spectacular, one of those things that one table orders, and when everyone else sees, they want, too."
The beef Jason Harrison, executive chef at the Four Season's Flame, buys is raised locally on Colorado's Front Range, and fed a blend of natural grains and grass for what he considers to be the ideal balance of lean and fat. The 32-ounce wagyu (or "American Kobe") ribeye on the dinner menu has been also dry-aged for 35 days in Flame's in-house dry-aging cooler.
"Dry-aging tenderizes the meat and intensifies its flavor," Harrison said. "But it also results in a significant loss of product. Fifty years ago, all meats were dry-aged, but today's producers don't want to take the hit in saleable weight. To me, that unique, nutty flavor and tender mouth feel is worth it."
To allow the beef's flavor shine through, Harrison keeps the preparation simple: an olive oil, salt and pepper rub; flash-broiling in Flame's specialized, 1800 degree oven (yes, 1800 degree-about the temperature of turbo jet exhaust!), a short rest; immersion in a butter bath, and quick warming in the broiler. Sliced at tableside, and at 32 ounces, it's perfect for sharing on a particularly romantic night.
For the home cook, Cut! in Edwards offers fresh meat and seafood of all types. Though customers' tastes are taken into consideration before recommendations are offered, if what the customer wants is a luxurious cut of beef, manager John Hebert recommends his 2-pound, prime-grade ribeye, which he'll sell either boneless or bone-in, according to preference.
"We work with a number of different ranchers, and buy as much locally as we can," Hebert said. "Our beef is always of the highest quality, with a focus on conscientious farming practices."
Hebert recommends a simple rub of olive oil, salt and pepper and the 7/7/7 preparation method: seared for 7 minutes on each side, and finished in a hot oven for 7 minutes.
So if you're lucky enough to be spending Valentine's Day in the Vail Valley this year, your choices for the ultimate ribeye dinner are as rich and varied as the exquisite beef itself.
And as for true love and fiery passion? Well, let's just say a really good meal never got in the way of either.
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com to learn more.