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Flat-iron steak and caramelized onion with bacon in balsamic vinegar sauce over homemade pasta rags

Flat-iron steak is one of the best beef ingredients available in the grocery store -- cut from the shoulder (specifically the teres minor and/or infraspinatus muscles) of the steer, it ranks second among cuts of beef in tenderness, trailing only behind the legendary tenderloin (psoas muscle).  What makes this cut of beef so particularly wonderful, other than the fact that it usually carries a great price and comes in just about the perfect size for incorporating into recipes (usu. just under 2 pounds), is the great flavor imparted to the meat by obvious and generous marbling of fat (a very good thing!) and an obvious, fairly uniform grain.  To achieve really tender pieces of quickly-cooked meat, those two conditions have to both be met: marbling with fat adds flavor and a gentle tenderness while for slicing, maximum tenderness of the pieces is achieved when the meat is cut across the grain.  For what it's worth, flat-iron steak seems to be gaining more and more notoriety in upscale restaurants for all of these reasons.

Pairing thinly sliced flat-iron steak with powerful, complementary flavors like those of bacon and caramelized onions creates one of the best combinations possible, and it does so with a minimum of difficulty and without the need to hunt down specialty ingredients.  To this backbone of meaty flavor, in the following recipe balsamic vinegar comes in to cut through the oiliness of the bacon drippings, and a generous addition of garlic and oregano rounds out the flavor.  With parmigiano reggiano loaded heavily over the top, this dish's simplicity is its beauty.

While this dish is showcased over homemade pasta, any pasta, rice, or even mashed potatoes would make great pairing options.  If using mashed potatoes, a key point for this would be to make them subtle, either slightly herbal and/or featuring the parmigiano again.  The bold flavors of the main dish could easily compete with powerfully good mashed potatoes, but the flavors would be a bit too busy.  As for pasta, if homemade pasta rags aren't something you care to fool with (though they're quite easy), substitute any of your favorite pastas, notably rotini, farfalle, and mini lasagne noodles for this dish.  A more accurate pasta rags substitute could be achieved by buying large lasagne noodles and breaking them randomly into medium-sized pieces.  Shaved noodles are another option (shown in picture) that are slightly less work if using fresh dough.

Recipe: Flat-iron steak and caramelized onion with bacon in balsamic vinegar sauce -- Ingredients

  1. Approximately 1 pound of flat-iron steak (so one purchase lets you make this twice);
  2. 1 medium-large sweet onion (or two smaller ones);
  3. 6-8 slices (approximately 1/2 lb.) of smoked bacon that has not been sugar cured (rec: Knoxville-local Benton's Smoky Mountain smoked bacon or applewood smoked bacon);
  4. 6 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  5. 1 tbsp. dried oregano (or 3 tbsp. fresh oregano), divided;
  6. 1/4 c. aged balsamic vinegar;
  7. 1/4 c. (or more, by taste) parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated;
  8. Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste;
  9. Serve over homemade pasta rags with a 2-1/2-cups-flour dough, instructions below.

Directions:

  1. Begin by preparing a large pot of salted water for the pasta by setting it to boil.  Meanwhile, prepare the garlic and then the onion and steak as follows.  For the onion, simply slice it in half vertically and then slice lengthwise in 1/4-inch slices, each shaped like half a thin onion ring.  For the steak, cut it as thinly as is possible across the grain (the grain in flat-iron steaks tends to run lengthwise, but look at it closely to decide).
  2. Once the meat and veggies are prepared, start making the pasta dough using 2 1/2 cups of flour and just about 3/4 c. of water with a pinch of salt.  Mix the ingredients well in a bowl until a dough forms and roll it out onto a clean counter top.  No bench flour should be needed, but if the dough is a bit wet and tends to stick, use some.  Knead it well for 10 minutes or so, and then put it back in the bowl to rest.
  3. When the dough is prepared, place the bacon in a large skillet or frying pan (cold) and put over medium heat.  Let the bacon cook, turning it once, until it is at the desired level of crispness (fully crisp but not brittle is ideal).  Remove the bacon from the pan and set it aside. Reserve most of the bacon oil in a measuring cup, leaving a bit in the pan for cooking.
  4. Add the onions to the hot pan and let them start to cook.  Salt them lightly and stir them around in the grease occasionally until they start to brown.  This is best achieved by not moving them around too much or too often, but to prevent burning, do be attentive.  They will need about 10 minutes over heat just above medium to cook properly.
  5. While the onions cook, take the dough from the bowl and onto a lightly floured surface.  In a couple or three batches (depending on counter space), press the dough out and then roll it into thin, rather uniform sheets with a rolling pin or wine bottle.  The shape of the sheets does not matter.  Cut the sheet into several medium-large pieces with a knife or pizza cutter, again, the shape not mattering much.  Drop these, when ready, into the boiling water and cook for approximately 5 minutes before draining.  If using dried pasta instead, add them to the water as soon as you would have started to roll out the dough and cook according to the package directions.
  6. When the onions have browned, add about half of the oregano by rolling it between your fingers over the pan (to release the flavor and oils better), some black pepper, and just a little more of the bacon oil.  Mix well and let it cook for about a minute before transferring it to a plate.
  7. When the pan is hot over medium-high now, add the thinly sliced beef and the garlic and immediately add salt and pepper and begin to stir the meat around, trying to brown all sides.  It is critical to avoid overcooking the meat, so when it appears to be about 2/3 done (meaning some parts are still quite red -- after only about 2 minutes), proceed.  Add the remaining oregano in the same way as before, stir well, and add the onions back into the pan with the rest of the bacon oil.  Mix all ingredients.  Add the vinegar next and let it briefly reduce (about 1 minute) before turning the heat down to low. 
  8. Roughly chop the bacon into approximately 1-inch-long sections and add it to the pan.  Then, add the pasta and mix everything until well mixed.  Turn off the heat and top everything generously with grated parmigiano reggiano, to taste (about 1/4 c. will do nicely).

Buy it locally!  Sweet onions, widely available in East Tennessee due to their Southern popularity and our proximity to onion-famous Georgia, should be chosen for this dish.  Pick them up at your favorite Knoxville-area grocery store.  Flat-iron steaks are available, usually at a great price, at Knoxville area Kroger stores, although for a special treat, keep your eyes open for them at Earth Fare or The Fresh Market, particularly if you can spot some grass-fed steaks like those stores often carry.  While at Earth Fare or The Fresh Market, pick up some grated parmigiano reggiano (the price tends to be a bit better at Earth Fare) for the topping.  Since great balsamic vinegar isn't required, it can be obtained at any grocery store, but substituting about half of it with top-shelf stuff from Earth Fare or The Fresh Market can take this dish a long way.  Finally, at those same shops there is always great smoked bacon, usually over applewood, although ordering some Benton's bacon is a local treat that's hard to compare with.

For more delicious recipes featuring gourmet flavors that you can easily create at home, follow the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner by clicking on "subscribe" at the top of the page.  The subscription is free and delivers new articles directly to your e-mail box when they're posted!

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