TGIFOOD

FAMILY FAVOURITE

Throwback Thursday: Steak, egg and chips

Tony Jackman’s steak, egg and chips, served on a steak platter by Mervyn Gers. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

This basic family supper can go very, very wrong, but if you get every element perfectly right, it can be worthy of spending good money on in a restaurant.

Steak, egg and chips. Easy, right? Not if the steak is tough, the eggs overcooked and the chips not perfectly crispy on the outside and fluffily soft in the centre.

But let’s remove the steak for a minute. Eggs and chips. That’s redolent of Brits abroad. Over-tanned English families at Benidorm, the women in strappy tops and the men in tight T-shirts to show off their paunches to best effect in the hope of a holiday romance on the side while the wife is eyeing the hot waiter. Bring us some eggs and chips and a pint on the side. (Yes, I’ve watched too much Benidorm.) Or Shirley Valentine making chips ’n eggs for her remote husband, before she escapes to Greece. 

Eggs and chips, as a popular dish in Britain, goes back to World War 1 when meat was in short supply. Quoth Wikipedia: “It was a favourite food of Tommies behind the lines on the Western Front in northern France and Belgium, eaten at makeshift shops called ‘estaminet’ alongside cheap wine and beer. Egg and chips is associated with a working-class diet.”

But even the French love steak and chips, especially in Paris where “steak et frites” is available on thousands of bistro and café menus. Steak et frites is equally popular in Belgium, the true home of the frite, which is apochryphally regarded as French. The Belgians are religious about their frites, and with good reason. Nobody makes them better.

In American lore, steak and eggs is the dish of astronauts, ever since Alan Shepard was served it as a pre-flight meal in 1961 before NASA’s first space flight, all 15 minutes and 22 seconds of it. But its popularity precedes that. In the 1950s in the USA there was a fad diet consisting of steak and eggs, made popular by Vince Gironda, a.k.a. Iron Guru, an American pro bodybuilder. If you were a fan, you could have your favourite hunk of beef and eat it too.

For me, a plate of steak and eggs is not complete without a portion of perfect chips. The dinner I made one night this week was as satisfying as you could hope the dish would be. We could have found space for seconds. Here’s how, in my experience, you can get it just right…

The steak:

2 x 250 g fillet steaks

3 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

3 thyme sprigs, picked leaves of

Salt

Black pepper

Bring steaks to room temperature two or three before you intend to cook them. Pat the steaks dry as thoroughly as you can. Season both sides and the edges with salt. Leave, covered, in a cool place but not in the fridge

Chop the garlic finely and have the picked thyme leaves to hand.

Melt butter in a skillet or heavy frying pan and add the olive oil on a high heat. Steaks must not go into fat that is not very hot as it risks the juices leeching and stewing and consequently ruining the meat.

I like a fillet steak to be cut thick, so one 500 g piece made two nice chunky steaks. Put the steaks in the pan and fry on a high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, before turning and cooking the other side for the same length of time. It needs a good crust underneath before turning. Season with more salt and pepper if needed once turned in the pan. Remove from the heat and keep on a side plate while you quickly make the garlic-thyme butter.

Add 3 Tbsp butter to the same pan with the chopped garlic and thyme leaves. Cook for a minute or two, then return the steaks to the pan and baste them well. Remove from the heat and serve immediately.

The egg:

1 or 2 eggs per person

Butter

Salt and pepper

It may seem like something that needs no instruction, but we’ve all been served bad fried eggs for breakfast in restaurants. I believe strongly that eggs need to be fried in butter, not oil, on a gentle heat, adding the eggs only once the butter has melted. They should not be fiddled with until they are well set, then, using a dessert spoon, scoop up the hot butter and baste the top of the yolks, just to get the outer coating set, while leaving the yolks nice and runny. Then serve immediately either on top of steak or alongside, salting and peppering them. I cannot abide the modern habit of dousing fried eggs with spices. Who’s idea was that? Salt and pepper is all they need.

The chips:

My mom taught me to cook chips properly, and they always come out well.

1 or 2 potatoes per portion, depending on size

Cooking oil (canola or sunflower)

A chip basket

Salt

The method works regardless of the quantity you’re making. The chips can be re-fried for a minute just before serving to make them sizzling hot again.

Here are my (okay, my mom’s) central tenets of cooking chips:

Cut them:

The chips must be neither too thick nor too thin: about 1 cm or less in thickness, cut evenly.

Dry them:

The chips must be perfectly dry. Lay them out on a fabric kitchen towel or on kitchen paper and cover with more of the same, patting down all over to absorb all moisture. Leave them like that until you’re ready to fry them.

Don’t crowd:

Don’t crowd the chip pan. They need space to move around in the hot oil. Fry them in batches.

Drain them:

Drain on double kitchen paper over a colander. I always put the colander in the sink. Then do the next batch, and so on.

And finally, cooking them:

Heat the oil to 160℃ in a deep pot and maintain that heat. Put dry chips into the chip basket, off the heat.

Take one dry chip between forefinger and thumb and dip it halfway into the hot oil. (Not your finger.) If small bubbles shoot off in all directions, the oil is ready. If the bubbles are large and violent, it’s too hot. No bubbles and it’s too cool.

Immerse the basket of chips (not too full) into the hot oil only once it is sufficiently hot, while immediately shaking the pan. This allows every chip to be coated in the oil. Leave this step out and they’ll stick to each other.

Leave them alone. After about 5 to 7 minutes, give the pan a good shake. By now the oil has started to firm the edges of the chips, and this shake makes sure they’re well separated and swimming in the hot oil as it bubbles around them. It gives them the space they need to cook evenly.

Turn the heat down so you have gently bubbling oil, being careful that it is not so cool that they don’t fry at all. It’s a knack that comes with practice. Check that the oil is not too hot and leave them until they’re the perfect golden brown. If they’re browning too quickly, your oil is too hot. You can only judge this by the eye, neither too dark nor too light.

Lift the chip pan out while shaking it vigorously, then tip them into a kitchen paper-lined colander and do the next batch. You may need to increase the heat again before putting the new batch in.

Just before serving, add all the cooked chips back to the basket and refry for a minute, to freshen them up. Serve immediately: plate the steak and pour the garlic-thyme butter over, with the egg and pile of chips alongside. DM/TGIFood 

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021 for his food writing. His book foodSTUFF is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots. For more information, click here.

SUBSCRIBE: Our Thank God It’s Food newsletter is sent to subscribers every Friday at 6pm, and published on the TGIFood platform on Daily Maverick. It’s all about great reads on the themes of food and life. Subscribe here.

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at tony@dailymaverick.co.za

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All Comments 3

  • I also make really good chips and was astounded when I read your mom’s recipe. I watched my Ouma making chips many times when I was a child. I copied her every move and now am the only one in the family that can make Ouma’s perfect chips. My Ouma’s method of making chips was exactly the same as your mom’s, basket and all. Emotional moment there for me. <3

  • This story brought back lots of fun memories — probably of the wrong kind. “Steak, egg and strip” was, way back, a regular Friday lunchtime “thing” in Durban. In the days when there were still strippers who stripped at places like Smuggies. The steak, it goes without saying, wasn’t fillet…

  • I am fortunate enough to only have to throw my mind back to any previous Friday when it comes to remembering my last Steak, egg and chips. Admittedly not home made but I doubt I could recreate the sauce that sizzles on the skillet when served said steak, egg and chips at Dias Tavern. Legendary Portuguese restaurant, do try it if you haven’t yet!

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