Low Culinary Expectations

Approximating an elk steak sandwich with top sirloin beef

By Rob Breeding

The last time I ate at Arby’s was in October 2017, when the fast-food chain offered venison and elk steak sandwiches to celebrate hunting season. The elk sandwich was sold in Billings and I decided to try one.

I’ve had some fabulous wild game meat in my time, and some that wasn’t so fabulous. And then there was the stuff you’d think twice passing along to the dog.

That’s about where I rated that Arby’s elk sandwich. I didn’t finish it, but Doll seemed pleased with the leftovers.

I vowed then that I’d get to the kitchen and make a better elk steak sandwich.

There was one problem: I haven’t hunted elk in years, and sadly, there are few big game hunters in my immediate circle, so I never came upon some hand-me-down frozen steaks.

There is commercial elk meat available, but the price put me off. If I’m going to pay that kind of money for a steak, it’s going to be USDA prime ribeye and it’s not going to meet its end nestled between a bun.

So I kind of gave up. I had a couple prospective recipe concepts rattling around in my noggin, but lacked the requisite protein to make it so.

Those ideas never quite died, however. In idle moments I’d recall that god-awful contraption that desecrated the good name of elk steaks and considered applying for a cow elk depredation hunt just so I could best the fast food joint.

Eventually, it came to me that I could experiment with beef. The result would be an approximation, but close enough that a smart cook could tinker with temperature and time to make it work for game as well.

Approximating an elk steak with beef meant avoiding the tender cuts of the rib and short loin. I picked up some top sirloin steaks that I figured would be a decent stand-in. Top sirloin is lean like elk, and not the tenderest muscle on a steer, but has good flavor. Cooked hot and fast, top sirloin steaks are tasty medium rare, but cooked past that the cut takes on the culinary attributes of shoe leather — just like elk and venison.

I didn’t want medium rare anyway. I intended to place the steak on the bun whole and unsliced, like the Arby’s version, and even a tender steak can be a little unwieldy in a sandwich and hard to bite through cleanly. I needed a steak nearly fall-apart tender and that meant a braise.

So I adapted a recipe I’ve long used for braising short ribs. I first seared the steaks in a Dutch oven; then deglazed with dark beer. Porter seems best and there’s a fine example brewed in Belt that is named, a little cheekily, after the tail end of a pig.

Into the porter braising liquid I added garlic, star anise, orange, lime and tangerine zest, some red pepper flakes and avocado leaves. Avocado leaves are new to my kitchen. They offer a boost of anise flavor to a braise or stew. I cut some thick rounds of yellow onion to use as platforms for the steaks so they wouldn’t be completely submerged. I brought the liquid to a boil, covered the pot and put it in a 325 degree oven for about 90 minutes.

I built my sandwich on a toasted brioche bun. Toasting adds flavor and structural integrity, so don’t skip this step. I added sriracha mayo, a simple coleslaw made with a sweet, vinegar dressing, then beef which was tenderly delicious but not yet mush, some Asian pear slices I briefly pickled in some extra coleslaw dressing, cilantro and a sauce I made by thickening the strain braising liquid with corn starch slurry.

The dog didn’t get anywhere near this Asian inspired beef/elk sandwich.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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