“The name in French means dainty filet…This lean and singular cut of beef – the most tender in the steer – has been a potent symbol of refined indulgence at least since the American writer O. Henry invoked ‘filet mignon with champignons’ in The Four Million, his 1906 story about New York City strivers…The filet mignon is cut from the tenderloin, a long, club shaped muscle that extends along the animal’s backbone, starting from the primal cut known as the sirloin, near the animal’s neck, and tapering to a point inside the short loin, a muscle at the rear of the steer. The tenderloin, which owes its tenderness to the fact that it gets virtually no exercise during the steer’s lifetime, can be bought whole and roasted or butchered into smaller cuts, among them the filet (also called tournedos) and chateaubriand (usually a thicker piece cut from the center)…” from Saveur Magazine, December, 2008
Grading of beef by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), unlike safety inspection, is voluntary and paid for by the meat processor. Most of the beef rated prime is sold to high end butcher shops and restaurants. The main criteria for prime labeling are the amount of fat marbling (which assures tasty, tender meat) and the animal’s age (there’s less collagen in the muscles of younger animals, ergo the meat is more tender).
More than half of graded beef is labeled choice. This meat also is rich in fat marbling and therefore tender enough to be suitable for dry heat cooking methods like broiling, grilling, pan-searing or roasting. Supermarkets often offer select grade beef, which is frequently too lean to produce good results. The remaining lower grades are mainly sold wholesale for use in products ranging from frozen foods to hot dogs.
Here are a few points to consider when pan-searing your filets mignon and deglazing for your pan sauce:
o It is common to find grocery store filets that are badly butchered –thick at one end and thin at the other – promoting uneven cooking. Ask the butcher for well-cut filets that are even from edge to edge. If he can’t (or won’t) do that for you, buy a 2 pound piece of center-cut filet mignon (the Chateaubriand) and slice it yourself. The goal of pan-searing is to build a crust on the outside of the steak while maintaining rosy red meat inside. To keep the inside rare while the outside crusts, the steak must be thick, at least 1-1/2 to 2 inches.
o Use a heavy, preferably cast-iron. skillet, and heat it until it is very hot before adding the steaks. Do not use a non-stick skillet — it won’t crust the meat well. While a grill pan would give your steak nice grill marks, here a uniform crust across the entire surface of the steak is what you want, so save your grill pan for another purpose. A ten inch skillet is adequate for four filets; if you’re searing six filets, switch to a 12 inch skillet.
o Rub each side of the steaks with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle them generously with salt and pepper. Place the steaks in the hot skillet and sear for 1 minute on each side. (Many argue that the secret to a good crust is to put the steak in a very hot skillet – if the skillet isn’t hot enough the meat will stick – and leave it there, with minimal turning. I find that infrequent turning burns the steak rather than crusting it). Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, turning every other minute with tongs, until well browned and a nice crust has formed, at total of about 8 minutes for medium-rare meat. (Adjust the cooking time up or down according to the size of your filets or your preference for raw or burned meat.)
o If you are making one of the pan sauces that follow, have your ingredients prepared and ready before you sear the filets. When the filets are done, transfer them to a platter, loosely tent with foil and let them rest 5 minutes while you make the pan sauce.