Steak and potatoes may seem like a rudimentary dish, but in the hands of chef Alex Hernandez it becomes the epitome of flavor and texture. “The secret to cooking the perfect filet mignon is to make sure you season it well with salt and pepper and combine pan-searing in a heavy skillet over high heat with an oven finish,” says Hernandez, head chef at Cafe on the Green, an upscale Italian restaurant on the grounds of Richter Park Golf Course in Danbury. “I’ve tried cooking strictly on the stovetop, but I feel it tends to overcook the steak and sometimes burn the outside of the filet. The oven is better at providing indirect heat while a quick, very hot searing gives you the much-desired, grilled and slightly charred edge. The stovetop and oven method is tried and true. It gives you a slightly crusted outside with a juicy tender inside.”
Not your average meat entrée, seared filet mignon with grilled portobello mushroom and sautéed spinach is robust yet delicate. “Guests at the restaurant love the combination. It looks good and tastes good. The Gorgonzola goes so well together with the spinach. It’s a good way to end the summer heat and get into some of the colder nights in September,” says Hernandez, who suggests accompanying the entrée with a nice bottle of red wine, preferably a cabernet sauvignon, brunello or amarone, making it the perfect dish for any home cook. “All you need is a stovetop and an oven.”
Growing up with a mother who was, Hernandez admits, not a great cook prompted him to pursue cooking. “I started cooking at a young age because I didn’t like my mom’s food. It was too plain. I like a little mild spice,” he says. With no formal culinary training, Hernandez stepped into the kitchen at age 24, watched other chefs, and worked his way up to head chef at Cafe on the Green. “I started with sandwiches, then made fancier dishes. Cooking came easy to me and people kept telling me I was doing a great job, so I stuck with it.”
The filet mignon entrée showcases Hernandez’s talent as a visual artist. Referencing the vertical layers of spinach, mushrooms and meat, he agrees most people eat with their eyes. “The tower with the different ingredients makes it look better. You see it first and it makes you want to try it. A nice presentation usually means the food is good, and I care that everything is done right.”
Even after more than 22 years of cooking, Hernandez still finds enjoyment in creating a dish that pleases even the most discriminating palate. “When customers tell me it’s excellent, I feel like, wow, I did it!” Hernandez says. “I’m happy. I love cooking.”
Seared Filet Mignon with Portobello Mushroom and Spinach Tower
Yield: 2 servings
Cooking time: 30 minutes
- 2 10-ounce tenderloin beef filets (roughly 2 inches thick)
- 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 9 tablespoons olive oil (3 for each vegetable)
- 1 cup fresh, rinsed spinach
- 2 large portobello mushrooms, stem removed
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 oz. chicken stock
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 oz. Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
- 2 oz. chopped onion
- Drizzle olive oil and salt and pepper on inside of mushroom caps with stems removed. Place on cooking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes until soft. Flip halfway through to cook evenly.
- Remove steak from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking to bring it to room temperature and ensure cooking times are accurate. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper.
- Add the butter to an oven-safe, cast-iron skillet over high heat, allowing the skillet to become scorching hot first. Place the filets face down and sear undisturbed for 2 minutes. Flip the filets and sear for an additional 2 minutes.
- Transfer the skillet directly to the oven at 415 degrees. For rare, bake for 4-5 minutes; medium rare, 5-6 minutes; medium, 6-7 minutes; medium well, 20 minutes; well, 25 minutes. Remove filets from the skillet and set on a plate and lightly cover with aluminum foil and let sit for 5 minutes before serving to bring the steak to its final serving temperature.
- In sauté pan over medium heat, combine olive oil with chopped garlic and cook for 3 minutes. Add rinsed spinach to pan and cook for 3-4 minutes until desired texture.
- In separate sauté pan over medium heat, add olive oil and chopped onions. Cook until slightly brown. Add chicken stock, heavy cream and Gorgonzola cheese. Over low heat, reduce mixture for 5-7 minutes until it becomes slightly thicker.
- Lay the spinach on the bottom of the dish, layer the portobello mushroom, and place the seared filet mignon with spoonfuls of sauce on top.
- 1 potato cut into 6 wedges
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons corn starch
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Toss the potato wedges in olive oil, then in corn starch, salt and pepper; coat well.
- Place in 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes. Turn once while in oven.
Serve potato wedges on the side.