I can’t express how much I love basil. The scent alone invokes visions of summer evenings sitting on a porch enjoying the colors, sounds, and of course smells of the season. I find that basil makes something as simple as a bowl of plain pasta noodles transform into an elegant, expensive tasting meal. It adds such a different depth to the flavors and aromas of food that I try and think up how to cram it into every meal possible.
Traditionally, I have always served basil pesto in three different versions. First, and most obviously, as a sauce for noodles. I like to use cavatapi noodles with my basil pesto and then add chicken or shrimp. Second, my absolute favorite dutch oven meal is chicken pesto with mozzarella cheese. That meal is so amazing when you are “roughing” it in the outdoors. I always feel like I am at a fancy Italian restaurant instead of sitting in a folding chair in the dirt when I eat that meal. Finally, I am a big fan of basil pesto served as a pizza topping.
As you can see from my basil pesto favorites list, I really like to pair pesto with chicken. I think that pesto is an easy flavor to balance with the light taste of meats like chicken or turkey. There is no fight between the two. They just marry together in a perfectly balanced flavor union.
Well, that all changed last Monday night. I had previously made a stuffed meatloaf from elk burger and topped the loaf with a sauce of sticky, sweet cherry tomatoes. I was preparing these beautiful elk tenderloin fillets and decided that sauce would be amazing on top of the steaks. But the idea of only tomatoes sounded almost too sweet and acidic. What to do? What to do?
Caprese salad is one of all-time favorite salads. I love the mixture of beautiful, red juicy tomatoes paired with the bite and spice of a basil leaf and the oh-so creamy goodness of fresh mozzarella cheese. I figured the flavor profile would pair wonderfully with the sticky tomato sauce from the meatloaf, but would it taste good on top of elk?
The answer is an exuberant yes! So, if you are hoping for a quick, easy meal on a weeknight then this is the recipe for you. And if you are looking to impress and provide an ambiance of elegance then this is also the recipe for you. It is a quick and simple meal that is dressed to impress, and what better way is there to serve up elk tenderloin?
One of the things I like best about this meal is you can pre-make the basil pesto and the sticky tomato sauce. Then, when it is dinner time all you have to do is cook the steaks and heat up the tomato sauce. It also is a recipe that utilizes a lot of items already in the pantry. Pesto is essentially basil, olive oil, nuts, and parmesan cheese. And the sticky tomato sauce is tomatoes, canned tomatoes, honey, and Worcestershire.
To start, make the pesto. Pesto tastes like it is difficult to make, but in all actuality it is one of the most simple of recipes to execute. Pesto requires four steps. Step one: pull out the food processor. Step two: drop in the basil, your nut of choice, the parmesan cheese, and two to three garlic cloves. Step three: push start and grind everything up for about thirty seconds. Step four: with the food processor still running, drizzle in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Viola! Pesto!
So, a few little notes about the pesto. This is a basil pesto, and it is traditionally prepared with pine nuts. At our house, pine nuts don’t agree with everyone so I substitute in walnuts. Pesto is amazingly flexible, and you can use virtually any nut you like. Some of the ones I like to use are almonds if I am looking for a bit more crunch in the sauce, pecans if I want a more hearty flavor, and cashews, well, just because cashews are insanely good. But like I said, this a super flexible sauce you could throw in things like sunflower or pumpkin seeds if you wanted. Get crazy!
Also, you can change the consistency of the pesto to your liking by how much olive oil you add. With this recipe, the pesto is going to sit on top of the steak. So, I pulsed the ingredients for a very short amount of time, in order to leave things more coarse, and added only a half cup of olive oil. When I make pesto as a sauce for pasta, I pulse the ingredients to a much smoother consistency and add in more olive oil. It is all about your personal preference.
Okay, so now that the pesto is complete, it is time to make the sticky tomato sauce. For the meatloaf, I used cherry tomatoes. For this recipe, I decided to go with grape tomatoes. Grape tomatoes are typically a little larger than cherry and a bit less sweet tasting. Either would be fine with this recipe. I went with the grape because I wanted the bigger tomato in each bite.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a medium sized bowl, put the entire pint of tomatoes and pour in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and coat the tomatoes entirely in the oil. I just use my hands to accomplish this task. Pour the tomatoes on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven for 20 minutes. This creates a great roasted flavor for the sauce.
Once the tomatoes are done, add them to a medium sized sauce pan. Pour in a 12 oz can of diced tomatoes. If you can find the roasted kind they will help develop that rich, savory flavor you are going for, but if your supermarket only carries regular that is fine too. If you can’t find diced, you could also used crushed. I like the texture the diced adds to the sauce better though. Add in the two tablespoons of honey, the one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, and the one tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Stir everything together, turn the heat to medium-low, and let the pot simmer for 15 minutes. As the sauce reduces, it will start to thicken. Sometimes if the tomatoes are overly juicy, I will let the sauce simmer longer. Just get it to the consistency you want for piling on top of your steak.
Okay, now for the steaks! I used tenderloin for this recipe, but you could use other steak cuts as well. I let my meat sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes so it can come to room temperature. Removing the chill off the meat will help to guarantee more even cooking of the steak. Season both sides with a good amount of salt and pepper. Preheat your skillet to medium-high and settle in the steak. Once you have touched the steak to the pan, do not mess with it. My steaks were about one inch thick, so I let them go for a minute to a minute and a half per side. This resulted in medium-rare steaks. I have said this before, so please excuse me if you have heard it like a billion times, but I like my steaks to be on the rare side. Wild game is better when it is not overcooked.
So, after the steaks have cooked for a minute on each side. place a thin slice of mozzarella on top of each steak. Turn the broiler on to high, and slide the entire pan into the oven. Cook until the mozzarella has melted, which takes about a minute or two. Two quick things here! One, make sure your pan is one that can go from stove-top to oven. If it can’t, you will need to place your steaks on a baking sheet to melt the cheese or you could cover the pan with a lid on the stovetop. Two, if you do use the broiler, DON’T WALK AWAY! You can go from nicely melted mozzarella to blackened mozzarella very quick! Just keep close so you can watch the melting process!
To finish the steak, place a spoonful of the basil pesto on top of the melted mozzarella and then a heaping helping of the sticky tomato sauce. What you will find on the end of your fork is a bite filled with the aromatic, spicy basil and sticky, sweet tomato covering juicy bites of steak. Man oh man is this a good one!