Control the heat for perfect grilled steak
Steak on the grill ranks as one of the best summertime meals ever. Heck, best meal ever, anytime, when cooked to perfection.
Learning to grill a steak perfectly takes practice, but it's worthwhile. I believe that if you can cook a steak, you can tackle nearly everything that cooks quickly on a grill — from beef steaks to chops, chicken, seafood and many vegetables.
Heat modulation proves the secret to good grilling: Use enough for flavor, perfect texture and browning, but not so much that food tastes burnt or acrid. Restaurant chefs, especially those who work over live fire, spend hours honing their skills. Most of us spend just a few minutes over the weekend tinkering with the grill. This season, if you do nothing else to improve your cooking, make setting up the grill properly your first objective.
For most quick-cooking cuts of meat, poultry, fish and vegetables, the best grilling is done by centering the food directly over the heat source — a method known as "direct grilling."
If you cook over charcoal, heat the coals with a chimney starter or electric starter. You'll need roughly 3 dozen coals to cook over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. After the coals are glowing red and covered with gray ash (getting there takes 20 to 30 minutes), spread them out in roughly a single layer in the center of the grill. Then, position the grill grate and let it heat with the grill covered.
If you are cooking on a gas grill, heat it to high with all the burners on until the grill and the grate are hot. Reduce the flame (or turn one or two burners off) as needed for medium-hot cooking. If you want to add a smoky flavor, set a pile of soaked wood chips on a square of foil directly over the heat source.
For the most accurate grilling, set an oven thermometer on the grill grates — grill temperatures hovering at 375 to 425 degrees yield very nice results for most quick-cooking foods.
Just before adding the food to the grill, scrape the heated grill grates clean. Dirty grill grates cause sticking and can impart nasty flavors. Trust me.
Then, brush or spray the food with a bit of oil. Do not spray the grill grates with oil; this causes excess smoke and unnecessary goopy buildup on the grates. Position the food directly over the heat source, close the grill and set the timer. Don't give in to the temptation to open the grill too much or move the food around excessively. Trust the timer.
Nearly all red meat, poultry and pieces of fish and vegetables that are 1-inch-thick or more will develop a beautiful browning and grill-marking by spending 4 minutes on a hot grill without turning. (Thin steaks and cutlets, such as skirt steak, need 2 minutes only.)
Then carefully open the grill; use a spatula or tongs to gently flip the items and move them to cooler spots on the grill if things are browning too fast. Finish the cooking, with the grill covered, as directed in your recipe; for most steaks, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, that means 4 to 7 minutes more.
That's it — practice testing doneness with the squish test by pressing on the meat — the firmer the protein, the more done it is. For medium-rare beef or lamb, the meat should not be firm but rather, should squish in a bit when you press it with your thumb. For chicken, the meat should not yield much to pressure. If you must, insert a knife to check the color until you get the hang of your grill.
When choosing a steak to grill, the more expensive it is, the more tender and less beefy-tasting it will be (think soft, mild beef tenderloin). I happen to like to chew and the flavor of beef, so I prefer the moderately priced steaks such as flank, sirloin and flat-iron. My butcher tenderizes flank steak and then rolls it into pinwheels for attractive individual serving portions with a pleasant chewy flavor.
When steak is on sale, I like bone-in rib-eyes and T-bones or New York strip steaks (with or without the bone). Steaks freeze well for several months. Wrap them individually for maximum protection and ease of thawing (overnight in the refrigerator).
Take another cue from fine dining, and put a combination of flavors and textures on the plate alongside the grilled meat. Pair richness, such as a creamy sauce, with tang in the form of a tomato relish or lightly pickled vegetables.
This avocado-lemongrass sauce here could become your summer go-to condiment. Simply blend fresh herbs, chiles and avocado with roasted tomatillos and olive oil into a light fluffy sauce. Not quite a hot sauce, not quite a salsa, this condiment pairs well with grilled meat, seafood and veggies, but also tastes great dolloped on baked potatoes, steamed asparagus and as a dunk for crunchy raw vegetables or pita chips.
Likewise, the tomato lemon relish proves versatile. Try it over an omelet or as a chunky salad dressing for hearty greens or grilled vegetables. Stir in cooked shrimp and diced avocado for a seafood cocktail.
As for my summer potatoes — I'm crazy about smashed, crusty specimens flavored with sweet butter and charred onions. This method works well with nearly all small potatoes — from little red potatoes to fingerlings. If you like the skin on a sweet potato, as I do, this smashing and crisping method will please you mightily. Adjust the microwave cooking time, as necessary, to render whichever potato size you're working with to fork-tenderness.
Keep cooking — that's my motto. Especially when it comes to grilling. In my experience, family and friends appreciate the effort and happily eat up the practice sessions.
Grilled Steak with Avocado-Lemongrass Sauce
Prep: 15 minutes. Chill: 1 hour or more. Cook: 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings
One-inch thick, bone-in lamb chops or small boneless skinless chicken breasts work well here too. Adjust timing of the cooking after you flip the meat. Vary the herbs as desired.
1 beef flank steak, or 4 small top sirloin steaks (1 inch thick) or 4 small boneless New York strip steaks, total weight 1½ to 1¾ pounds
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons each, chopped, fresh: chives, cilantro (or arugula)
1 to 2 tablespoons very finely sliced fresh mint or basil leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Spicy avocado-lemongrass sauce, see recipe
Tomato-lemon relish, see recipe
1. Put steak(s) in a shallow dish. Sprinkle one side with half of the salt, pepper, herbs and olive oil. Flip and sprinkle the remaining over the steak. Cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours.
2. Prepare avocado-lemongrass sauce and tomato-lemon relish, if using.
3. Let steak stand at room temperature about 30 minutes while you heat the grill.
4. Prepare a charcoal grill, and let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash. Arrange the coals in a single layer in the center of the grill. Put the grill grate in place, and heat it with the grill covered. Or, heat a gas grill until hot; reduce heat to medium-hot.
5. Position steak(s) directly over the heat source. Cover the grill and cook, without opening the grill for 4 minutes. Turn the steak(s) over, they should be nicely grill-marked. Cover the grill, and continue cooking until the steak yields to medium pressure for medium-rare, 4 to 5 minutes more.
6. Transfer steaks to a cutting board to rest. For flank steak, use a sharp slicing knife or an electric knife to slice steak across the grain into very thin slices. Sprinkle steak(s) lightly with salt.
7. To serve, put a smear of the avocado-lemongrass sauce on each plate. Top with slices of flank steak (or the whole steak if this applies). Spoon some of the tomato-lemon relish on the side of the steak. Serve hot with sharp knives.
Nutrition information per serving: 317 calories, 19 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 103 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 35 g protein, 359 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Spicy Avocado-Lemongrass Sauce
Prep: 15 minutes. Cook: 10 minutes. Makes: 2 generous cups
I use 2 jalapenos (about 2 ounces total) for a sauce that is medium-hot. If you desire less heat, reduce the jalapenos used. If your final sauce is still too hot, simply blend in a bit more avocado and olive oil.
1 pound tomatillos, husked
1 to 2 large jalapenos, stemmed
2 large cloves of garlic
½ cup tender cilantro leaves and sprigs
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons refrigerated lemongrass puree
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-large ripe avocado, halved, pitted
1. Heat broiler to high. Put tomatillos and jalapenos on a foil-lined baking sheet. Broil, 6 inches from heat source, until browned, about 5 minutes. Flip tomatillos and turn jalapenos over. Broil until softened and nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Cool, then refrigerate with the juices until cold or up to several days.
2. Put the chilled tomatillos and their juices, the jalapenos, garlic, cilantro, mint, lemongrass puree and salt into a blender. Add olive oil and process until smooth. Refrigerate, covered, up to a day. (I leave it in the blender jar.)
3. Scoop the avocado flesh into the tomatillo mixture. Blend smooth. Taste ,and adjust salt. Refrigerate covered with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce up to a few days.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 30 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 0 g protein, 74 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Prep: 10 minutes. Stand: 30 minutes. Makes: 3 generous cups
2 tablespoons each: extra-virgin olive oil, bottled sun-dried tomato spread
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
12 ounces grape, cherry or other small tomatoes, preferably a variety of colors, quartered, about 3 cups total
½ to ⅔ cup finely diced crunchy vegetable, such as cucumber, jicama or celery
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
Mix oil, tomato spread, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper flakes in a bowl until smooth. Stir in tomatoes, crunchy vegetable of your choice and the chives. Let stand at room temperature, about 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 7 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 13 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Fried Smashed Potatoes with Charred Onions
Prep: 10 minutes. Cook: 20 minutes. Makes: 4 servings
I like to double this recipe and put some of the crispy potatoes in the refrigerator to re-crisp and use in scrambled eggs and omelets.
6 to 7 medium-size (B-size) red or gold potatoes, 1½ pounds total
1 handful large green onion tops or large chives
2 tablespoons grape-seed, safflower or sunflower oil for high-heat cooking
2 or 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1. Scrub potatoes clean, and place in a large microwave-safe bowl. Add ½ cup water. Cover with plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high (100 percent power), turning potatoes over once, until fork-tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well and pat dry.
2. Meanwhile, heat a griddle or nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add the green onion tops and cook, turning often, until the greens start to turn brown, 30 to 60 seconds. Remove and cool. Slice crosswise into very thin pieces.
3. Heat a large cast-iron skillet or heavy-duty griddle over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Smear the skillet with the oil and add the potatoes. Use a meat mallet or the back of a spatula to gently smash the potatoes to ½-inch thickness. Sprinkle with salt. Let cook, adjusting the heat and swirling little bits of butter around the griddle as needed until the potatoes are golden and crusty on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes.
4. Flip the potatoes carefully with a spatula. Add more bits of butter to the pan and cook until the potatoes are crisp and brown on the other side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat; leave on the griddle until you are ready to serve.
5. Serve hot, sprinkled with salt and the sliced charred onions.
Nutrition information per serving: 232 calories, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 3 g protein, 32 mg sodium, 3 g fiber