Basic Grilled Steak

I am quite excited because today my parents are arriving from Madison, Wisconsin for a small family reunion of sorts. My brother will be driving up with his extended family to join us on Sunday, and we will have a small birthday party for my Father, as well as for Maya Hawk (my niece).

But the arrival of my parents raises the question, “what should I be feeding them?” We could go out to eat, but travel being what it is, I think it is much nicer to feed them at home. The trick is to find something that is both special, and relatively quick to put together. My mind almost immediately goes to strip steak.

Strip Steaks are a Cooking Fundamental

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The most beautiful marbling, no?

Although it is often fairly spendy (all meat is spendy if you are doing it right) a strip steak is a fairly good choice to have in your “basics” repertoire. In point of fact, the Weber grilling company has made cooking a strip steak fairly foolproof: if you can be attentive for 6-8 minutes, the cooking is pretty hard to botch (incidentally, given the quality of Weber’s video, I will not go through the steps of cooking the steaks here). Further, a strip steak (steak cut from the short loin, which I call a “New York strip”) is, bizarrely, a great choice to cook for someone coming from the midwest; we tend to get better cuts of premium meats here in New Jersey. Which is not something you would expect.

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Has a nice coating of olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Should You Get A Grill?

If you are 20-something, living on your own, should you get a grill? I think so, assuming that your living arrangements permit you to have one. I do, however, have a few caveats about purchasing a grill:

Caveat 1: I Wouldn’t Bother with Electric Grills

First of all, I have never encountered an electric grill that I think is worth the money. To my mind, the signal virtue of grills is that they get quite hot, and I have not yet seen a grill that can convert US current into something that gets hot enough. I know that there are people who are advocates of electric, indoor grills. Perhaps one day I will be convinced, but as of right now, I do not think they are worth it.

Caveat 2: Gas versus Charcoal

The issue then is, “what you should look for in an outdoor grill?” First, should you go gas or charcoal for your first grill?

My answer is that while I have romantic associations about charcoals grills (my family had one when I was quite little) and while I acknowledge that charcoal grills are indisputably cheaper than gas grills, they are a bad idea.

Gas Wins the Practicality Test

Frankly, the most valuable test I have ever used for assessing if I want a piece of kitchen equipment is “is this an investment in a tool I will actually use?”

You are much less likely to use a charcoal grill, and you are less likely to be successful when you do use it. I probably go through two propane tanks a season using my gas grill. And I grill a lot of vegetables. During the summer, I probably grill twice a week or more (eggplant sandwiches sell well to vegetarians). I do not love replacing the tanks, but I need to make one or two trips to the store in a season, versus hauling and storing multiple loads of briquettes back home. Further, although I loved helping my father set up our charcoal grill (crumpling paper, making a briquette pyramid, soaking the pyramid in petrochemical lighter fluid), all of these steps are a pain for an adult who has a job. Further, I really do not think the petrochemical byproducts of grilling are good for you in any regards.

My grill is easy to start (press a button), does not produce ashes, requires no lighter fluid, and has lasted for years (since 2002, at least). Further, the temperature in my grill is relatively easy to control. To my mind, then, gas has charcoal beaten hands down.

Gas Grill Manufacturers

What about brands? I am a Weber loyalist, and I love the Spirit-E series, and I would generally encourage you to invest in the 3-burner model (retails on Amazon for around $500). I cannot say that I have terribly rational reasons for my preference, however. You may do a huge about of research and find that someone is making a better product–and I would really like to learn about your experience. I just know that as of right now I really love my Weber grill.

A Word on Doneness

How done should a steak be? First of all, I do differ from Weber just a bit–I don’t like to trust time and hand feel to assess “doneness”; I like to use my handy ThermaPen to check, and I use the following guide to test. My mother and I are frequently at odds about this. She would like her steak rare (I’d try to pull her steak at a temperature right around 135 degrees). I like my steak cooked a little more than pure medium rare (I try to pull my steak at around 142 degrees). She maintains that I have destroyed the flavor of my steak by cooking it so long. I accuse her of being a vampire. Whatever your preferences, I generally would discourage people, for health reasons, from cooking their steaks much longer than the time required to get the steak to medium.

Musings about Meat

Although it is always dangerous to generalize, generalizations are fairly interesting and so I feel like I should take the risk. Given my experiences, it seems to me that the highest quality produce that is grown in this country tends to get drawn to urban centers, but more specifically drawn to New York, San Francisco, and L.A. Beef, in particular, seems to be prone to having this happen. It is very, very hard to get prime beef in the Midwest. Really. As a result, my parents are genuinely thrilled to see prime beef when they visit. Prime steaks it is.

Incidentally, the same cannot be said for pork and lamb. The pork and lamb I have secured in the Midwest have been consistently superior, not only in beauty (the appearance of the cuts of meat) but also in taste to those cuts I have purchased in New Jersey. I have no idea why the coasts do not seem to drain the excellent pork that is being produced in the Midwest, but they do not. Perhaps a reader from California, Oregon, or Washington can share their own experiences with the pork and lamb they have at home, versus Midwestern products.

Prime versus Pastured Beef

A legitimate question that could be put to me, however, is given the health benefits of pastured meats, why I am not purchasing pastured beef; why go prime?

The answer is that, in my experience, pastured beef is an acquired taste. Ground pastured meat tastes, well, like ground meat. There is not so much of a flavor difference there. Cuts of pastured beef, however, look and taste different from their grain-fed peers. That is not to say that they taste worse, but rather that their lack of marbling means that texture-wise they can frankly be chewier than many people prefer. Perhaps one day I will develop a great relationship with a pasture-raising farm which will make me less hesitant; for right now, I will purchase prime when I have guests.

I also think I need to say that I work to moderate my consumption of grilled meats. I do think there is sufficient evidence to say that the consumption of grilled (high-temperature cooking) foods increases your cancer risks. On the other side of it, they are absolutely delicious. I will try to serve lots of antioxidant-rich veggies (the kale!) next to the meat to offset the worst of the heterocyclic amines sitting on my plate.

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Steak Companions

So what am I going to serve with the strip steaks? If we narrow in on what is on the plate, I think I will try to keep my guests in mind, and offer potatoes. I think I will boil some Yukon Gold potatoes up, rice them, and fold in some sour cream and Irish butter, and make soft mashed potatoes. In the past, I might have been tempted to make these potatoes into hash browns, but some evidence has come out that suggests that that is not a good idea.

Choice of Potato

Why am I choosing Yukon Gold potatoes over another potato, such as a large Idaho potato? The answer is that I think Yukon Golds are a wonderful choice for mashed potatoes. They have enough free starch that they pull together nicely, but they are somewhat less likely to turn into a gluey mess if I should accidentally over-work the potato (which breaks down the potato cells, releasing amylopectin). I will be ricing them, which helps protect against too much starch breakdown, and I will be buffering them with acid (the sour cream), but I still prefer not to take the risk involved in working with a starchier potato.

 

Cooking Technique for the Potato

Incidentally, how does one prepare a potato for cooking? While I do know some people leave the skins in, I do not. Rather, I peel my potatoes (a potato peeler is yet another essential I did not think of) and roughly chop them before putting them in a large stockpot with salted water (±1 tbsp salt).

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While I debated about whether I should fully disclose my method here, at risk of over complicating things and making this look more like a blog about kitchen equipment than a blog about cooking and food, I usually really resent it when the authors of cookbooks use specialized equipment and do not talk about it. So it is time for some full disclosure.

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Although I would never say that a vegetable/onion chopper is an “essential” piece of kitchen equipment, I do own one and I do use it when I have to process a large number of vegetables. There are a few reasons why I use it for making mashed potatoes, namely, that it really does cut things into a more uniform size, and thereby reduces the possibility that I will overcook the potatoes. Again, you do not need one, but the results are quite satisfying.

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Once they are peeled, potatoes are subject to oxidation, and hence they should be put immediately into water. Assuming you salted the water, however, you really can leave the diced potatoes sitting on a cold stove for a few hours until you are ready to cook. Cooking itself should take only about 10-20 minutes (until a fork easily passes through the potato). My stove might be more powerful than yours, though, so do test generally. My mother, who cooks on a true professional Wolf stove (not one of your “play” professional Wolves, mind you, but the real, uninsulated-needs-a-fire-extinguishing-system-of-its-own, deal) and everything goes much quicker. I generally cook the potatoes before I grill the beef, trusting that the butter and sour cream will act to keep the potatoes tasting good in the 6-7 minute window that I am cooking the steak and the asparagus.

Asparagus

What to do about vegetables? I was also pleased to discover that my local Whole Foods has Michigan asparagus (clinging on to spring in the north), which always serves well. Following the same technique I used in grilling asparagus, I will coat the asparagus in olive oil, apply salt and pepper, and then grill them while I am working the steaks.

Lower Carbohydrate Options

As I think I have mentioned, however, I am generally trying to reduce the number of carbohydrates that I am consuming–with some mixed success. I’d like to come up with a carbohydrate alternative so that I do not feel deprived, and yet I am simply eating less.

One answer to this was suggested by some Almond Flour Tortillas (manufactured by Siete) which really only contain almond and tapioca flours. While each tortilla serving does contain 17 grams of carbohydrate, 17 grams is approximately half of the carb burden of mashed potatoes (assuming I could restrain myself, and not eat all of the mashed potatoes). Right now we have some very nice avocados available to us in New Jersey–I think I will serve myself sliced steak with full-fat sour cream, avocados, and tomato salsa on almond flour tortillas. And maybe I will sneak a spear or two of asparagus.

And then there is the Salad

What about a salad? I am rather bad at thinking about salads (hence why I am thinking about it only now). I do have some very nice mesclun greens (Bowery Green Mix) from Bowery Farming, and some mixed stone fruits (nectarines, peaches), which were left over from my Newark Academy dinner. I also happen to have some nice pistachio-kale pesto (a Jody Adams recipe) that I made for this event, so I think I will probably finely chiffonade some of our rampaging kale, salt-process that, and dress up a mesclun green salad with the fruits, kale, and pesto.

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