Saturday, June 10, 2006

Ahh the sweet smell of arm hair

So I got my first paycheck from the new job yesterday, and did a big Costco run, picking up all that stuff we've been putting off since February; and a few celebratory items.

A normal Costco run for us is... a lot. This one was twice a lot. One of the things we picked up was a fill tenderloin primal cut (PSMO). Basically you get your filet mignon, tenderloin roast/ chateaubriand etc.. for about $6 a pound instead of $10-$20 a pound. Of course it's Costco so they only have choice meat and not prime, but hell, choice tenderloin is pretty damned good.

Even better, buying it from Costco is cheaper than buying chicken McNuggets from McDonalds.

Then we did a double sized Wal-Mart run this morning, including grabbing something I've been waiting for ever since we moved in to this place... a GRILL.

No, it's not a barbeque, so don't call it that. Barbeque involves slow cooking with smoke; and while we are eventually going to get a smoker as well, for right now we've just picked up a cheapo charcoal grill.

See, in order to get a half decent gas grill, you need to spend RIDICULOUS amounts of money. A charcoal grill on the other hand is a. MUCH better, and b. one of the simplest things on the planet. So long as they make the thing out of the right thickness of a decent steel, and so long as you treat it right, they are simplicity itself. This one was $80, has a half decent grill cart, and reasonable construction; and that's all we need.

Charcoal is better than gas for a lot of reasons. First, charcoal gives some natural smoke flavor to the food; and that's always (well... usually) a good thing. Second charcoal is a much dryer, and if done properly much hotter heat source. Third, the additives placed in propane are quite unpleasant to smell (which is WHY they are there actually), and though the flame burns MOST of them away, some odors still remain.

Yes, eventually we're going to pick up a nice gas grill as well; but in a gas grill, you really do get what you pay for (well, up to a point anyway), and at the moment I don't want to spend the money.

Oh and why bother with a gas grill at all, since charcoal is so much better?

Basically convenience. Charcoal grilling isn't a TON of work, but it's a lot more work than just turning the knob and clicking the button. I intend to do a LOT of grilling, and I don't feel like the hassle of charcoal every other night.

Oh, and a gas burner is better for using cast iron on the grill; one of my favorite ways to cook.

Anyway, back to charcoal.

The secret to good charcoal grilling is in the fire, not in the grill. Yes a good grill design helps: Thick steel makes for good thermal mass and reflectivity, as does lining the thing with firebrick or lava rock (like you would a gas grill). Proper ventilation is important. Laying a thick, but not too thick ash bed is important.

That said, it all comes down to the fire. Use good charcoal, and build your fire properly, with good air flow, and good thickness (at least four coals thick) in the hot areas, tapering down to a single coals thickness, and a clear area to one side. This allows for multiple heat zones; and you are now in grilling heaven.

Now when you fist get a new grill there are a lot of different ways people like to prepare it. Me, I like a well seasoned grill to start with, so I coat the entire inside of the grill lightly with olive oil.

Start your fire with as much charcoal as you can evenly spread over your grate in one solid layer. DON'T use lighter fluid or match light charcoal for this, use a charcoal chimney to get a good hot fire going.

what's that? You always use matchlight because your fire goes out? That stuff adds nasty flavors to your food, and makes your smoke hurt your lungs and eyes more. Even worse, it's completely unnecessary and expensive. Just pick up a chimney charcoal starter for $10.

The way it works is simple. Its basically a big tin can with a grate in the middle, and some holes punched in the sides near the bottom. You crumple up a couple sheets of newspaper in the bottom, fill the top with your charcoal, put it on your grate, and then light the newspaper. In 10-20 minutes you'll have red hot slightly ashed coals to dump into your fire. The can acts as a chimney to direct the heat and flame up through the pile of charcoal, and the holes allow convection to suck air in like a little ramjet.

Once the coals are red, and have grayed over slightly, spread the fire evenly over the charcoal grate (which you generally DON'T want to do, because you want different heat zones in your grill, and a spread fire makes for relatively low heat with cold spots)and let it reduce to ash while the olive oil smokes and carbonizes on everything.

Let the fire burn down completely, and DON'T clean the ashes out; they are for your ash bed. This acts as an insulator against heat loss from the grill. Unfortunately it's not all that effective unless its REALLY thick, so we have our next step.

Once you have started your ash bed, let the grill cool, and lay down a bed of thin firebrick, quarry tile, sandstone, or lavarock under the fire grate. This is to absorb and reflect heat and allow air motion under the fire. It's important that you still have room for ashes to fall through, and air to move under the firegrate.

Now you want another fire going, this one nice and hot. Wipe down the grill bars with oil again, and build the fire high so that the flames are touching the bars; and let the bars season.

Once that fire has burned down to hot coals, THEN you are ready to wipe the grill bars one more time with the oil, and COOK.

Oh and the reason for the title above?

Well a grill isn't PROPERLY christened until you've managed to burn all your armhair off in a flare up.

Suffice it to say our new grill is properly christened.

UPDATE: Tournedos you could cut with a fork... in fact I did. Those were the second best tenderloins I've ever done at home; and I've done them a few hundred times. At first I thought they were underdone because they were so soft to the touch, but they were perfect inside and out, the texture was just that good.

Since we cut it ourselves we were able to trim and section it properly, and the meat cuts were perfect 2" thick, with no unrendered fat and no connective tissue (try getting cuts that good from the supermarket. You HAVE to go to abutcher to get it done right).

The only better I've had is from our butcher, who does dry aged prime.

The best part though, is the cost. Total cost for the whole meal for the two of us was maybe $20; and we had about a pound of tenderloin each. Even better, the Chateaubriand roast, and the chain are still waiting in the fridge.