Memorial Day weekend means that grilling season is upon us. Now, you can grill your hamburgers and hot dogs, chicken, tuna and portabella mushrooms. You can slow cook ribs and Boston butt. But sometimes, nothing is better than a juicy steak sizzling on the grill.
I grew up in an era when beef was king. My mother served steak and roast beef often enough that meatballs and spaghetti were a welcome change. These days, between dietary prejudices and health concerns, eating a steak seems as risky as chancing blowfish toxin in a plate of fugu. However, try this test. At your next grill-out, serve grilled steak, grilled chicken and grilled vegetables. The steak will disappear first, guaranteed.
There are dozens of cuts of beef and even more names for each of these cuts. Briefly put, sirloin and London broil are flavorful, but they can be tough. They are also less expensive. Chuck steaks are better for braising. Skirt steaks are fantastic, especially when you slice them crossways for fajita-style dishes, but not as steaks. Filet mignon is tender, but in my opinion, doesn’t have that much flavor. When you really want to do it up, look to the T-bone, Porterhouse, New York strip and my favorite, the rib eye. These are all flavorful and marbled with fat that will baste the meat as it cooks.
In the supermarket, a rib eye or strip steak will cost upwards of $10 per pound. They are often a half-inch thick, which is too thin for a good steak. The butchers can sometimes cut thicker steaks, but often the meat comes in already cut to order. For that special cut, it’s worth a special trip.
My first choice would be HATFIELD BEEF, 42 North Hatfield Road, Hatfield (247-5441). My stepson Gideon and I make the pilgrimage several times a year, often with his son Oscar in tow. When you walk into Hatfield Beef, you know you are in good hands. The building is old and well-used, but clean and clean smelling. The long cases are heavy with condensation and filled with thick slabs of beef, some sausages and chicken. The walls are covered in old posters illustrating the cuts of beef and pork. The prices are fantastic: The last time I was there, I got inch-thick rib eyes, bone in, for $6.50 per pound. You can also buy in bulk. Hatfield offers various combinations of excellent steaks, roasts and chopped meat, from 80 to 150 pounds, at a price that works out to under $3 a pound. If you are planning to stock up, or share the purchase with some friends, you can’t go wrong. The counter staff are all friendly and they’ll cheerfully cut what you want.
ARNOLD’S MEATS, 307 Grattan Street, Chicopee (593-5505) and 359 Shaker Road, East Longmeadow (525-5115), is a wholesale meat market that is open to the public. Arnold’s provides meat for many area restaurants and the quality is quite high. The stores usually have veal bones and chicken backs for those stock-making sessions, and they carry a variety of frozen foods, seasonings and other items. The prices are a little higher than Hatfield Beef’s. The staff is also friendly and helpful, leading me to believe that working with meat somehow makes one cheerful. I got some excellent porterhouse steaks, cut to order, for $8.29 per pound and 10 pounds of chicken backs for 49 cents per pound.
There are a number of local sources for organic and “farm-raised” meat. Organic meat follows strict standards. If the meat is raised using organic methods, but isn’t officially certified, farmers usually call it farm-raised. Farm-raised meat tends to be more strongly flavored than commercial. It is often not that much more expensive than supermarket beef and there is a world of difference in the taste.
Many of these farms also carry pork, lamb or veal. If you avoid commercial veal because of the way it is raised (calves which get no exercise, and little iron in their diet), you’ll find that farm-raised veal is guilt-free. It is also delicious. Conveniently, these farmers are often at local farmers markets, making it easy to get their products.
CHASE HILL FARM, 74 Chase Hill Road, Warwick (978-544-6327; firstname.lastname@example.org), is primarily a dairy business selling cheese and raw milk. The cows are 100 percent grass-fed. The farm also sells veal, and pork from whey-fed pigs. I can vouch for the ground beef ($5 per pound) and the T-bones ($10 per pound). Chase Hill Farm is at the Amherst Farmers Market on Saturdays.
CRABAPPLE FARM, 100 Bryant St., Chesterfield (296-0310, email@example.com), sells certified organic vegetables. Its livestock is raised using organic standards, but farmer Tevis Robertson-Goldberg is careful to avoid calling the meat organic. The farm sells some beef and lamb and its production is increasing. Crabapple has a farm stand and is at the Greenfield Farmers Market on Saturdays. The prices are reasonable, with ground beef at $4.75 per pound and rib eyes at $11.75 per pound.
RIVER ROCK FARM, 81 Five Bridge Road, Brimfield (245-0249; www.riverrockfarm.com), sells farm-raised beef to restaurants and markets in Boston, as well as Serio’s in Northampton and Blue Moon Grocery in Easthampton. River Rock is also at the Northampton Farmers Market on Saturdays. The meat is aged for up to 28 days. Ground beef is $6.45 per pound and rib eyes are $17 per pound. River Rock will deliver if you order $20 or more.
Once you get your meat, you’ll want to treat it with respect. First, let it come up to room temperature before you cook it. This means up to an hour out of the fridge. As far as seasonings go, do as little as you can to let the flavor of the meat and the taste of the fire shine through. Leave the marinades and barbecue sauce for less expensive and longer-cooked cuts that need the flavor boost.
The simplest seasoning is a sprinkle of kosher salt, sea salt or another crystal salt just before you serve. I usually rub some mashed garlic and cracked black pepper into the meat about 15 minutes before I cook it and sprinkle it with red Hawaiian rock salt just before I serve. My friend Paul turned me on to Montreal seasoning, a commercial mixture that includes garlic and some dill seed. You can go Southwestern with a cumin, coriander and ancho chili rub, but you risk obscuring the taste of the beef. You could top the meat with an herb butter or a slice of Roquefort or Stilton, if you are willing to risk a lecture on cholesterol from some well-meaning guest. My guilty pleasure is Worcestershire and A1 sauces. A drizzle of good balsamic vinegar or soy sauce is sometimes nice, but that’s about as far as you should take it. Save your creativity for the side dishes.
The most consistent arguments we have in our house concern the cooking of meat. My wife is a Southern girl and she likes her meat well-done. I think that medium-rare keeps the meat cooked and juicy. We both agree on a crispy rim of fat and well-caramelized crust. I try to achieve it without drying out the meat.
An Internet search for “steak cooking times” will yield about 1.5 million hits. Essentially, a rare steak has a cool, red center and is 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It is kind of mushy to the touch. A medium-rare steak has a pink, warm center and is 126 F. Medium has a hot-pink center and is 135 F. Well-done is 160 and is firm to the touch. Pittsburgh-style, by the way, is rare on the inside and charred on the outside. Avoid it.
There are four ways to test for doneness. You can cut into the steak and look, but this lets juices leak out and makes it hard to keep the steak medium-rare. You can judge doneness by feel. This is reliable, but it requires a lot of practice, something you are unlikely to get without cooking at a steak house. Inserting a quick-read thermometer at an angle into the center of the steak, if done judiciously, is also reliable. You can time the steak, but this is risky, unless you know your grill.
I recommend a hybrid approach. On my gas grill, with the grates hot and the burners turned high, a 1-inch thick steak will require about 8 minutes for medium-rare and 15 for well-done. The outside will be crispy without being charred. If you can hold your palm 2 inches over the grate and count to “two Mississippi” you’ve got a hot grill; “three Mississippi” and it is medium-hot.
Grill marks are key. Chefs use a technique called “walking the meat across the grill” to get good marks and to help time their steaks. Put the steak at a 45-degree angle to the grates, pointing to the left. After 2 minutes, using tongs, move the steak to face 45 degrees to the right. After 2 minutes more, flip the steak and align it at 45 degrees to the left. After 2 more minutes, flip to the right at 45 degrees. You will have beautiful cross-hatches and a medium-rare steak. It should feel kind of springy. Move it to a slightly cooler part of the grill to let it sit if you want it cooked more.
Remember that the meat will continue to cook as it sits on a plate. Let it sit for 5 minutes before you cut it. You will lose less juice that way.
If you like, top the meat with grilled onions or grilled mushrooms. Accompany it with grilled corn, grilled potato slices, a grilled eggplant caponata or simply some sliced tomatoes and red onions. Serve with a good red wine, a good local beer or iced tea.
Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, May 25, 2007