Today: Filet mignon has a midlife crisis, and stops being so boring.
This recipe calls for 3 (edible) ingredients and has more in common with a crafting project than cooking. It will make your family and your dinner guests think you've finally gone too far, until they taste it.
It's called Lomo al Trapo (literally "beef tenderloin in cloth") and it goes a little something like this: Wrap a big hunky piece of filet mignon in two cups of salt sprinkled with dried oregano, tie it in an old rag and throw it in flaming coals. Exactly 19 minutes later you will have dinner. It sounds like a prank, but Steven Raichlen said it was genius, so I tried it. And he's right.
Steven Raichlen has been writing about barbecue for 20+ years, chasing it all over the world. In researching Planet Barbecue, Raichlen traveled to 60 countries, collecting obscure grilling techniques like smoking mussels over pine needles in France, and cooking fish saucy eggs in their shells in Cambodia. (Having accomplished basically everything on the world grilling beat, these days he's writing romance novels).
He'd be the first to tell you that this recipe isn't his alone -- the method is traditional to several countries in South America, particularly Colombia. But Raichlen translated it for and popularized it among English-speaking barbecue enthusiasts, so we're going with his version.
As Raichlen teaches us, Lomo al Trapo combines two genius techniques, to great effect: grilling in the coals and salt-crusting. Read on below for what each one can do for beef tenderloin, which Raichlen admits is "normally a pretty boring piece of meat."
Cooking bare pieces of meat directly on live coals has something of an underground following in grilling circles.
It was Dwight D. Eisenhower's preferred steak-cooking method; a brief but colorful recipe from 1949 is reprinted in The Essential New York Times Cookbook. The hearth-cooking pioneers at Al Forno in Providence called theirs "dirty steak" because yes, it gets a little ashy, though not as much as you might think. Adam Perry Lang's hot new book on grilling includes an entire chapter on the technique, which he calls "clinching" (a boxing term for holding your opponent within arm's reach, like steak pressed up against coals).
Here, the smokiness -- the rugged ancient sport of it -- is combined with salt-crusting to create a more delicate result.
• Naturally, it seasons it -- but not too much. The salt is packed on at the last minute and most of it is brushed away.
• The thick layer of salt seals off the surface, allowing the beef to simultaneously roast and steam in its own juices (plus salt and oregano juices).
• Salt diffuses the direct heat of the coals, while creating a miniature kiln. In doing so, it gives the beef a texture almost like sous vide filet. Instead of a bullseye leading from a rare center to a charred crust, you get an extended radius of medium rare, tender all the way to its well-seasoned edges.
• Not least of all, there's the "dramatic and visceral thrill of taking this thing that looks like a cast on a broken arm, cracking it open tableside, and there's this beautiful piece of meat inside," as Raichlen describes it.
You should know that you will lose a dish towel to the flames. But think of it as cleansing, an opportunity to ceremoniously burn your mangiest rag. Or, as described on this blog, use the leg of an old pair of jeans instead.
I'm tempted to advise against substituting cheesecloth, the most disposable of kitchen fabrics, because when we tried, the cloth was so flimsy that it burned away in large patches. But the salt crust held and the beef was still perfect. So if you want to spare your towels (and your jeans), you can use cheesecloth -- just don't disturb it till the crust has solidified.
This all seems quite a lot to commit to. Beef tenderloin isn't cheap. A practice run could set you back a good $25. As much as you want to be the badass pitmaster taming the burning log of meat, you're probably secretly terrified that you will bust open the salt to find only a well-done lump of smoldering disappointment and failure. Good news: You have insurance. You can push an instant-read thermometer through the salt crust to be certain.
Taking such precaution will only make you a little less of a caveman. But your guests will have turned into wolves by now, and forgotten all about it.
Adapted slightly from Planet Barbecue (Workman Publishing Company, 2010)
Serves 1 hungry Colombian; 2 Americans
1 center cut piece of beef tenderloin, meticulously trimmed of all fat and silver skin (about 8 inches long and weighing 12 to 16 ounces)
2 cups salt (we used Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Other items needed:
1 square piece of clean cotton cloth, 16 by 16 inches (an old-fashioned cloth diaper or piece of cotton sheet works well)
Photos by James Ransom