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Today: The rules of the grill, from a former line cook.
I use a pair of kitchen tongs and quickly flip a steak, pull back to let my hand cool for a split second before diving in again behind the safety of the tongs to flip another. The hair on my forearm recoils from the heat. Even with a long pair of kitchen tongs I can't bear the sting of the glowing coals like I used to. As a line cook I had a stint at the grill station. I did it for years.
But I have lost my commercial kitchen hands: the hands that could take the heat without flinching, the hands that could grab thermonuclear plates, or move steaks around on a grill without ever noticing the heat. The heat-abused hands that were once my badge of honor.
One of the steaks is cooking too fast, charring too much, so I move it to a cool spot on the grill. All grills have hot and cold spots. The steak next to it needs to cook longer before it gets turned, but instead of waiting I turn it onto the hot spot of the steak I just moved.
I remove the steaks from the heat and set them on a tray. They are resting and so do I. I sit down in the rattan chair at the far side of the screen porch. A green Depression glass tumbler sets on the end table. It is perspiring too. I pick up the glass and gulp the cold lemonade. At the beginning of this summer something changed.
I started grilling again.
1. I have never seen food as mine and yours. I have always felt it to be a shared experience and as such I have gravitated to family-style meals and it holds true for the grill too. I look for steaks or cuts that will be sliced and passed. I am not a fan of the "my steak, your steak" way of eating.
2. Hardwood charcoal and chimney starter only, no briquettes or lighter fluid.
3. Grilling to me means direct hot heat and smoking is low and slow.
4. Salt meat early and evenly and let it absorb the salt before cooking.
5. Use the force Luke. Unburden yourself of the instant read thermometer. It is nearly impossible to get a good read on most quick-cooking cuts of meat. By paying attention and using the same process each time you use your grill, eventually with the push of a finger you will know when it's the right temperature. Save the thermometer for big hunks of meat and the smoker.
6. Buy the kind of meat that is acceptable to you and don't let anyone bully you into something else. If you only want free-range, grass-fed then pay for it. Personally I like how many farmers do things here in my own backyard so I buy beef from them. The beef I buy tastes like the beef I remember tasting as a child. To me it is how beef is supposed to taste.
7. The easiest and simplest way I have ever found to clean the grill is to simply turn a sheet tray over when the coals are hot and let the heat do the work for you. After 10 to 15 minutes, using a sturdy pair of tongs, remove the tray (which is now extremely hot so use extreme caution) and lightly brush the ashes away with a wire bristle brush. The grate is going to be extremely hot so it is best to wait for it to cool down before grilling. If your grate is larger than the tray, then just move the tray around in 10- to 15-minute increments.
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld