This was, by far, the most daunting cover yet. I don’t mean intimidating, because the steps were actually very simple (light charcoal, spread hot embers, add meat). But simple doesn’t always mean easy.
Crazy as it may sound, I’ve never cooked with charcoal before. I’ve seen it done, but seeing is different than doing, especially when you’re talking about cooking with fire. My first love and strongest suit is baking – so I cook like a baker. Did you know that these are drastically different ways of life, cooking and baking?
True cooks are intuitive, they taste as the go, and they let their instincts and their palate guide them as they layer flavor on top of flavor. If they’re really good, they know when just enough components and heat have been added to bring out the dish’s full potential, which is when they put it on a plate and hand it to you. Good cooks are artists. This is not me, but this is the realm of Food of Love that I’m working on most at the moment.
We bakers are a very different lot. We cannot taste as we go. Imagine reaching into the oven to break off a piece of half-baked cookie, to see how it’s coming and whether it needs a pinch more salt. Ridiculous, right? By the time all the elements are in place, it’s too late to add or subtract. You have two options: persevere or start over. Bakers learn how to spot a good recipe and follow it, to take good notes and follow those, and to measure, measure, measure, because you only get one shot. Good bakers are technicians: it’s more science than art. This is me.
When I say that I cook like a baker, that means I try to control as many variables as possible, especially temperature. And I’m not sure I’ve told you, but I’m the biggest klutz I know. Soooo, cooking with fire? Real temperature control is obviously out of the question, and I’ll be lucky not to singe my eyebrows off.
So what’s a flexitarian baker and wannabe cook do when faced with cooking Caveman Porterhouses directly on the coals? Call for backup, of course.
Andy is one of the best grillmasters I know, and unlike me, a true carnivore at heart. He’s the kind of cook that throws together a rub or marinade with whatever’s on hand, tosses a huge slab of meat on the grill, facilitates a lively conversation while it cooks, and knows when it’s done by prodding it with a finger.
When I attempt that kind of thing, I spend two days researching marinades, try not to catch anything on fire when I finally put it on, and then make a lame attempt to be social with my guests while it cooks. The whole time I’m talking, I can’t stop thinking about the meat, and of course the whole time I’m futzing with the meat, I’m thinking about what a terrible hostess I am.
So even though he had just helped with the shrimp skewers on the June cover, I called up Andy and asked if he would chaperone my first date with charcoal. This call was much different, though… last month’s call was “Andy, can you please come over so I don’t wind up eating five pounds of seafood single-handedly?” This time it was “Andy can you please come over and keep me from ruining a hundred bucks worth of premium choice beef? And by the way, can I borrow your charcoal grill?”
Although the questions were different, the answer was the same: “What time?”
Man, I love this guy.
Okay, so porterhouses. If you’ll remember, one of my first comments after putting my eyes back in my head was, what’s the difference between a porterhouse and a T-bone, anyway?
The answer is, not much. They’re both cross-sections from the short loin, with New York strip on one side of the T-shaped bone and tenderloin (aka filet) on the other. The only difference between them is where along the tenderloin the cut is taken, because as the short loin tapers off, the filet side gets smaller. So a porterhouse is essentially a T-bone with a larger filet.
In fact, the USDA’s Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications require that the maximum width of the filet side of a porterhouse be 1.25 inches at minimum. Anything below that would technically be a T-bone, although even T-bones must have a half-inch of filet attached, otherwise you’d be the proud owner of a New York Strip with a bone hanging off of it. I was absolutely certain that I’d find specs for the thickness of the cut, because while I’ve seen a thin T-bone, the few porterhouses I’ve had the pleasure of meeting have all been hefty specimens, an inch or more thick. But no such requirement exists… at least not that I could find.
Aside from the novelty of cooking one of the highest quality cuts of beef at home, the more obvious shock value of this cover is the whole business of cooking directly on the coals. How do you keep it from tasting like ashes? The long answer is that you brush any residual ash from the finished steaks with a pastry brush, and the short answer is, you don’t. This is not Smith and Wollensky’s, this is caveman food.
I’ve told you before about my purist philosophy when it comes to seasoning steaks, so I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of seasoning called for in the recipe. After tasting the results, I realized that the charcoal is very much a source of both flavor and heat. The finished steaks tasted liked well-seared beef, a little ash, and in our case, mesquite. Plus, the poblano pan-fry is delicious and adds a ton of flavor. Marinades and rubs need not apply.
(As a side note, I served Root Beer Baked Beans on the side and Roasted Apricots with Honey-Vanilla Crème Fraîche for dessert, both also from Bon Appétit. The beans were okay, but the apricots were fabulous. I’ll definitely be making those again.)
All in all, I’d grade the porterhouse recipe a B. Some of our guests loved it. Some, like Matt, actually didn’t care for it much, and although I enjoyed it, I probably wouldn’t do it again. If you like the nuances of flavor in beef, the ash thing is quite a distraction. But if you’re into showmanship at your dinner parties (talk about a conversation starter), and if you prefer a – shall we say? – rustic flavor, you’ll love this. It’ll make you grunt like a Neanderthal and appreciate the fact that we ever discovered fire in the first place.