by Rochelle Bilow
I am not afraid of grilling. It's just that, well, maybe I'm a little intimidated. Let me explain: I graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City and worked as a line cook at Aldea before I packed up my melon baller and tweezers and moved to the country to become a farmhand and cook in central New York. So, yeah, I know what to do in the kitchen. I should be charring steaks with ease, grilling burgers with a flip of the wrist. But grilling, alas, was just something I never really did, either at school or at home.
Here's why it intimidates me: The heat isn't as easy to control as on a stovetop -- especially when it comes to charcoal grills. Plus, I'll admit it -- the years I spent as a vegetarian left the now-omnivorous me a bit nervous about cooking meat. I buy the good stuff -- pastured, locally raised, and humanely killed -- and it doesn't come cheap, so I don't want to ruin it with an unfamiliar method.
When I mentioned this to my colleagues at Bon Appetit, they insisted I face my fears -- directly, by learning how to grill from a pro. So I called up St. Anselm, a restaurant in Brooklyn with one of the biggest, baddest grills in the city. St. Anselm throws just about everything on the grates -- even their salads -- and serves the infamous ax-handle steak, bigger than my head (and worth far more in dollar terms). It was exactly the type of place that terrified me. But head chef Katrina Zito agreed to let me hang around the kitchen during Thursday dinner service at 5 -- before, I hoped, things got too busy. Turns out, I had nothing to be afraid of. Here's what I learned:
1. Now You're Cooking -- with Gas!
Zito likes the taste of food cooked over charcoal, but charcoal isn't entirely practical in a high-volume restaurant. "You can control the heat on a gas grill better," she explained. (Cue my sigh of relief.) Purists may scoff, but newbies like me can opt for a gas grill to learn on -- we can master the art of charcoal later.
2. Grill 'Em All (Let God Sort 'Em Out)
St. Anselm grills just about everything on the menu, from sardines and soft-shell crabs to artichokes. It's all about having the right tools. "For smaller or more delicate things that could fall through the grates, use a grill basket," explains Zito, who gave shishito peppers and chopped kale a spin in the basket as I watched. Mashed potatoes, however, got a more complex treatment: cooked and mashed on a stovetop, then formed into a cake and browned in a frying pan set right over the grates. This doesn't mean I have to start grilling my peanut butter sandwiches (although... ). But it does mean I can experiment with a whole lot more than meat.
3. Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
I'm a salt fiend. If I could have a salt lick at my desk along with my stapler and laptop, I'd be happy. But even I was unprepared for the amount of salt and pepper that Zito showered over her first order of the night, an axe handle steak in the 45-ounce range -- St. Anselm's claim to fame. "The majority of this is just going to fall off between the grates," Zito acknowledged with a well, duh shrug, which is why she used so much. More tender foods -- say, summer squash -- don't need a cup of kosher salt, but for big, hearty steaks? Pour it on.
4. Grill Marks, Schmill Schmarks
Perfectly cross-hatched grill marks have been haunting me for years. I always turn my meat too quickly, leaving it grey and insipid. Zito let me off the hook: "You don't actually want grill marks on your meat." It makes sense: Let go of the irrational desire for a cross-hatch, and you get an even crust over the entire piece of meat. To achieve it, leave the meat (or fish, or whatever) alone for longer than you believe you should. You can look for tell-tale signs -- edges that begin to curl upward or seize inward, for example -- but don't yank it from the grates after just a minute on the grill. Once it releases naturally, turn it a few degrees and repeat as necessary. But make sure you flip it over while the meat's almost half-way done. Otherwise, you'll have a perfectly cooked steak with just one gorgeous crust. Why settle for one when you can have two?
5. You Got to Move It, Move It (Your Meat, That Is)
The grill at St. Anselm is huge, and the middle of it is seriously hot -- I could't let my hand hover six inches above it without instinctively yanking it back. But toward the outer edges, things cool down. This setup helps with temperature control: If your food's interior is underdone but its exterior is going from nicely charred to questionably burnt, or if rendering fat is causing flare-ups, simply move the meat elsewhere. It's that easy.
SEE MORE: How to Make Summer Cookouts Even Cooler
6. Use a Thermometer!
Even though I religiously use a thermometer when roasting or pan frying, I assumed that sort of thing was deemed uncool at the grill. Who has time for a thermometer when there's a small army of chicken thighs in front of you? The crew at St. Anselm, that's who. Those ax handles aren't cheap, and Zito wants to make sure every customer gets the doneness they request. The first steak she put on the grill was ordered "blue" -- charred on the outside, all but mooing on the inside -- and she tested it three times with an insta-read thermometer before she showered it with fresh herbs and an enormous dollop of butter, and sent it out. "Unless you're cooking steak every day, you're not going to know the temperature just by touch," she said. "I do cook steak every day and I still use one." And with this, my deepest grilling anxieties were relieved.
7. Grill Out, Then Chill Out
We've said it 1,000 times, but it can't be stressed enough: You have to let your meat rest before slicing into it. (Else all the juices will run out onto the cutting board.) For a piece of meat as big as the ax handle, that can mean as long as 20 minutes. So stop stressing out and do something else in the meantime: Dress your salad, set the table, shotgun a beer, whatever. That said, if you're grilling seafood, you're going to want to do all that beforehand -- things like fish, crabs, and clams should go straight from the grate to your plate to your mouth.
So, am I ready to jump behind the line at St. Anselm? Hell no. But I can definitely say this whole "grilling" thing has finally been demystified. What once seemed so stressful now looks quite manageable. I feel relaxed. I feel confident. In fact, I'm going to test my newfound knowledge this weekend with this recipe. I'm actually pretty darn excited.
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