There are few days that greater symbolize our utter domination over the humble cow, pig and chicken than Memorial Day in the South. The atmosphere over Chattanooga on Monday will be thick with the smoke of 10,000 fires, both great and small, burning in anticipation of a sacrifice to honor our fallen warriors. Families will gather around pristine, Sandra Lee-inspired tablescapes and carefully prepared plates of dishes whose hand-scribbled recipes have been passed down for generations and generations.
But there will also be carnage, weeping, and gnashing of teeth as inexperienced or uninformed cooks perform grave injustices to perfectly good meat and poultry. Magazines, food TV and the Internet have been over complicating the process of cooking meat over hot coals for decades, so put down your pens and food journals for a minute and strip this process down to its tasty, tasty basics.
No questionable meat
Take the time and spend the extra dollar or two to get local, farm-raised meat. Plenty of local farms, such as Creekridge or Sequatchie Cove, have far superior tasting cuts than that meat of mysterious origin you get in vacuum-packed styro trays at the chain stores. If supporting local business, lowering the impact on the environment and benefitting from reduced risks from chemicals and additives aren’t enough to compel you to buy local meat, then do it because it tastes better. If you truly can’t taste the difference in high-quality, locally sourced meats then you’re either doing something wrong or your taste buds may have been seared off in a tragic apple crumble dessert pizza incident at CiCi’s.
Hank Hill is wrong
Cooking meat over anything but slow-burning hardwood is an unforgivable offense in an outdoor grilling or barbecue situation. Leave the gas for your kitchen stove. If you have good meat to cook, lump charcoal in a cheap Weber grill can make the Outback your bitch. Don’t use self-starting briquettes either, unless you like subtle notes of chemical fire and Zippo fuel with your meal. Good quality lump charcoal will not only taste better, but will get hot enough to give you a better sear that you can ever get from gas. Swing by a local shop like Southern Hearth or The Patio Shop to get some good quality lump charcoal, but don’t get distracted by the tactical barbecue aprons or Guy Fieri-flamed meat cleavers—we’re keeping it simple.
Stop playing with it
Meat tastes good on its own. It shouldn’t need complicated chutneys or seasonings to make it taste good unless you bought it from the Shamwow guy out of a truck in your driveway. Use a generous amount of course kosher salt to form a crust and a little black pepper to taste. That’s it, nothing else. Don’t use table salt—it’ll just make the meat salty—and whatever you do don’t salt until you’re ready to cook or the meat will get soggy and almost impossible to sear.
Put the meat on the hot grill and leave it alone. Go drink a beer and wait for the Malliard reaction. That’s the browning or caramelization that occurs when high heat is applied to meat. While you’re waiting, throw away that big fork that came with your grill set from Target. Poking holes in meat lets out all of the juices which take flavor with them. Use tongs to turn it one time and one time only.
When the meat is done, take it off the grill and go get another beer. While you’re impatiently waiting and fending off packs of hungry carnivores, the meat is getting much needed rest. Letting it sit untouched for about 10 minutes allows the meat to retain its juices so when you cut into it meaty goodness doesn’t leak everywhere.
Meat can make its own sauce
“Dressing the board” is a way of using the meat’s natural juices to make a very simple and complementary dressing. While the meat is cooking, whisk a couple tablespoons of an herb, a few tablespoons of olive oil, a couple of pinches of course salt and a little pepper together in a bowl. Then dump that on your cutting board and set your finished meat right on it to rest. When you slice the meat, let that board dressing get all up in there and invade that meat’s personal space. The juices from the meat will mix with the dressing and you’ll look like Jamie Oliver without the carefully coiffed bedhead.
So before you undertake the meat-cooking duties on Monday, remember that the fine cows, pigs and chickens who gave their lives so that we can honor our nation’s most deserving heroes also deserve to let the final thing they have to give us shine brightly— their flavor.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a lot of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.