Beth writes: We’re having a small dinner party next weekend for my husband’s work friends (2 couples plus us). I’d like to plan a really simple grilled menu. Steaks for the main course (my husband’s choice!); the easier the better. None of us is a gourmet!
Tony’s take: Thanks for writing, Beth! The casual, summer meal you’re describing is my kind of thing. If you push the menu in an Italian direction (which I would), you can create a meal that’s both simple and sophisticated… in an understated, I-just-got-back-from-Florence kind of way. Steak gets passed over for entertaining duty too often; and, instead, wedged into family-only/burger-and-dog territory. A good cut (like a strip steak, rib eye, or flank) can serve as the perfect centerpiece for company. Season the meat well, grill until it’s a perfect medium-rare, and then pair with a couple of summery Mediterranean “salads”. Neither of the pairings I suggest – the light arugula salad (generously dressed with good olive oil and red wine vinegar) nor the stacks of fresh tomato and mozzarella – are sauces in the traditional sense. But they make perfect summery counterpoints to the grilled beef: the peppery arugula offers a sharp balance, while a sprinkling of herbs marinates the meaty slices of tomatoes and mozzarella, enhancing the fruit’s brothy juices. A drizzle of good olive oil pulls the trio (steak, arugula, and tomatoes) together and makes the meal, more method than actual recipe, one that will impress.
The steak: Following the old “chicken salad from chicken bleep” saw, the most important element to a great grilled steak is great steak. There are merits to all sorts of cuts, though I prefer chewy, beefy steaks as opposed to delicate (and expensive) ones like tenderloin or rib-eye. By my count, flank offers the best balance of flavor and affordability (though it’s not all that affordable anymore). If money is no object, I’ll go with a strip steak (rich beefy flavor, slight chew), while top sirloin (which I used here), tender and decently flavored, is my favored bargain.
The grill: There are only 2 real tricks that I employ when grilling steaks. The first is to let the meat sit at room temperature while the grill heats. This 20 minute period allows the steaks to lose some of their chill, which helps them cook more quickly and uniformly (so the inside hits medium rare before the outside develops a gray ring). My other steak strategy is to build a moderate fire, hot enough to give the steak nice grill marks, but not so hot that the exterior chars before the interior comes to temp. Most great grill flame-outs come as a result of a zealous hand with the lighter fluid or charcoal (or both). Be easy!
The method (Serves 6)
1. Get prepped: Prepare a medium-high fire on your charcoal or gas grill. Set 3 lb. steak (like 2 medium flank) on a large platter and hold at room temp for 20 to 30 min while the grill heats. Thinly slice 3 large tomatoes (about 1 1/2 lb) and set on another large platter. Sprinkle generously with 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme and 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and let sit for at least 5 min and up to 1/2 hr.
2. Grill the steak: Sprinkle the steak generously with kosher salt (about 1 tsp./lb or a total of 1 Tbs. for 3 lb. steak) and black pepper. Brush the grill grates well and lightly oil with a wad of paper towel. Set the steak on the grill and cook without touching until it starts to brown around the edges and easily releases when you lift a corner, 3 to 4 min. Flip and continue cooking until the steak is done to your liking, another 3 min or so for medium rare. To check doneness, make a nick into a thicker part of the steak or use an internal read thermometer (the steak should hit 13oF for medium rare). Note: As you can see from the pic below, I also tossed slices of red onion on the grill, drizzled them with balsamic and set alongside the steak.
3. Assemble and serve: Transfer the steak to a carving board to rest for 5 min. Toss a 5-oz. pack of baby arugula with 4 Tbs. olive oil, 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar and a sprinkling of salt (about 1/2 tsp.). Alternating between slices of the marinated tomato and 12 oz. fresh mozzarella (thinly sliced), layer the tomato and mozzarella and set in stacks on 6 dinner plates. Set a mound of the arugula next to it. Thinly slice the steak and add to the plates as well. Drizzle with the best olive oil you’ve got and serve.