September 26, 2018
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Flame On, Flamer
tastesteakMarinade0137

A simple Japanese marinade shatters preconceived grilling, and gender, norms.

Grill marks have always tasted like failure.

I can stir-fry. I can braise. I can assemble a pasta from a nearly bare cupboard. I have never been adept at directing live fire, though. The finished skewer or patty of meat, whether a kebab or a patty or a link, is regularly the incorrect temperature. The flames flare, and I recoil. I shoot for medium-rare on a porterhouse and land on medium-well. Defeat, pulsating. I have tried tricks. Gauging the protein’s doneness according to the different ridges of the meaty part of my palms, a common steakhouse-cook method. Fail. The direct and indirect fires approach, in which you create a hellfire-hot grill zone and a cooler baby-sin section. Closer. Still a blunder.

I saw my father and his friends grill their way through the 1980s. They laughed and drank, all while grazing their steaks and burgers and hot dogs with a perfect nip of char. I knew their specific confidence and ease was not mine. The blaze sickened. It was fitful; the flames burped and roared. This fire was not navigable by someone like me: a flamer. A flamer in the early 19th century meaning of the word, “glaringly conspicuous.” A flamer in the 20th century morphing of the term to “glaringly homosexual.” A glaringly conspicuous homosexual. I was not man enough to grill.

When my boyfriend, Brandon, and I moved to New Orleans nearly four years ago, grilling became standard. Brandon’s grill skills were effortless. Most often, he cooked a grilled-and-smoked chicken. Yes, both: In his proficiency, he could somehow smoke a bird while grilling it over hardwood charcoal. I marveled at his prowess. How his instincts told him when to cover the bird, when to add the chips, how hot the fire should be. I claimed other parts of the meal. Big-flavored green tomato or zucchini or potato dishes. I could breathe in the kitchen. I worried all my masculine bumptiousness would melt in the ambient heat of that Weber kettle grill.

I forced myself toward that Weber when he and I stopped dating a few months ago. It was summer, the year’s grilling locus even in swampy New Orleans, and I was morose. My grilling deficiencies and I needed a reckoning. First, I had to unearth a sound recipe. I found one in The Japanese Grill by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat.

The book is riddled with smart, simple recipes that complement the showiness of live-fire cooking. Most of the recipes employ fairly common ingredients, like soy sauce, garlic, citrus, sake, and sesame oil. I gravitated toward a breezy marinade of soy sauce, olive oil, garlic, and heaps of fresh black pepper. It read like a streamlined powerhouse. The kind of marinade you could use on most any hefty protein: steak, meaty fishes like salmon and shark, lamb. I bought two T-bones and crossed my fingers.

To make the marinade, you grate a handful of garlic cloves and a hillock of black pepper into a bowl with soy sauce and olive oil. Then you whisk until the four are somewhat bound. I dunked a finger and tasted. Sharp, rich, funky, earthy, and spicy. Everything I want in everything, but especially in a marinade. I moved the T-bones through the marinade, coating each of their sides, then left the steaks alone for 10 minutes or so.

Outside in the backyard, the hardwood charcoal I lit in a chimney starter had begun to turn ashy and glimmering. The burning of the charcoal: This I could handle. My palms slavered thinking about the next move.

I dumped the soft charcoal into the Weber’s concave base. I nudged the powder-gray squares into a mound. This would be the grill’s hot side. I placed the grill grate over the charcoal, let it get scorching, and scraped the grate clean with a grill brush, then slicked the grate with an oil-soaked paper towel.

On went the steak. Inhale. Exhale. One minute on the hot side, then a few minutes on the cooler side. Flashes of my father. Flip and repeat. My breathing went shallow. Brandon could do this; I cannot. Brush with marinade and flip, then flip again, then again, until the exterior caramelized. I knew I would be battling the irrational, so I brought a precise tool. Into the steak went an instant-read thermometer. It read 120℉ for what is about to be a solid, beefy medium-rare. I pulled the steak off the grate and waited and heaved for 10 minutes.

I sliced the T-bones. Against the grain, as they, including Ono and Salat, say to do. The steak was merely pinkish at the fringe and deep crimson close to the bone. Success! I tasted. Iron and umami and twang. All with that singular carbon lick borne of fire.

Brandon, like me, has always seen himself as a flamer. Glaringly, conspicuously homosexual. I was raised surrounded by men, none of whom taught me how to grill. I had to love another man for that to happen. During my recent summer baptism by fire, I was reminded of what is certain. Brandon is more a man than the men I knew, who surmised their performance of manliness would funnel to me by proximity alone. Brandon, by simply being him, glaringly, conspicuously him, made me more a man than I thought possible.

A Kitchen in New Orleans. Many years of eating, cooking, and writing about food have left Scott Hocker with many stories to tell. In this occasional column, he re-creates a dish tied to a distant, or sometimes recent, food memory.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 or so garlic cloves
  • 2 bone-in steaks, each about 1½ inches thick and totaling about 3½ pounds
  • Flaky salt (optional)

Adapted from The Japanese Grill by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat

The allure of this marinade is so obvious, so stupid-clear, I cannot believe I never thought to put these commonplace ingredients together this way. That’s why cookbooks matter, right? Use it on most any sturdy ingredient. Meat, definitely. But also eggplant and zucchini. It keeps for at least a week or two in the refrigerator, too, should you make more than you need.

  1. Preheat your grill, either charcoal or gas, so that there are two cooking zones: one that’s ripping hot and one that’s about medium.
  2. In a medium bowl, add the soy sauce, olive oil, and black pepper. Grate the garlic cloves into the bowl and whisk together. (The marinade can be refrigerated for a couple weeks. But you’re not here to store marinade, right?)
  3. You’re going to be grilling the steaks for a total of about 11 minutes. Have a timer or your phone ready. Here we go. Add the steaks to the hot side and cover the grill. Cook for 1 minute. Remove the cover and move the steaks to the medium side. After 4 minutes, flip the steaks, brush with the marinade and return them to the hot side. Cover the grill and cook for 1 minute. Remove the cover and move the steaks to the medium side. After 4 minutes, flip the steaks while moving them to the hot side. Brush the top with marinade and cook as is for 1 minute. Flip, brush, and repeat 2 more times. Use an instant-read thermometer at the part closest to the bone to see if the temperature has reached about 120℉. Cook a bit longer if not. If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, cut into the thickest part with a small, sharp knife to see if the meat is your desired color.
  4. Remove the steak from the grill and place on a cutting board. Let rest about 5 minutes. Cut the steak against the grain into slices about ½ inch thick. Serve dusted with flaky salt, if you like.

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He is currently the editor in chief of liquor.com and was previously the editor in chief of Tasting Table.

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