Last weekend, we had a big event here in Murfreesboro. The Murfreesboro Barbecue Battle was terrific, including a Swine and Dine dinner, a Kansas City Sanctioned Barbecue Competition, live music, vendors of all kinds, even a beer festival.
The Murfreesboro Breakfast Rotary Club did a great job and raised some serious funds for local nonprofits in the process. But for me, the most important part of it all was the Tennessee High School Steak Off.
Seven culinary teams from different high schools all over Middle Tennessee competed in a tough challenge—a Steak Off. Each team received four gorgeous two-inch thick New York strip steaks (donated by Sam’s Club and some of the best meat I have seen in a long time!). The challenge for the teams was to set up an outdoor kitchen/rig and to cook the best steak meal they could.
The teams were then judged on their steak meal by Mitchell Murfree of Five Senses, Brett Corrieri of Mafiaoza’s and Embers in Nashville and me. There were teams who made their own steak tacos, teams that marinated their steaks with tropical flavors and teams that basted their steaks with garlic butter. But the winning team, McGavock High School, taught us all the important lesson for grilling. Keep it simple.
While all the teams made great meals, the winners did something amazing. They seasoned their steaks well with plain old salt and pepper. They let the steaks come to room temperature and got their grill (filled with hickory wood charcoal, not briquettes or gas) smoking hot. They cooked the steaks to a perfect medium rare and let them rest for a few minutes before serving them.
The steaks turned out just perfect—with a good sear on the outside, a meaty, smoky flavor and a perfectly pink center. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Sam’s had given every team seriously good meat—they carry U.S.D.A. Prime meat now, and they were generous in sharing it for the competition.
You can enjoy the same winning meal at home any day now. One of the greatest thrills of the season centers around that first steak from your own backyard grill.
Now, what you grill is up to you, but whatever it is, celebrate simplicity for spring. The fabulous thing about spring grilling is that everyone is excited by that first taste of smoky goodness.
They are not looking for a complicated sauce or side dishes that take more than five minutes. Save the smoked ribs, the meticulously made barbecue sauce, the time-consuming side dishes for another time. Right now, enjoy a simple, luscious steak!
The biggest challenge to most folks is how to get that meat just right. You want it seared, not charred to death. You want it juicy inside, but cooked to your liking.
One key is to pick your meat carefully. For steak, concentrate on the tender cuts—rib eye and New York strip. Next, remember that thicker cuts don’t dry out as quickly. (At our house, we share one really thick steak rather than have two thin, dry ones.)
Finally, be patient as the grill heats. In order to sear the outside, you have to have a very hot grill. Give the coals time to burn a bit or give the gas grill time to really heat the bars on the grill itself.
Think about a succulent steak seared over hot coals, cooked carefully to keep the juices sealed in. Top it with a little garlic butter. Serve it with a green salad. For dessert, simple ice cream sandwiches. If you’ve broken out the paper plates as part of the celebration, you’ll barely have dishes to wash!
Simple Grilled Steaks with Maitre D’ Butter
Strip Steaks at least one to two inches thick
2 Tbs. softened butter
1 tsp. minced fresh parsley, tarragon or thyme
1 tsp. minced garlic
dash of lemon juice
salt and pepper
one small potato, raw
First, get that grill going. Be sure the rack is clean, then cut the potato and rub it hard over the rack. (this will reduce sticking later on.) Season the steak on both sides with salt and pepper. Let it rest. Turn the grill up to high if it’s gas or arrange the coals in a cone for charcoal. Light it and be sure it has started to heat. In a small bowl with a spoon, mix the butter, spices and lemon juice and put it in the refrigerator to chill. Lay the steak on the very hot grill. Leave it there for a few minutes—four to five if you want medium rare. Flip it over and grill the other side. Check doneness with an instant read thermometer. Serve the steak hot off the grill, topped with a mound of the cold butter.
Barb Ford is a food columnist and former chef who also consults with restaurants and other organizations on strategic planning and marketing.