Ever since we bought land on Orcas Island about a month ago, I’ve wanted to try cooking on an open wood fire. I’m talking about ON the fire, not just on a grill over the fire. To some people this may be no big deal but I’d never done it and needed some help to get started. Last weekend Sally had her first visit to the land and I jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of her expertise. She grew up on a ranch in Eastern Washington and experienced both her father and grandparents cooking over an open fire. We had both seen the cover recipe for Caveman Porterhouse in the latest issue of Bon Appetit and decided, despite our skepticism, to give it our best cavegirl’s try.
First stop — Silvana Meats in where else, Silvana — take the Arlington exit off I-5 and head west. This has become a regular stop for me on my way to Anacortes. They’re all about local meat and game, have excellent quality and customer service and their prices make it well worth a stop to fill up a cooler every time you make the trip. We bought two New York steaks, more than plenty for four hungry girls or just the two of us with leftovers. We learned from the friendly butcher, who’s been there as long as I can remember, that the Porterhouse is the same as a T-bone. Once you cut the meat off the bone, the rounder, more tender (and expensive) side is the Tenderloin and the longer side is the Strip or New York steak, still plenty tender and delicious.
Sally brought along onions and potatoes to cook in foil packets and we picked up a couple of beautiful portabellas to throw on the grill. Truthfully, the mushrooms are meaty enough to forgo the steak but I wanted to try grilling the meat directly on the wood coals. Notice I said wood, not charcoal briquettes. If you don’t have access to firewood, buy hardwood lump charcoal. Save your briquettes for the barbie.
While Sally was chopping the vegetables, adding salt, pepper and butter, I started mixing our favorite rum & tonics. Maybe not such a great idea before cooking on an open fire but a necessary part of the girl’s camping trip ritual. It also made driving to the store for the salt I forgot to bring along out of the question, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — I mean not driving , not the fact that I forgot the salt. Sorry, Sally.
Once the fire is going, place the foil packets in, giving them plenty of time to cook since the steak will only take about 4- 5 minutes on each side. Sit back, enjoy your cocktail, contemplate nature and have a conversation about subjects that just don’t come up around the backyard bbq. This isn’t the time to be too stingy with your thoughts or your firewood. You’re going to want plenty of glowing coals to cook the steak on. I was so aware of the dry grasses surrounding us and our lack of water coupled with my rum buzz that I was maybe a little overly cautious. We ended up with enough coals but just barely.
Meanwhile, brush the portabellas with a little olive oil, salt & pepper and put them directly on the grill. Now that I’ve cooked meat on the coals and have more confidence, I think mushrooms would work that way too. In full disclosure, I threw a head of radicchio from my garden on the grill also. Everybody’s heard of grilled radicchio, right? Took a taste and all I’ll say is that I don’t recommend it, definitely not my cup of tea.
The portabellas, on the other hand were perfectly moist and smoky-flavored. Sally may have had something to do with that.
When the coals are glowing and orange, you’re supposed to fan any excess ashes away using newspaper. We didn’t seem to have excess ashes, maybe due to the fact that we used actual wood instead of hardwood lump charcoal. Sprinkle the steaks generously with coarse sea salt and plenty of cracked pepper. Place directly on the hot embers and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Use long tongs, remove from fire and if you have loose ash, brush off steak. Let rest for about 10 minutes if you can wait that long, then dig in.
I’ll have to say, we didn’t do too bad for a couple of girls. At least I overcame my fear of cooking over the campfire, which is good since I think I’ll be doing a lot more of it.
Mark Bittman came out with a list of 101 Fast Recipes for Grilling this week in the NY Times, just in time for July 4th. Our steak wasn’t exactly fast but waiting for the coals to reach the right shade of orange was half the fun.