Every year the lengthening of the days awakes the tandem feelings of sun-lust born of long, cold Brooklyn winters and a vague sense of anxiety that comes with the official start of grilling season. Soon the air will be filled with the smell of charcoal, and our butcher counter will be stacked five-deep with people looking to satisfy their carnal desires.
While most would-be open-air chefs have images of ribeyes and porterhouses dancing in their heads, the truth of the matter is that (A) good steaks are expensive if you're buying proper meat and (B) there are so many interesting cuts that are every bit as delicious provided they are prepared right.
Certainly there are a few cuts that will never see the grill, such as beef shank, but with a bit of clever cookery nearly any part of the animal can be enjoyed, not just tolerated, over hot coals.
A few of my favorites are:
Korean-style short ribs
These are short ribs, the old stand-by of dark February braising pots, that have been cut very thin across the ribs on a band saw. Cutting them short, across the grain, makes them more tender, and with the addition of an acidic marinade with lime juice or rice vinegar they become even more so. The best part is that they grill up in under two minutes, providing your barbecue guests with instant gratification as well as helping prevent the unfortunate side effects of too much beer and heat on an empty stomach.
London broil All right, this isn't really a surprise pick. If I had a dollar for every time my father ruined one of these big, beefy quasi-steaks I'd own that Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans Am I always wanted. Make sure to get real London broil (top round or flank steak), not one of the other tougher muscles out of the leg, like bottom round, that are better suited for beef jerky. Secondly, allow it to come to room temperature covered in a liberal layer of salt and pepper and then grill it slowly, over medium coals, until it is an even medium rare. Slice it across the grain (which runs from one end of the steak to the other, lengthwise) to make it the most tender.
This cut is so inexpensive and delicious that I'm at a loss about why it hasn't replaced baby-back and spare ribs as the slow-cooked summer meat of choice. Treated with a cumin-based spice rub and mopped with hot sauce, you'd be hard pressed to find a better reason to spend a couple of hours leisurely tending to smoldering hardwood chunks.
Most people know the Texas-style brisket that requires 12 hours of delicate smoke and carefully controlled coals. I've made it, and it was certainly a marvelous way to while away the hours on a dreamy July afternoon, but come on—what normal person has that kind of time? Also, heavy-duty barbecue can be way too much to deal with if you actually want to do something besides fall asleep in a lawn chair.
My take is to put the brisket in a sort of chile-and-pineapple-based al pastor marinade. Pineapple juice will reduce nearly any tough, collagenous meat to a tender, sweet taco filling and, like Korean-style short ribs, the beef, thinly sliced, cooks up in a few minutes.
Eat your vegetables
As much as I like a slab of grilled pork belly or pulled duck sandwich, more often than not the weather is too gross to face a chunk of rich, heavy meat. On those occasions you should consider deferring to the simple pleasures of a fire-roasted scallion salad with yogurt and mint dressing or charred tomatillo salad with fresh cilantro.
Don't allow me to talk you out of the pleasures of a ridiculous summer steak. Just keep in mind that your palate and your wallet might benefit from bucking the usual suspects and inviting some new faces to the party.