I went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for Misstropolis.com. The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!
Barbecuing is a manly endeavor—like taking out the garbage. It dates back to the time when men were hunters and women were gatherers. Only now, instead of a woolly mammoth shot on the plains, we have pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, boneless chicken breasts bought from Whole Foods. The only hunting involved is for a parking spot on a busy Sunday.
Grilling has never been my thing and I am thankful for the very capable skills of my husband. While he mans the fire, I focus my efforts on making the perfect vinaigrette. But this division of labor has always been an irritant to my feminist side. So, it is with this desire for equality that I enter Day Five of the “Back to Basics” cooking class at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts with Steve Nill (father of five girls!) at the helm.
Steve starts the class with a discussion of the different methods of dry heat cooking: broiling, grilling, roasting and pan-broiling. “Dry heat cooking is quick and great for tender cuts of meat,” he says. “Broiling requires a cold pan to start or the meat will stick. The thicker the meat, the further it should be away from the broiler.” Steve’s first rule for grilling is to start with a hot, clean grill. The protein will tell you when it’s ready – when you can lift it easily off the grill, it’s done. That sounds easy enough except for the “talking” protein part (maybe that’s a male thing). We learn that roasting is ideal for large cuts of meat and when pan-broiling, don’t move the meat until it is seared. Like grilling, if meat sticks to the pan it is not ready. We also learn that meat needs to have air around it during cooking, and should never be crowded in a pan.
Steve says that the goal of dry heat cooking is to produce meat or fish that is tender and juicy, not tough and dry. Toward that end, he suggests that meat be at room temperature before cooking. The eyes and fingers of the cook are the best tools to determine if the meat is done. If it’s rare you will see blood droplets and it will feel squishy. If it’s medium rare you will see blood coming to surface and feel a little resistance when you pinch. If it’s medium, the juice is at the surface and if you poke it, it bounces back. If it’s well done, there is no juice, and it’s stiff to the touch (corpse-like). You may go hungry, but Fido will be happy.
Next we head to the test kitchen to try our hands at dry heat cooking. My partner, Lauren and I, quickly volunteer to make the diablo skirt steak. The recipe looks simple enough: an easy marinade tossed with the meat in a big plastic bag for ½ hour. Heat the grill to high. Cook 3-4 minutes on one side and finish with 2-4 minutes on the other. Slice thinly against the grain. Seems like child’s play. Years of mastering complicated recipes ought to fill me with confidence; I’m just grilling a simple piece of meat, after all. Yet I still feel like I stepped onto someone else’s turf.
The time arrives to test my mettle. Christian, the singing chef, hovers near us for moral support. Today for some reason, his presence is unnerving. Maybe it’s because he is a dexterous griller who elevates barbecue to an art form. Or, maybe it’s because he is the proud owner of so many barbecues – including a Big Green Egg Smoker – that I feel insecure. The seconds tick away on the clock, and I poke the meat. It has been grilling for more than four minutes, and it’s still squishy. Christian suggests I flip it. Ten minutes go by, and now I can’t tell whether it is squishy, bouncing back or stiff. I think longingly of the meat thermometer I once gave my husband for Christmas that he never deigned to use. Then, Christian eyeballs my steak and exclaims, “Now!” I pull the meat off, and slice into it. It’s perfect, but I’m rattled.
Lauren and I put the steak on a warm platter with the salsa on the side and then sit down to eat. In addition to our steak, platters brim with honey spiced pork roast, Indian flavored grilled vegetables with paneer, and grilled swordfish verde. The finale – grilled cranberry-orange zinfandel bread with orange mascarpone cream – is astonishingly wonderful.
Despite my success in the test kitchen, I remain tentative about grilling and still feel the tiniest bit out of place when I’m in charge of what’s going on over the coals. A little more practice with these new skills will soon take care of that. In the meantime – and please don’t tell Gloria Steinem – husband will still man the fires in our house.