26 July 2010

Just the Tip

Over the weekend, a friend of ours invited us and another couple to his place in northern France. We don't get out of Paris nearly enough, so we jumped at the opportunity to be somewhere with wide open space, tons of greenery, and – hell to the yes – a barbecue grill. I'd promised the Gallic crew some real California barbecue, and we were poised to stuff their mouths with a huge portion of West Coast meat.

Extra-amateur food porn. We only had the iPhone camera
for the pix this time around. d'OH!
NOTE: That sound you just heard was half the population of Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, and the Carolinas collapsing at the thought of left coast "BBQ." And, yes, if you have a Dick Cheney-sized stick up your Texan ass, what we do in California isn't barbecue but "grilling," but to-may-to, to-mah-to, it's still freakin' barbecue as far as we're concerned. What y'all do is "smoking."

Backyard barbecue in France – from what we understand, living in a city that's got tight restriction on grills and very few back yards – is usually limited to grilling merguez and chipolata sausages that are then thrown into a baguette sliced like a Subway sandwich. On the other side of the token, if you get anything "barbecue" in a restaurant, it's usually just whatever meat slathered in something masquerading as "barbecue sauce." The only exception we've found was when we were treated to a massive post-wedding-day grilling of lamb over wood coals near Toulouse. That said, doing "grillades au feu de bois" is not uncommon (though it's almost certainly never marinated or rubbed), but it doesn't seem to ingrain the same ritual or mythical status that a barbecue does in the US. Standing around the fire, swigging beers, poking at the coals... You know, man stuff.

So back to importing California to France... No one knows what the hell a tri-tip is in France. In fact, very few people know what a tri-tip is beyond the West Coast of the US. This triangular cut of bottom sirloin was once dirt cheap (I used to buy entire 3-4 lb. tri-tips for $3-4 when I was in college) but due to increasing popularity has risen stratospherically in price. Especially because there are only two pieces per beast. Some French know this, and thus it's called the "aiguillette baronne" (the baron's tip) whose noble name screams "expensive and rarely ordered." Luckily we have a very good butcher who knew exactly what we were talking about when we placed an advance order for the cut... at €30/kilo.

An entire tri-tip (which, unless you insist upon cutting it into steaks, is the only way to go) typically weights 1.5 to 2 kilos. Our butcher's Salers cow, a breed of longhorn from the Cantal region of France, yielded a 1.5'er that, unfortunately, went down to 1.39 kilos after he kindly trimmed off the fat. I was a bit alarmed by this, as I normally prefer to leave the layer of fat on top as I grill a tri-tip to seal in moisture, but as it often goes with Salers beef, it's one moist, juicy piece of cattle. In fact, Salers is the only European breed that even when grass-fed produces beautifully marbleized flesh.)

As for the preparation of the meat, a proper Santa Maria tri-tip (where this form of BBQ originated), requires nothing more than a healthy rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. The magic of Santa Maria tri-tip comes from the wood smoke penetrating the meat to give it a distinct flavor.  The trouble is I knew we'd only have access to "regular" charcoal. So we opted to go the other way, the marinated tri-tip.

There's no rule for marinating a tri-tip other than your own. Mine is to marinate overnight, lest the marinade contain a very softening agent like papaya, in which case I wouldn't marinate for more than a couple of hours unless you like your meat turn to mush in your mouth. Otherwise, you can do what you want with it. We went with a "standard" marinade of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, lemon juice and booze and let it rest in the fridge overnight.

Stupid iPhone 3GS camera... at least
it picked up on the lovely pink flesh.
But you know us, we can't leave well-enough alone. I got up early before we had to catch our morning train from Gare du Nord and drained every drop out of my meat. Then I took the tri-tip out of the marinade. After patting it dry, I rubbed it in ground Penja black pepper and dried elephant garlic I'd grated in a pestle and mortar. No need for salt - the bad boy had already soaked up the soy. "What are you doing?" Alannah asked. "Doubling up," I told her.  The objective was to have the marinade for flavor, but to have a nice Santa Maria-style crust.

Come grilling time – 15 minutes on either side for medium, followed by 10 minutes to "rest" before slicing – the marinated-then-dry-rubbed bastard tri-tip looked perfect. And the gustatory result? Well, let's just say we've got some converts who'll be begging for more California meat in their mouths in the near future. In fact, one of the guys is ready to talk to his butcher about aiguillette baronne tri-tip for the rest of his cookouts this summer.

One thing we've still got to work on, though, is ritual. The sun hid behind the clouds so we immediately took refuge inside, sipping cocktails and then eating the tri-tip off of proper serving plates with cutlery and vegetables on the side. As veteran San Francisco barbecuers, we can say as charming as this all is, the whole attraction of barbecue is gathering around to the pit/kettle/flame, drinking cold ones, poking at the coals... rain/fog/windchill or shine.

We've got our work cut out for us.

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