North Fork Chef: With a little TLC, these steaks satisfy

JOHN ROSS PHOTO | Flat-iron steak, right off the grill.

I surely never hope to view
A steak as luscious as a stew.
The latter is the tasty goal
Of elements in perfect whole,
A mad assemblage of legumes
Exuding warm ambrosial fumes,
Each seasoning of proper length,
Proving in Union there is strength.
A steak is grander, it is true,
Yet needs no special skill to brew.
It is an art a stew to make,
But anyone can broil a steak.
Author unknown, 1880

There was a time when we only wanted the luxury cuts of beef for our steaks — those very tender cuts from the “muscles of suspension” such as the rib, the loin, the tenderloin and part of the sirloin. The ribeye, the New York strip and the filet mignon are examples of these cuts. They all come from the center section of the animal along the backbone, an area that doesn’t get a lot of exercise. We also tended to judge the steak by its thickness and weight. Thus a 16-ounce, bone-in shell steak was a great cut of meat. And all you had to do was fire up the grill, season it with some salt and pepper and throw it on. Add a baked potato, sour cream and a tossed salad, and you had the ultimate summer meal.

But now, as we learn more about the anatomy of the steer, we find that some of the cuts in the less tender areas, known as the “muscles of locomotion,” can be very tasty and surprisingly tender. These muscles in the shoulder, legs and diaphragm do get a lot of exercise, which develops flavor in the muscles but also develops connective tissue. It just takes a little knowledge and a little work to make these cuts palatable.

We also discover that marinades, rubs and some creative sauces transform these funny-looking (and funny-sounding) cuts of beef into a gourmet meal. The amount of meat consumed is smaller and so is the price. Here are some examples to try on the barbecue:

Flat Iron Steak
People are just beginning to learn about this delicious steak. It comes from the wholesale chuck or shoulder of beef, a less tender area usually used for ground beef, stew and pot roast. But the area just under the shoulder blade, listed in the North American Meat Processors guide as the “Top Blade Steak,” is actually the second most tender cut of beef next to the filet mignon. The only problem is that it has a tough streak of connective tissue running through the middle that needs to be removed.
Removing this connective tissue and trimming it into two rectangular steaks — each resembling an old-fashioned “flat iron” — was the work of two teams of researchers at the University of Nebraska and the University of Florida. It has since become very popular among restaurateurs and is becoming available at supermarkets and meat shops. If you purchase an untrimmed top blade roast, you only need to split it in half lengthwise and remove the connective tissue with a sharp boning knife. The result will be two flat iron steaks that will weigh about one pound each and be enough to serve four people.
Preparation: Remove the line of gristle that runs through the center of a top blade roast (about 2 1/2 pounds). Cut the steaks in half to make 4 flat iron steaks. Make a simple rub by combining 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 2 teaspoons ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Rub this mixture into the steak and bring the steaks to room temperature. Spray them with no-stick and place them on a hot charcoal or gas grill. Cook about 3 minutes per side, or until rare or medium rare, and remove. Let the steak rest for about 5 minutes and slice on the bias against the grain.

Hanger Steak
The wholesale cut called the plate is located under the rib section of beef. Within this cut a muscle literally “hangs” from the diaphragm. This striated muscle is called the hanger steak; it weighs about 1 1/2 pounds and is very flavorful but not quite as tender as the flat iron steak. It also contains a long inedible membrane going down the center that has to be removed. The result will be two small V-shaped muscles.
These steaks are best marinated first and then grilled over hot coals to a rare or medium-rare doneness. Cutting them against the grain is essential. I found that slow cooking hanger steak over hickory chips in a smoker grill created a delicious, easy to eat steak.
Preparation: Carefully cut a hanger steak lengthwise along the seam. You will expose the silvery connective tissue; slip a sharp boning knife under the gristle and cut away from you to remove it safely. If desired, tie the pieces together to make one thick piece of meat. This will work best if you decide to slow-cook the steak in a smoker.
Prepare a marinade by combining 1/2 cup red wine, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary, 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Place the marinade and the steak in a large zip-lock bag or a shallow pan for 2 hours or more.
For slow cooking, place charcoal in the bottom of the smoker and heat until it begins to turn white. Wrap 2 cups of hickory chips in heavy foil and poke holes in the foil. Place this package on top of the hot coals. Then place a stainless steel bowl of water on the grate above the coals and put the top grate over the water. Put the marinated steak on this grate and cover tightly with the lid. It should cook at about 250 degrees for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The meat will still be medium-rare after this time, but it will be very tender due to the slow cooking.
Alternatively, cook the hanger steaks (separated) on a hot grill for about 10 minutes to produce a rare steak. Slice against the grain into small, thin slices.
Serves 4.

Skirt Steak
This classic steak is most famous for its use in preparing fajitas. It is located opposite the hanger steak in the diaphragm; it’s a little tougher than the hanger but a little easier to handle. It should be all trimmed and ready to cook when you purchase it.
Preparation: Make the following marinade for 1 1/2 pounds of skirt steak: Combine the juice from 3 limes with 1/4 cup tequila, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Marinate the steaks for 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Cut a green pepper, red pepper and yellow pepper into slices and place in a bowl. Add 1 thinly sliced red onion, 1 minced jalapeno pepper, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 2 teaspoons sea salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Prepare a charcoal grill and wait until the coals are white. Cook the vegetable mixture in a perforated grill pan placed over the coals with the lid on top. Stir and cook until just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.
Remove and cook the marinated steaks until browned and rare, about 5 minutes. Slice the steaks into thin pieces across the grain and serve with the cooked pepper mixture. Serve with 8-inch corn tortillas, guacamole, tomato salsa and sour cream.
Serves 4 to 6.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].