I have a confession to make: I hate grilling with commercial charcoal. No matter what I do I can’t keep it lit. I’ve tried tricks & tips from numerous sources and none of them work for me. And I hate the smell of burning charcoal. It’s so… harsh. And unnatural. When I grill with commercial charcoal I have to shower and wash that set of clothes immediately afterwards because the smell lingers- especially in my hair. And propane? No thanks. Then we’d have to buy propane all the time. And propane grills do a fine job of getting the food cooked, but you lose that “grilled” flavor that is the whole reason you’re cooking out in the first place. But this summer my husband & I have hit upon a solution: grilling over an actual fire. We make our fire in an old charcoal grill and it’s perfect! Build a base of tinder: dryer lint, wood shavings, newspaper, or dry grass from the yard all work very well. Then around that put some kindling. Larger dry sticks work fine or you can cut some of the larger pieces of wood into sticks with a hatchet. We use a small amount of dimensional lumber. You DO NOT want to use this as your only wood for a cooking fire because it does contain some very not good for you things- a lot like commercial charcoal briquettes. But we just use it to get the fire going. You should have something like this: Now put some fire to your tinder and blow on it if it doesn’t catch completely. Gently!! Blow on the baby fire gently! You want to give it some extra oxygen- not blow it out. Once the kindling catches well, add some larger pieces of wood- but only a couple. If you add too much too soon your fire will die and you’ll have to start over. Or call on the pizza fairy to visit your house. Good! Now you’ve got your fire established. You can add another piece or two of wood. Now put your grate over the top and let the fire burn down until it’s hot enough that you can only hold your hand over it for about 5 seconds. Now you can add your room temperature meat. Did I not say to let the meat come to room temperature? No, I didn’t. Sigh. Well, I’m not re-writing the post. You should be reading through the instructions before you begin anyway. So really I’m just keeping you on your toes 😉 But seriously, you don’t want to try to cook meat straight from the fridge. It’s too cold- it won’t cook properly. I’m using flank steak for this post but we’ve also cooked chicken this way and it’s equally awesome! Anything you can cook on a conventional outdoor grill you can cook this way. You just have to keep an eye on the heat. I wish I could tell you exactly how hot it will get or exactly how to control the heat but I can’t. It’s something you have to work with for a bit & get to just know by sight and feel. It doesn’t take long. If you’re paying attention while you cook you should get the hang of it after one or two tries. Trial & error isn’t a bad thing. Learning for yourself teaches you SO much more than having every last detail laid out for you. And this is a great way to learn for yourself. Figuring this out gave my husband and I a wonderful sense of accomplishment! We bought a cooking grate at the local camping supply store because the grate that came with the grill was left out to rust (not by us, thank you very much). We have wood stored here at the house from my father in law’s forays into tree trimming. We have apple, cherry, and plum to work with and they each add their own special flavor to whatever goes over them. The smell is much softer, much more natural, and far more pleasing than commercial charcoal. In fact, it’s fun to just sit by the fire and chat while we wait for the fire to be ready and then while the food is cooking. That’s definitely not something we would consider with commercial charcoal. I always thought it was the ranting of people who are obsessed with camping, but everything really does taste better cooked over an open fire! And the materials are fairly easy to lay your hands on. If you have a regular charcoal grill you have all you need except the wood. If you don’t have a charcoal grill, you can use a fire pit. You know; the ones people buy for decoration that they swear they’ll sit next to every night in the nice weather so they spend $200 on a nice one and then never actually use it. Craigslist is filthy with them. Cheap. And usually brand new or nearly so. Go find one, buy it, and actually use it! As for the wood, if you have trees in your backyard see if the need trimming. If it’s a hard wood, you’re ready to go! Or, once again, Craigslist or any local newspaper usually has all sorts of people trying to get rid of wood. Check it out- this is completely worth it! So the actual recipes! Finally, right?! I’ve seen a few recipes for pineapple salsa over the years and thought to myself “that sounds really good!” and then never thought of them again. But I saw one recently and decided that this time I would actually put it into the menu plan. It was good! But not great. Certainly not great enough to make the same way again. So I played. Because that’s what I do. I have a basic pico de gallo recipe that is easily turned into pineapple salsa- just add some grilled pineapple. Don’t like pineapple? No problem. Don’t add it. Without the pineapple this is just basic pico de gallo and is super good on tacos or nachos! (*Disclaimer: I have to be honest- this picture was taken AFTER I made a plate of tacos for my husband (pictured below). So this is not a full batch; the ingredients listed below will make more than this. We got enough for 10 tacos using the smaller sized flour tortillas.) If you’ve made pico de gallo before, you’ll notice that I don’t have any cilantro pictured here. That is simply because I don’t like cilantro. If you would like to add it you’ll need about 1/3 of a cup, chopped. Or you can substitute flat leaf parsley. I just leave the leafy green stuff out altogether. For the best flavor, the pineapple needs to be a bit charred. And since this tastes better if it gets to sit for an hour or more, it can’t really wait until the pineapple can go over the fire. So I just drain the pineapple slices very well and put them in a dry pan. About 2 minutes per side on medium high heat does the trick. Now you’ll need to seed the tomatoes. DO NOT just cut up the tomatoes and throw them in the bowl for pico de gallo. The gel and seeds will add too much moisture and a bitter flavor. To seed tomatoes just slice the fruit into wedges, lay the wedges on their sides, and run your knife between the tomato flesh and the gel. They should look like this when you’re done: All you have to do now is dice all of the fruits & veggies into small pieces (I mince the jalapeno), add a bit of kosher salt and a squeeze of lime juice, stir, cover, and let sit it in the fridge. (When you take it out there will be quite a bit of juice but it’s ok. The salt has drawn it out- it’s supposed to be there.) On to the steak. The steaks I buy take about 6-7 minutes per side over the fire to get to the point of very rare in the middle, which is where you want them if you’re going to be cooking them one more time after slicing. Once the steak is rare I put it on a platter, cover it with foil, and let it rest for 15 minutes. This is essential! If the steak doesn’t rest all the juices will come flooding out when it’s cut and the steak will end up dry. But this 15 minute stretch of time is perfect because now you can make your taco seasoning! You didn’t honestly think I was going to use a packet of seasoning, did you? If I did I might as well quit this blog right now. Taco seasoning is SO easy to make! In fact, I would bet that you already have all of the ingredients in your pantry or cupboard already. I found a very simple, very tasty recipe here and adapted it a bit. This is also incredibly simple to make into a large batch and store away for later. Now THAT is what taco seasoning should look like. It’s the color of spices you actually have in your cabinet- not that weird orange color that you really can’t quite identify. So once you have your seasoning made and your steak has rested for at least 15 minutes, you can go ahead and slice that beautiful piece of meat. Since the flank steak is so wide I cut it lengthwise down the center, with the grain, before I cut it into slices. That way the meat is easier to eat and fits in the tortillas better. Use a very sharp knife and make the slices as thin as you can without shredding the meat, thusly… Yes; you want it that rare. If you cook it anymore than that you will end up with very tough meat after you cook it with the taco seasoning. If you were going to eat this straight from the grill you could cook it more. Now put the slices in a pan or skillet on medium high heat, add the seasoning (about 1 tablespoon, but you can use more or less according to your preference), about 1/4 cup of water, and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer (lowering the heat if necessary) until the seasoning has made a nice thick sauce. Mmmmm…. so tasty!! Now remove the pan from the heat, get the pineapple salsa out of the fridge along with any other taco toppings you fancy, and go to town! These are SO good and SO easy that you’ll be astonished that people actually leave home and pay someone else to cook them! Of course, you don’t HAVE to cook the steak over an open fire. You can just grill it like normal people. Or you can pan sear it. You’ll need a heavy bottomed pan that’s large enough to fit the steak. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and heat the whole lot over high heat (about 3/4 of the way to the “high” mark on the knob). Once the oil is shimmery and giving off tiny wisps of smoke, add the steak and cook it for 7 minutes on each side for a 3/4-1 inch thick steak (this will be a very rare steak). Proceed as above for resting, slicing, etc. You WILL need to use the exhaust fan and you WILL need to open the windows if you pan sear. But it’s worth it- even in the winter 🙂 So only 7 more weeks of summer left! That thought makes me happy! The kids are already excited to start school again and I am absolutely longing for Autumn to arrive. Knowing there’s only 7 more weeks of summer is making things a little more bearable 🙂
The Recipe: Pineapple Salsa 4 Slices Pineapple, drained well, charred, and diced
1 Large Tomato, seeded and diced
1/2 Medium Red Onion, diced
1/2-1 whole Jalapeno, diced fine (I use half but if you want the pico spicier use the whole thing. Or if you’re really crazy, use 2)
1 t Kosher Salt Juice from half a small lime
The Method: *Drain the pineapple slices very well.
*In a dry pan heat the pineapple slices for about 2 minutes on each side. You want some charring but you don’t want them blackened.
*Seed the tomato by cutting it into wedges and running a knife between the flesh and the gel where the seeds are. Discard the cores. (Ours go in the compost bin so they aren’t wasted.)
*Dice the fruits and veggies, add the salt and lime juice.
*Stir, cover, and refrigerate up to 3 days.
The Recipe: Taco Seasoning 1 T Chili Powder
1 t Garlic Powder
1/2 t Onion Powder
1/4 t Red Pepper Flakes (more or less, depending on how spicy you want it. Remember: you can always add more so err on the side of caution.)
1/2 t Paprika
2 t Cumin
1 t Kosher Salt (you can adjust this as you like. I don’t buy the mainstream media’s reports of how evil sodium is so I use the whole teaspoon)
1 t Black Pepper
*Mix all ingredients.
*Use about 1 tablespoon of seasoning and 1/4 cup of water for each pound of meat you’re cooking. You can adjust this to suit your tastes. (Another perk of making your own!)
*Bring to a simmer and continue simmering until the liquid has reduced to a sauce.
***UPDATE: You can make this seasoning more like store bought, which forms a thick sauce, by adding 1 heaping teaspoon of cornstarch to 1/2 C of water instead of 1/4C. Add the seasoning to the meat and then pour in the slurry. Boil and cook until the sauce thickens.***