There's a time and a place for burgers, ketchup, and paper plates. But there are also warm summer nights when the backyard grill has to anchor something more ambitious; when even the most accomplished pitmasters need to step it up and orchestrate a great outdoor dinner party with style. And that's where Michael Chiarello comes in – the Northern California chef behind the grill-centric Napa restaurant Bottega and the new cookbook 'Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors.' "The trick to throwing a terrific outdoor dinner," says Chiarello, who entertains regularly around the open fire pit in his backyard in Napa, "is getting everything set up so you can be a guest at your own party." You want to be drinking beer and talking to friends while calmly delivering a great spread to a well-laid table. Friends come to hang out with you, to enjoy your company, not just to watch you bolt back and forth between the Weber and the kitchen.
The key to a Chiarello-style cookout lies in chef's tricks like offering just one great, self-serve cocktail to set the mood without stressing yourself out; creating an easy-to-execute menu that still feels impressive and generous; and turning the grill itself into a social hub, to anchor the whole party. Most of all, it's about making everything look easy: Chiarello breaks the evening down, with an easy-to-follow action plan that takes you from marinating the beef to sitting down with your own plateful.
Italian Cowboy Steak With Salsa Verde.
Steaks take up a lot of grill space and are easy to overcook – unless you buy that rib eye in one massive piece, as Chiarello does. His recipe calls for a single two-pound chunk from the prime rib (the equivalent of two to three separate steaks). That cuts the workload in half and takes up less grill space, as you rotate that one roast-sized piece over the fire – it also lets you control portion size, ensuring there's enough to go around.
• 2 lb rib eye in a single 2- or 3-inch-thick piece, bone removed
For the marinade
• 4 cups red wine
• 1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
• 20 whole black peppercorns
• 6 juniper berries
• 3 bay leaves
For the salsa verde
• 2 tsp coarse sea salt
• 2 tbsp minced garlic
• 1/2 cup packed fresh oregano
• 1/2 cup packed fresh mint
• 3/4 cup packed fresh cilantro
• 1 1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/2 cup white-wine vinegar
• 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
• 1/3 cup water
• 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
Put steak in a plastic bag with all marinade ingredients for at least four hours, turning bag over once in a while. Refrigerate if marinating overnight.
For the salsa verde, mince garlic and salt together to make a paste, then blend in a food processor with oregano, mint, cilantro, and parsley. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in oil and then vinegar and lemon juice. Taste. If too thick, add enough water to make it pour.
At least 2 hours – and up to 4 hours – before cooking, take the steak out of the refrigerator. Step threeOne of the biggest mistakes people make is putting cold meat on a hot grill," says Chiarello. "Cold meat is like a clenched muscle, really tight. It's hard for the heat to work its way through those cold fibers into the middle, which means it will end up well done three-quarters of the way through and raw in the middle."
Season beef with salt right before grilling. "I like to press the salt into the meat," says Chiarello. Set steak directly onto the hottest part of the grill for 5 minutes, or until a nice dark crust forms. Rotate to brown all sides for 5 minutes each (sear small ends for 2 minutes each). Move beef to a cooler part of the grill (away from the embers) to finish. To end up with a medium-rare steak, take it off when an instant-read thermometer shows 118 degrees at the very center of the meat.
Remove steak from the grill and let rest for at least 10 minutes (even after you take it off the grill, the internal temperature will keep rising, by as much as 10 degrees). "Don't ever boast about all the delicious-looking juices on the board," says Chiarello. "That just means you fucked it up. The idea is for the juices to be in the meat." So tent it with a piece of foil and set it aside.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles
Carve by cutting half-inch-thick crosswise slabs on a slight angle. "Forget everything you ever learned from those French chefs," says Chiarello. "Do not try to slice it really thin and fan it out. You will just be dispersing the juices and it will get cold faster." Instead, cut slices about the width of your thumb. And be sure to season the cut faces of each slice with a little salt. "Guys always forget that they've only seasoned the outside edge of the steak before they cooked it." Arrange slices on a platter, drizzle with salsa verde, and serve.