Grilling God: Michael Chiarello

Michael Chiarello doesn't mess around when it comes to grilling meats. He got himself an iron cross — he straps whole animals to it and cooks the meat slow and easy (more on that in a minute). But what about those of us who don't own insanely popular Italian restaurants — like Chiarello's Bottega — in the culinary Mecca that is Napa Valley, and who don't have the physical space and/or the technical wherewithal to cook a whole beast over a smoldering fire?

Not to worry, the Alec Baldwin-handsome chef and restaurateur (see also, Michael Chiarello: This Guy's A Charmer) has plenty of practical tips. You can wait till next year when he unveils his book about cooking in and around live fire, Beyond The Barbecue, or you can glean some tips from the man in this Grilling God close-up.

Let's start with the basics: How do we grill our meat better?

The trick to cooking proteins is starting with the meat at room temperature. Most people start with cold meat and it just doesn't work well that way. Room temperature meat, the muscle tissue opens up and allows the heat to access it. If you ever see a line where it's well done on the outside and blood red in the middle, that was a cold piece of meat. If they're medium rare end to end you know you started with a room temperature piece of meat.

And cooking it?

The idea is, even when drilling down with smaller pieces of meat, is low and slow and indirect cooking. We spend so much time thinking about wood-burning grills and the hotter the better. If you're using grass-fed beef or grass-fed lamb, they're not gonna have all that internal marbling because they're not [fed] on grain, so you want to be really gentle with them, these lean proteins. So you put your fire on one side of the Weber, you let it burn down — always cook on an ebbing fire — and you can add little pieces to it to keep the temperature going while you're doing it. That meditation of cooking is part of it.

What about seasoning?

Season it more than you think. Twice as much salt and pepper than you think, because half of it is going to fall off in the grill, You want the salt to melt in. Use a great salt. I prefer salt from Brittany. It's coarse, you can rub it into the meat. And it's more healthful; it has all your body's micro-nutrients in it. You don't need so many fancy flavors. Great meat, great salt, fresh ground pepper — and let the meat rest so the juices equalize and stay in it.

Okay, what's with your cross? How do I get one?

It's as simple as four pieces of rebar and a heliarc. If anybody knows anyone who can weld it's simply, like, building an iron cross six foot high. You can either put them straight into the ground — you take an animal and you splay them out and you take some wire from the hardware store and you wire them to the cross, and it has three cross bars and one big vertical. You take the wire and go through the belly flap of the animal and strap them back in.

What about seasoning the meat?

We don't do anything with them other than a little herb saline — 5 gallons of water brought up to a boil with a box of salt and whatever herbs are around.

And how do you cook the thing?

You build a fire. When the fire begins to calm down a little bit you put the animal right into the ground. The [cross] I had built has something it leans on so it's at a 20-degree angle. Every half hour, take a brush or a ladle and baste over the top of it with the herb saline. The meat cooks really slow for a long period of time, and a few hours into it, you move the coals in and around the animal, and you take a temperature probe and you look at the various temperatures of the meat. For lamb I love it at 125 degrees.

Sounds like a lot of work.

There's something about tending the fire and your friends are watching this celebration come, so by the time you get to the animal it's not about how many pounds of meat you can eat, it's about the entire process and the community of cooking.

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