Features grilling offcuts: foruth of july grilling
Summer Grilling: Offbeat Off-Cuts
June 2009

Cold weather braises are befitting of many choice cheap cuts—necks, shanks, and anything in the “tough meat” and “big bone” categories. But in warmer weather, rich, fork-tender meat doesn’t quite fit the bill. It’s time for a bit of smoke, char, and the black marks that can mean only one thing: grilling season.

But for obvious reasons, 2009 is not going to be the year of the ribeye. (Or the porterhouse, or the lamb chop.) Instead, many are turning to lesser-known, lesser-priced cuts of meat, innards included. One of the draws of Publican, Paul Kahan’s perpetually bustling meat and beer restaurant in Chicago’s meatpacking district, is its devotion to high flavor, low price meat. “That’s kind of the theme of this restaurant,” says chef de cuisine Brian Houston, “taking economical cuts of meat and making them taste great.” 

One of the popular price-conscious options is beef heart. Houston prepares it two ways: brined, thinly sliced and grilled, or brined, cooked confit overnight, grilled, and then sliced. “When we confit it, it tastes like short ribs,” he says.

Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco has been a heart devotee for years. “It’s the leanest cut of muscle. You can roast it, grill it, eat it raw, confit it, braise it—you can do anything with it.” With a bit of concerted trimming effort, shown in real-time on Cosentino’s blog, Offal Good, the heart yields large pieces of deep red, full flavored meat, which Cosentino has been known to serve with roast beets and horseradish [link to recipe]. At St. John restaurant in London this past spring, beef heart and beets appeared in another form: Slices of grilled heart were laid atop a salad of watercress and shaved raw red beets with a pickled walnut dressing.

And then there’s tongue. It’s usually best pickled or braised (Houston corns and pickles it at Publican), but at Boat Street Café in Seattle, chef Renee Erickson works with top-shelf Kobe beef tongue that’s good enough to be grilled. The piece of grilled tongue is served like a simple steak, sans sauce, with a fennel, orange and parsley salad on the side.

Cosentino throws marrow bones on the grill, too (gently, of course). He marinates the bones in rosemary and olive oil and grills them in foil over indirect heat. Served with grilled slices of crusty bread, it’s a dish that has all the richness and satisfaction of summer grilling, in a different and fun form.

Chef Francis Mallmann, of Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Restaurant Garzon in Uruguay is a French-trained chef who has returned to his Argentinean roots to master the art of cooking over fire.

Mallmann loves grilled sweetbreads for their ability to develop a meaty crust over the flame, but their low price is something to consider too—here in the US they’re available for about $3.75 per pound. He recommends using pancreas sweetbreads [link to recipe], as opposed to those from the throat, because of their high fat content. Mallmann slow cooks them, in Argentinean style, over a large pile of hot wood embers (covered in ash so they don’t burn out as quickly). “I like to grill [sweetbreads] very slowly for a very long time so that they lose all their fat and get very crispy and tender. At the last moment just before you eat them, top with coarse salt and lemon juice.”

Affordable as it may be, offal isn’t for everyone. And it’s certainly not the only option for creative, economical grilling. Publican serves a pork “country rib,” an upper loin cut that’s a cross between a rib and a pork chop. “It’s a smaller, fattier piece of a pork chop,” says Houston, who marinates the rib in soy, ginger and garlic, grills it, and serves it whole, atop asparagus and crispy polenta.

And there’s the pork blade steak, which has been appearing across the country and gaining a following. At Spring Hill in Seattle, it’s one of the popular dishes on chef Mark Fuller’s Monday Supper menu. “The blade steak is well marbled and capped with tasty fat that caramelizes up nicely over our apple wood grill,” says Fuller. “As delicious and juicy as it is, the shoulder steak is inexpensive so we can offer the dish at a very reasonable price.” The meat, from Carlton Farms in Oregon, costs a little over $2 per pound. The final dish [link to recipe] of grilled pork blade steak, sautéed greens, potatoes and a lemony, herby compound butter, goes for $16.

In beef terms, the blade steak is called a flat iron. Chef Richard Camarota of Custom House in Chicago has a flat iron on his menu—it’s a rich, satisfying piece of steak that he’s able to sell for $24 while maintaining a healthy margin. 

Inexpensive seafood for the grill is a bit trickier—but it does exist. Look to boney cuts, like collar or even spine. Connoisseurs know that these hold some of the tastiest morsels of fish, and large, fatty fish, like yellowtail, kampachi and tuna, are the ideal place to start. Cosentino grills tuna spine at Incanto. At The Bristol in Chicago, Chef Chris Pandel grills kona kampachi collar and spine, seasoned with herbs and citrus and affectionately called “fish ribs.” Broiled yellowtail collar can easily be adapted for the grill.

If fish ribs aren’t the right fit, another clever option, says Fuller (whose restaurant is devoted to seafood from the Pacific Northwest), is to embrace the kebob. It’s a way to cut back on the amount of protein, and throw some grill-friendly summer vegetables into the mix. And thankfully the price of local zucchini hasn’t skyrocketed…yet.