Visualization would have helped. Memory, too. If only I'd remembered that if you apply enough heat to enough salt, you end up with walls for a new house.
No, I exaggerate. The result isn't that solid, but it is sturdy. Seasoned cooks have used this technique for centuries, encasing chicken, beef and fish in a thick coating of salt that seals in moisture while flavoring the meat as it cooks, though without turning it too salty.
But I'd forgotten that when I read David Lawrence's recipe for "salt steak" in his new cookbook, "Boy Eats World."
He's a Carmichael native, now living in Los Angeles, where he's a personal chef to a couple of Beverly Hills doctors. When I interviewed him the other day for a story in this Wednesday's Taste section, I expressed reservations about his recipe for "salt steak." Didn't sound to me like it would work. He swore it would. I said I'd try it over the weekend. Last night, I did.
Basically, the recipe calls for about 2 pounds of London broil to be grilled on half an inch or so of kosher salt spread on a triple layer of paper towels. I pictured the paper bursting into flames the moment it was slid onto the grill, the salt falling onto the briquets below. True, the edges of the towels did burn, but not the portion under the steak. It held, along with the salt, which formed a thick and firm foundation for the beef, even when I lifted and turned the beef over.
"London broil," incidentally, is a generic term for just about any cut of cheap meat, and today is applied to cuts as diverse as flank steak and chuck shoulder. The cut I picked up at the supermarket was labeled "London broil top round."
In short, Lawrence's recipe worked just dandy. The steak was flavorful, with just the right proportion of salt and pepper. That it was served in thin slices atop sourdough bread dipped in garlic butter didn't hurt, though another cut, perhaps bottom round, might not have been quite as chewy, but that was no fault of the recipe.
Next time, I'll also put the lid on the grill as the steak cooks. Without the top, the meat took a bit longer than the time Lawrence calculated, but maybe my coals weren't as hot as his. At any rate, here's the recipe, which will serve 4 to 6 people easily:
2 to 2-1/2 pounds London broil
1-1/2 cups kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
2-1/2 sticks unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 loaf sliced French bread (sandwich style)
Preheat outdoor grill to high heat.
On a plate, layer 3 plain white paper towels one on top of the other and place the meat on top of the paper towels. Allow the meat to sit for several minutes so the juices soak the towels, leaving behind an impression of the meat. Remove the meat and fill the impression with an even layer of salt, about ½ inch thick. Season the meat generously with pepper on both sides and place it on the salt.
Lay the whole thing on the grill. (Don't be alamred when the dry edges of the paper towel catch fire and burn up almost immediately; the soaked portion of towel will be fine.) Grill the meat for about 10 to 12 minutes per side, turning it once back onto the paper towel. For medium rare, it's done when an instant-read thermometer registers 130 degrees to 140 degrees F. Tranfer the meat to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the garlic and allow the flavors to infuse for a few minutes. Pour the butter into a shallow pie dish and stir in the chopped parsley.
To serve, slice the London broil diagonally across the grain into thin strips. Quickly dip one side of each piece of bread into the melted garlic butter and place butter side up on a plate. Lay several slices of meat over the bread and dig in greedily. Take advantage of those hot coals to grill some corn on the cob to accompany the beef.