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Turning to chef for grill ideas

The Baltimore Sun

During the dark winter months, I visited my backyard kettle grill about once a week, usually clad in a thick coat and armed with a flashlight.

But now as sunshine brightens the evenings and the viburnum blooms, I am out in the backyard almost every night, starting fires, igniting supper.

Recently, I got a hold of Mario Batali's new book, Italian Grill, and tried a couple of his recipes. Batali is a celebrated chef. He was one of the Food Network's Iron Chefs, and he presides over a handful of "hot" restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

He grew up in Seattle, went to high school in Spain, college at Rutgers, worked at a New Jersey joint called Stuff Yer Face, dropped out of Cordon Bleu cooking school in England and apprenticed with renowned London chef Marco Pierre White. In 1989, he moved to the Northern Italian town of Borgo Capanne to master traditional Italian cooking. (The best account of Batali's raucous style is in Bill Buford's book Heat). In 1998, Batali opened Babbo, a tiny, and now much-celebrated, restaurant in Greenwich Village.

I met Batali briefly in 1998 when he was in town for the Baltimore Book Festival. He looks more like a pro football player at the beach - a round man with a red ponytail, wearing shorts and orange clogs. He is not shy about imposing his tastes on his customers.

At Babbo, a sound track that New York Times critic Frank Bruni has called "bullying" greets the customers. "When you're at Babbo," Bruni wrote, "you listen to what Mario Batali wants you to, at the volume he elects, no matter how unlikely you are to enjoy it. It's his house, not yours."

I have strong opinions about grilling, so as I paged through Batali's book, I expected to find some areas of disagreement.

I did. First, there was his treatment of steak. When I grill a steak, I put next to nothing on the raw beef, just a dab of olive oil, some kosher salt and a bit of cracked pepper. I like to let the meat speak for itself.

Yet Batali, in his recipe for Fiorentina or Tuscan steak, advocated covering a steak with chopped herbs - rosemary, sage and thyme as well as ample amounts of salt and pepper.

I was suspicious of this treatment, but I decided to give it a try. We had one steak, tenderloin, in the family freezer, a leftover from the days when steak was less than $10 a pound. Those days, believe it or not, were not so long ago.

So I thawed the steak, chopped the herbs and went to work.

I strayed from Mario's instructions. He advised first putting the herbs on the raw meat, then applying olive oil to them to make the chopped herbs stick to the meat.

I applied the oil first, then rubbed on the herbs.

I built a hot fire, as he instructed. I used lump charcoal, a brand called Cowboy, and the fire did indeed crackle like a campfire.

But I balked at what Mario wanted me to do next. He wanted me to put the lid on the kettle grill after I had placed the meat on the grill grate. "Cover the grill!" he wrote in his section on grilling techniques. "With the exception of thin fish fillets, sliced vegetables and other foods that cook very quickly, almost everything should be cooked with the grill lid down, to keep the heat and the flavorful smoke inside."

This I regarded as grilling heresy. I was not alone. In Let The Flames Begin, a well-regarded grilling cookbook, authors Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby said covering the grill when cooking directly over hot coals is "the number one mistake" grillers make.

With the grill covered, the food is being bathed in unpleasant smoke from dripping fat, Schlesinger and Willoughby wrote, "so when it comes off the grill it has a definite off flavor."

So I disobeyed Mario on that count. I grilled the meat uncovered, searing it over the hottest part of the fire, then moving to a cooler spot on the grill to finish cooking. When it reached 120 degrees on the instant-read thermometer, I took the steak off.

Then I let it rest on a cutting board about 15 minutes as I prepared the dish of sauteed spinach with lemon that went with it.

The steak was magnificent. It was tender, moist and meaty. The herb crust gave it a vivid new flavor. The spinach, sauted with garlic, was also superb.

So Mario was right, and I was wrong, about putting herbs on a steak.

I still thought he was wrong about putting the lid on the grill. I told him that when I spoke to him briefly on the phone Monday. He agreed with me, sorta. "You only put the lid on if you are cooking with gas," he said. "Gas doesn't get as hot as lump charcoal."

Mario didn't mention it, but putting the lid on also ruins one of the prettiest views in the world - a sizzling steak.

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

T-Bone Fiorentina With Sauteed Spinach

Serves 4

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

1 T-bone steak, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, 3 inches thick

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 pounds trimmed baby spinach, washed and spun dry

coarse sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

grated zest of 1 lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

additional extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, sage, thyme, salt and pepper; mix well.

Pat the steak dry. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on each side of the meat, then coat one side with the herb mixture, gently rubbing the mixture so that it adheres to the meat. Turn the steak over and apply the mixture to the second side. Place steak on a plate, cover and let sit 30 minutes to 1 hour to come to room temperature.

Prepare a grill, gas or charcoal, for a hot fire.

Place the steak on the grill, cover the grill and cook until the meat is well charred on the first side, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn and cook for 10 to 12 minutes on the second side or until the internal temperature registers 120 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Fiorentina is traditionally served rare; for medium-rare, cook until the center registers 125 degrees. Transfer to a carving board and let rest, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile in a large heavy pot, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the garlic and cook, stirring until just golden. Add a few big handfuls of spinach, sprinkle lightly with salt and cook, stirring with tongs until the spinach is just wilted.

Add the remaining spinach in batches, lightly seasoning each batch. When all spinach has just wilted, remove the pan from the heat and add the lemon zest, the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Carve the steak, dividing the meat among 4 plates. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with coarse salt. Place the spinach next to the meat and serve immediately.

From "Italian Grill" by Mario Batali with Judith Sutton

Per serving: 592 calories, 60 grams protein, 34 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat, 13 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 165 milligrams cholesterol, 3,171 milligrams sodium

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