Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.
I’ve always found grilling to be overrated.
Please don’t get mad at me for saying that. It’s just that, in my admittedly limited experience, grilling generally takes place at cramped, sweaty backyard barbecues, where I find myself halfheartedly chewing on a dry, overcooked burger, my arms and legs throbbing with thousands of bug bites, while talking to a friend of a friend’s sister about the weather (“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets to you.” “Yeah.” “Yeah.”)
But last week, in a fit of wild optimism — maybe it was sunshine, or indigestion — I invited my friends to grill steaks with me in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I wanted this to be a fancy barbecue. I’d cook bloody, hearty steaks. I’d make an interesting, unexpected side dish. I’d serve crisp, refreshing, and potent cocktails. No one would mention the weather. Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I had no idea how many nemeses I would make along the way.
The first thing I realized on my barbecue journey is just how limited my understanding is of both grilling, and meat in general. I knew I wanted to grill steaks, but, uh, what kind? I texted people, scrolled through various lists, and finally settled on skirt steak, which is NOT located on the skirt-area of a cow (the curvy hips) but on the upper belly known as the plate. According to Bon Appetit, skirt steak “packs tons of flavor, affordably.” Perfect. (Despite my lofty barbecue aspirations, my budget was limited.) I also found a recipe for grilled watermelon with smoked salt and jalapeño rings, which sounded intriguing. Plus, because I was not entirely confident in my meat-grilling abilities, I knew I’d need a good side or my guests might revolt and/or black out.
After work one day, I went to the Whole Foods by my office — a wondrous, exotic land full of people with immaculately coiffed hair and expensive workout clothes and a petite Australian woman who shouted at me when I got in her way (enemy count: one). For three people, the butcher recommended I buy a pound and a half of skirt steak. I also got a few jalapeños, some mint, and feta to make a watermelon salad as well. Then I spent about 15 minutes wandering up and down the spice aisle in search of smoked sea salt, which, according to the recipe, “tastes like a campfire smells.” When I finally saw it, it was so expensive that I gasped and clutched my necklace, like a prudish Victorian scandalized by a glimpse of someone’s thigh. I wrestled briefly with myself before realizing that if I paid $21 for a tiny container of salt, I couldn’t, in good consciousness, look my loved ones in the eye. Regular, non-campfire salt would have to do.
The next day, my friends Caroline, Noah, and I loaded Noah’s car up with food, drinks, ice, charcoal, and a crappy grill I had bought at the discount store by my apartment because I didn’t realize Prospect Park had grills available, and set off.
I’ve been watching a lot of Naked and Afraid lately — the Discovery Channel show where two people get dropped buck naked in the wilderness and have to survive for 21 days. Mostly, I’m amazed at how few of the contestants end up doing sex with each other, not even hand stuff. But now, after grilling, I also have a renewed, profound respect for how easily they make fires. It took me, Noah, and Caroline an hour and 40 minutes, and outside help from good-hearted strangers, to get our grill going. Covered in soot and sweat, and frantically fanning our coals for fear they would go out again, I wondered, repeatedly and loudly, why anyone did this for fun.
While we were getting the fire going, a group of friendly, cheerful 30-somethings in sundresses and band T-shirts asked us to switch from our shaded picnic table to one directly in the sun so they could be closer to their friends nearby. We did the mature thing, which was to effusively comply, and then complain about them the rest of the time we were there. “Look at those assholes enjoying the shade.” (Enemy count: ~15)
Finally, it was time to actually grill. I had debated marinating the steaks, but decided, as this was my first venture into grilling, that I would stick to seasoning them with a bunch of salt and pepper so I could better taste the meat. Because skirt is such a thin cut of steak, it cooks fairly quickly. I cut the steak into four portions, grilling each side for four minutes. While the meat rested (it should rest at least five minutes) I grilled the jalapeños, and then slices of watermelon, while Caroline cut up the rest of the watermelon and mixed it with the feta and mint. We had initially planned to make Moscow mules to pair with our feast, but one beautiful, blameless person who shall remain unnamed (me) forgot the vodka at home.
Two hours after we arrived, sweaty and tired, we sat down to eat. It was silent as we chewed. And chewed and chewed and chewed. “What do you guys think?” I asked, massaging my jaw.
“The flavor is great!” Noah assured me. “It’s really tasty. The texture is, um …”
“It’s pretty tough,” Caroline conceded gently.
After a couple more physically demanding bites, we moved onto the grilled watermelon and jalapeños, which were far more successful. Grilling gets rid of the watermelon’s slightly grainy texture, making it meatier, and giving it a slightly smoky flavor that pairs well with the spice of the jalapeño.
As we munched happily on our watermelon, one of the shade-dwelling 30-somethings broke off and asked to borrow our lighter to light a birthday cake. He returned a few minutes later, the lighter somehow covered in cake (?), and through a series of conversational miscalculations, we ended up at a point where he asked, “Have you heard of the show Girls?”
“I was an extra on it,” he boasted, running his hand through his mullet. “But filming took so long, and I got bored, so I would just stand behind one of the stars and stare right into the camera, so it would screw up all their takes.”
“That sounds pretty rude,” Caroline observed.
“Haha, yeah, I guess.”
(Enemy count: 8 trillion.)
Eventually, the shadows of the trees yawned and stretched and wrapped around us, and a cool breeze blew through the park. We sat there for a couple of hours, chatting and eating watermelon and laughing about the Girls guy. The steak was a disappointment — skirt tends to be pretty tough anyway, and it’s possible I overcooked it, or undercooked it, I really can’t tell — but the grilled watermelon was a delight, and what better way to spend an afternoon with people you love than eating and complaining about others?
My report card
Taste: B (The watermelon made up for the chewy steak.)
My Overall Performance: B