We had two of our New York friends, Russ and Sam, staying with us last weekend. Actually, they used to be our New York friends. Now they’re our Colorado friends. With their car jam-packed full of all their belongings, the adventurous Russ and Sam said good bye to the Big Apple, and headed out on the big drive westward, taking socially plotted pit stops not only in Chicago, but in a number of other friend-filled cities, in the midst of their month-long move. We were thrilled to be one of their many stops along the way, and we had a blast of a weekend hanging out and eating with them. Knowing that these two had probably had more than enough restaurant food as of late, we figured they’d enjoy some home cooking. And so, their first night in town, we stayed in for dinner. This was our home-cooked menu:
We’ve been crazy about grilling lately. Can’t get enough of it this time of year. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, our gas grill hasn’t seemed all that enamored with us. It just hasn’t been cooperating lately, and won’t ever get nearly hot enough. It’s not one of those hulking, silver sorts with the raging flames and sturdy exterior. Our cute little grill is definitely on the wimpy side of the grill spectrum, and pretty susceptible to the Chicago winds that always whip past our outside deck, even in the middle of summer. It seems every time we cook out lately, even with a fresh tank of propane, our little grill just doesn’t stand up to the job.
And I’ve known all this for a while now. So why, you may ask, does this week’s menu include grilled skirt steak (a somewhat fickle cut of beef that’s notorious for needing a really hot, hot flame) and on top of that, grilled sides too!? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I have no idea whatsoever what I was thinking. Perhaps I was thinking, that I’m nearly half-way through with this once-a-week-for-a-year-dinner-party endeavor, and that since I haven’t had any major flops yet, perhaps I was indestructible. Well, I kind of proved myself very wrong.
Skirt steak has all the potential for being magnificent, but only if it’s cooked really quickly and over really high heat, to just about medium rare, no more, no less. Needless to say, thanks in part to our weakling grill, but thanks in bigger part to my own should-have-known-better stupidity, this is not how I cooked my skirt steak. And magnificent is not at all how it turned out to be. I ended up having to finish the steak indoors, on a hot sauté pan. This averted completely failure, but the end results were only okay, at best. Russ and Sam insisted that everything tasted great. But I do think they were just being nice.
The good news is that this skirt steak fiasco finally justified our long-time longing for a charcoal grill, whose top vent would make it much less susceptible to the blowing winds than our side-vented gas grill. Aside from that, we’d been coveting charcoal grills for the incredible, smoky flavor they impart on any food that rests above their smoldering coals. No gas grill, however convenient it may be, can ever quite compare to the smoky goodness of a charcoal grill. So, as soon as Sam and Russ took off, we headed to Home Depot and found a great deal on the greatest Webber grill. And man, if we were loving grilling out before, now we’re officially obsessed!
The other good news is that the vegetable kebabs, not needing near the blast of heat the steak required, turned out pretty great. Pre-cooked a bit so they were tender on the insides, the potatoes, onions and artichokes picked up a beautiful outer char from a quick turn on the grill. What made these colorful rows of vegetables even more tasty was the flavorful dollop of kalamata olive aioli served on the side. This piquant concoction of briny olives, pungent garlic, zesty lemon and salty capers, folded into creamy home-made mayonnaise, was a deliciously dip-able sauce for both the grilled vegetables and the thinly sliced steak.
And one last addition to dinner, the green beans with arugula. Sautéed with garlic and a touch of lemon, then tossed with a big handful of arugula, which wilted in the heat of the pan, and clung to these beans, these green beans would be a perfect side to any summer dinner. Sometimes you just want something a little bit different from regular old green beans, and this dish certainly did the trick. It was anything but regular.
As if in atonement for the miserable steak, the delicious dessert completely made up for any main course shortcomings. This blueberry gingerbread upside-down cake is the epitome of magnificent. The recipe comes from a favorite dessert cookbook of mine called Luscious Berry Desserts, which is also the source for this raspberry tart that I made a while back. And wow, are both of them incredible! I’ve made this one at least a half dozen times. Luscious baked blueberries sit atop the moist and tender cake, swathed in a caramelized brown sugar syrup that soaks into the warmly spiced gingerbread below. Served just out of the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on top, this dessert is simply incredible. And it was a perfect way to end a night that had gotten off to not so perfect a start.