Whether you’re sticking close to home this year or getting your first taste of summer freedom at a recently reopened park or beach, just making it to Memorial Day 2020 demands a celebratory meal and a good bottle of wine. Break out that steak you’ve been saving in the freezer for a special occasion and try something new, but uncomplicated.
We’ve rounded up five favorite reader picks, covering five different cuts of meat, from renowned Southern chef Hugh Acheson, Top Chef finalist Eric Adjepong, Guard & Grace chef Troy Guard, Charcoal Venice chefs Josiah Citrin and Joseph Johnson, and our own 8 & $20 easy weeknight meal column. They give you handy tips for grilling success—don’t miss Adjepong's description of how to check the steak’s doneness level with no thermometer needed—and new ideas for rubs and sauces, from chimichurri and chermoula to spicy maître d’hotel butter and yogurt-tahini. Plus, some threw in recipes for sides: crunchy salad, grilled veggies and coal-baked, cheese-topped potatoes. Of course, it’s not a holiday without wine, and their wine directors shared some favorite pairings, classic and offbeat, with each meal.
Fire up the grill (or stovetop) and start relaxing!
We tend to think of sauces as supplementary, but oftentimes a sauce is what transforms a simple steak into a truly satisfying dish. Chimichurri—a blend of parsley, oregano, garlic and red wine vinegar—is an ideal choice for summer: It’s herby, mouthwateringly bright and raw, so there’s no need to turn on your oven. Skirt steak—a thin, lean cut—keeps this recipe quick and provides a nice foil to the oil-based sauce. It’s easy to tell when it’s done (once the outside develops a browned crust, the inside is cooked to medium-rare), which takes just a few minutes. Seasoning with just salt and pepper lets the chimichurri shine. While this can obviously be done on a gas or charcoal grill, we’ve provided instructions for cooking indoors on a skillet, for those who are stuck inside due to rainy weather, are celebrating the holiday in an urban setting or just don't have a grill.
For the wine pairing, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are natural choices for the richness of steak. A blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the Southern Rhône made a good fit here: The wine’s pleasing combination of savory and fruity flavors matched well with the charred, smoky notes of the beef, bringing a backyard-grilling vibe to this already summery dish, no matter where or when you make it.
Georgia-based chef Hugh Acheson—who runs Five & Ten in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta and has authored five cookbooks—has been pushing the boundaries of “Southern cuisine” for nearly two decades, incorporating French techniques and international influences. He brings that same attention to detail and global view to his fresh take on the traditional summer cookout.
The recipe itself is simple: Acheson says its success starts with selecting a good cut. “Tri-tip is a portion of the lower sirloin of the cow and is a beautiful piece of steak that never gets the attention it deserves,” he says. “You can get really high-quality tri-tip at a fairly reasonable price.” Taking inspiration from Levantine cuisine, the steak is then dressed up with a creamy, cooling yogurt-tahini sauce and served alongside a bright fattoush salad for a counterpoint of crisp, crunchy vegetables and seasoned pita chips.
Wine director Steve Grubbs recommends a red with soft tannins, something with “casual drinkability that matches the easy, backyard feel of the dish.” For something off the beaten path, he suggest looking to Sardinia where Argiolas winery makes a savory, red fruit–filled bottling called Perdera from the local grape Monica, or to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for Chateau Musar’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. Tri it out!
Charcoal Venice, Josiah Citrin’s grill-centric restaurant on the southern edge of his California hometown, was inspired by home entertaining. “I got a Green Egg for Father's Day years ago. We always had cookouts and parties; you have a lot of friends when you stay where you grew up,” he says. “It’s a vibe, raising kids with friends. They play, we cook, have some wine. Now they’re older and I miss it.” He wanted to bring that feeling to a restaurant, something he couldn’t do at his serene fine-dining location, Mélisse: “That was how Charcoal was born. Live fire means an afternoon at someone's house having a good time.”
Under Joseph Johnson, Charcoal’s chef de cuisine, a lot of the dishes are rooted in simplicity, but showcase sophisticated flavors, like the sel gris and Javanese pepper in the steak rub. The technique for the porterhouse was born of the practical challenge of cooking both muscles in the cut—tenderloin filet and strip steak—properly. “Sous vide, the results are good, but that’s not cooking. I wanted that result but with fire,” says Citrin. “So I turn it every 30 seconds for five minutes, then rest for five, then grill again, three times. It’s low and slow on a grill.”
Charcoal wine director Matthew Luczy pairs it with a meaty, smoky, peppery Rhône Syrah, calling the Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage “emblematic” and “a total bargain.” The accompanying potatoes are buried in hot coals to cook and then topped with crème fraiche and aged Gouda. “It’s decadent: It’s a gratin, basically, with the cream and cheese,” says Citrin. “Aged Gouda takes it up a level.”
Denver-based chef Troy Guard has learned about cooking with fire from cultures around the world, having worked everywhere from Hawaii to Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, and finds that grilling culture everywhere shares that “social, talkative atmosphere where you get to see and smell and hear the food cooking.” Many of the dining spots in his TAG Restaurant Group—which includes concepts from breakfast joints to fast-casual spots to the modern steakhouse Guard and Grace, which holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence—specialize in wood-fired and grilled cuisine.
Guard ups the ante for holiday cookouts with grilled bone-in rib eyes, prepared with a homemade dry rub and topped with maître d’hôtel butter, a classic compound butter made with lemon juice and parsley that he punches up with a dash of cayenne and crushed red pepper. To make the formidable cut of beef more picnic-friendly, he slices it up “so everyone can pick at it pupu—or Hawaiian—style.” The chef serves this preparation with grilled baby carrots, but says that any vegetables you choose can also be seasoned with the steak rub and the maitre d’hôtel butter. To drink alongside, wine director Todd Rocchio recommends a Cabernet-based super Tuscan or a mountain-grown Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, as they have the ample “tannins and acidity to cut through the rich marbling that the rib eye brings to the table.”
Eric Adjepong may be most familiar from Top Chef, where his precise, evocative and boldly flavored dishes showcasing the reaches of the transatlantic slave trade earned him a spot among Season 16’s final three contestants and a return to the All-Stars edition this spring. But away from the cameras, Adjepong’s niche is the art of the home dinner party: He co-owns Pinch & Plate, a bespoke catering service based in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Janell.
For grilling season, Eric has provided a recipe he cooks at home: strip steak with chermoula, a bright, spicy, savory North African herb sauce. Anchored in a combination of cilantro and parsley stirred into olive oil, chermoula is very similar to chimichurri; its most obvious distinguishing characteristic is the addition of paprika, cayenne and cumin. Lemon and orange juice turn up the brightness. The sauce can be made up to 24 hours in advance and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
The wine pairing comes courtesy of Diane Gross, owner of Cork Wine Bar & Market in Washington, D.C., a restaurant, wine bar and wine shop that provides handpicked wines for the Adjepongs’ events. She suggests a traditional-style Rioja—if possible, one with a little bottle age, which softens the wine’s tannins and highlights the savory elements—with enough fruit, herbal notes and acidity, to match the weight of the steak but not trample the sauce, which “has a lot of light notes to it. … You don't want those to get lost.” Find out how well this works!