Wine Tasting Notes: McGuigan Gold Shiraz 2004 & “Passive-Aggressive Steaks”

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Once spring has sprung, I usually start looking for refreshing Pinot Grigios, Sauv Blancs and Chardonnays to serve with all of the salads, fruits, and grilled chicken and fish dishes that make up a majority of our “warm weather menu”. There is one food where I make an exception, and that is grilled steak or grilled bison burgers. To me, red meat just doesn’t seem right served with a flowery white wine. It calls for something dark, robust and spicy.

One of my favorite red wines to serve with grilled steak or burgers is McGuigan Gold Shiraz.

Intense purple color, notes of cracked pepper, cassis, plum jam, raspberries, dark chocolate, oak and vanilla.

One of my favorite food writers, Mark Bittman of the New York Times, wrote a great article on grilling steaks that I want to share with you. It’s a sort of “Steak Grilling 101” if you will. It changed the way I prepare steaks for the grill, and once you try these easy tips I believe you’ll be a convert too.

Published: August 22, 2007

SOME people believe you can improve on a good grilled steak: the Italians use lemon and olive oil, the French compound butter or even béarnaise.

But with true American chauvinism most of us believe that because our beef is better it needs nothing but salt and pepper. That may be true of the absolute best meat, but if you’re going to tinker — and it’s a good idea to do so when using subpremium meat — you may want to think about a rub.

A rub is a dry spice or spice and herb mixture used to coat the meat before grilling, adding not only strong flavor but a bit more crunch, especially if you toast, mix and grind the spices yourself.

My favorites are basic: chili powder, with mild chilies; fragrant curry powder; jerk seasoning, which contains fresh garlic and ginger and is quite powerful; and five-spice powder, which, when homemade, is unlike anything you can buy in a store.

Using any of these is straightforward: rub a good teaspoon or more into each side of the steak, then grill over slightly lower heat than you would normally use, so the spices don’t burn.

As good as rubs are, they may be unnecessary if your shopping is successful and your grilling technique solid. If you begin with a good piece of meat, the battle is more than half won. At one time a butcher could have guided you, but these days you’re lucky to get the attention of the guy behind the glass in the supermarket, and he probably knows less than you will after you read this article.

If you can buy prime beef (this essentially means it is fat-laced, or well marbled), you are ahead of the game. Fat means flavor. But a good cut of choice grade is often the equal of prime. Aging, of course, also improves flavor and tenderness. But even if you find prime meat that is well aged, and even if you spend a lot of money on organic, natural, specialty or so-called gourmet steaks, you won’t be eating anything special unless you buy the right cut.

So, what is the right cut? To some degree it’s a matter of opinion. Some people will argue for flank, but I don’t believe any steak that must be sliced thin to be chewable qualifies as terrific. Others (myself included) like skirt, with the caution that it is easy to overcook. But almost everyone agrees that sirloin strip and rib-eye are best.

Sirloin strip, also called shell, club, New York or top loin, is cut from the loin, usually boneless and a wonderful individual steak. The loin also yields T-bone (or porterhouse, or the famous Italian Fiorentina), a bone-in steak comprising the top loin and the supremely tender but nearly tasteless tenderloin. The advantages of the porterhouse are that it has the bone, it can be cut thick and it serves several people.

To me, the ideal is rib-eye. The center of the rib, it is tender and often nicely fatty, and it can be delicious even when it is from a commercial, anything-but-special animal.

Which brings us to grilling, the way to perfect or ruin a steak. But before delving into a 20-year-old argument about gas versus charcoal, let’s get that steak ready for the grill.

If you like a steak with crust — and who doesn’t — it is best to start with a dry exterior. You can get one by putting the steak on a rack over a pan in the fridge, uncovered. Leave it there, turning it once a day or so, for a couple of days. I like this method, which might be described as passive-aggressive: you don’t have to do much, and it’s very effective. (Alternatively, pat it dry with paper towels before grilling.)

For fast, even cooking, it also helps to have the steak at room temperature before grilling. If you’re using a rub, put it on at the last minute. As for timing, you can’t cook by a clock, but most one-inch-thick steaks started at room temperature will brown in three to four minutes a side and be cooked to medium-rare after seven or eight minutes.

For greater precision, you have three options, in order of preference:

You can gain experience and cook by touch and sight.

You can use an instant-read thermometer: 125 degrees is rare, 130 degrees is medium-rare.

You can cut into the meat and check. This is inelegant, but not all that bad. Meat is not a balloon that pops when cut into; you may lose a little juice, but it’s better to cut into a steak, which causes minor damage, than to overcook it, which destroys it.

O.K., now: gas versus charcoal. Charcoal gives you a better crust, and hardwood charcoal is preferable to briquettes. But it’s also more of a hassle, and once you start the fire you’re committed to a cooking time. Gas is more convenient. And to my surprise I found the results were not that different. If you use charcoal you can sear the steak beautifully. If you use gas you must cover the grill, and the crust is not nearly as attractive. But the timing is about the same. Either way, the taste is terrific, as long as you start with the right cut.

So, ladies and gents…. please share your favorite grilling tips with me! Can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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