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Sear, Turn, Sear, Cook:

An Activist Grills a Steak

May 21, 1997|WILLIAM RICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rice is the author of the newly released "Steak Lover's Cookbook" (Workman, 1997) from which this article is excerpted

I subscribe to the "sear one side, turn, sear the second side, then let the meat cook" school of grilling, unless the steak is an extra-thick monster. I also believe--contrary to some other grillers--that for well-trimmed steaks 1 1/2 inches thick or less, chops and burgers, there's no need to set up a drip pan and cook over indirect heat.

An activist cook equipped with a squirt pistol and a willingness to tend closely to the meat and move and turn it as often as needed will do just fine working over direct heat.

There will be about half an hour of warm-up time. Pace yourself in consuming liquid refreshments. Once the coals are ready (covered with gray ash and glowing), flirt with pain and place your hand, palm down, over the fire at grill height. If you can hold it there for just four seconds, the coals are hot and ready for the steak. (Gadget lovers with grill thermometers can skip this ritual and start grilling when the temperature reaches 360 degrees.)

For planning purposes, allot 10 to 12 minutes to cook a 1-inch-thick steak to medium rare and 12 to 14 minutes to medium. If the steak is 1 1/2-inches thick, add 2 minutes to the calculation. Because of the variables, using the touch system to gauge doneness is essential.

It will take some practice to turn the following ritual into a practical skill, but soon the touch system will be your No. 1 guide to judging doneness.

For rare: Let one hand hang limp. With the index finger of the other hand, push gently into the soft triangle of flesh between the thumb and index finger of the hanging hand. It will offer very little resistance, give way very easily and feel soft and spongy. That is the feel of rare steak.

For medium-rare: Extend the hand in front of you and spread the fingers. Press the same spot with the index finger of the other hand. The flesh will be firmer but not hard, springy and slightly resistant. This is the feel of medium-rare steak.

For medium: Make a fist and press the spot. It will feel firm and snap back quickly, offering only a minimum of give, as does meat cooked to medium.

No need for further comparison. Cook your steak any more and it will be a lost cause.

THE FAMOUS FIORENTINA

It's only a T-bone, but it put Florence on the steak map. The Tuscan region of Italy is justly famous for its wine, olive oil, beef and an austere and simple approach to cooking--all of which come into play in making and serving a proper Fiorentina. The T-bone should not be very thick. The fire should be hot and made from wood or vine cuttings. The guests should be in their places and armed with glasses of Chianti before the cooking begins. Usually the steak is served in solitary splendor, with only bread at hand for mopping up the juices. You may have to remind yourself to include the lemons the first time you make a Fiorentina, but once you've tasted the lemon-accented steak, you'll never forget again.

4 (3/4-pound) T-bone steaks, cut 3/4 inch thick

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 lemons, each cut into 8 wedges

Prepare coals for grilling, allowing at least 30 minutes for coals to become properly hot.

Remove steaks from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Trim any excess fat, pat dry and coat lightly with olive oil.

Place steaks over coals and cook to sear 1 side, 2 minutes. Turn and season cooked side with salt and pepper to taste. Sear second side for 3 minutes. Turn, season second side with salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking until steak is well-crusted and medium-rare, about 3 minutes more. (Note: A Tuscan would never cook Fiorentina to medium, but if you must, lengthen the final stage to 4 or 5 minutes.)

Transfer steaks to large plates or platters, garnish with lemon wedges and serve at once.

4 servings. Each serving:

644 calories; 167 mg sodium; 132 mg cholesterol; 55 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 0 fiber.

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