My brother called me up the other day and left a message. It went like this:
"Hey! How you doing? I'm having a barbecue on Friday night and I was wondering if you had some ideas you could give me. Maybe something special? Drop a line and let me know. Thanks!"
Ay yi yi! No information about guest preferences. No information about his protein of choice... pretty much no information.
What would have been most helpful, of course, would be a hint about his flavor preferences. I've found that most meat marinades and sauces zero in on a combination of two (or more) of the following flavors:
Spicy, Salty, Tangy, Sweet, Fresh, Savory and Earthy.
Lime-Cumin Marinade? Earthy, Salty, Tangy
Teriyaki Marinade? Salty, Sweet, Tangy
Balsamic Marinade? Sweet, Tangy
Tandoori Marinade? Tangy, Earthy, Spicy
Mint-Yogurt Marinade? Fresh, Tangy, Spicy
Pomegranate Shashlik Marinade? Tangy, Sweet, Spicy
Jerk Marinade? Spicy, Salty, Tangy
Sesame-Orange Marinade? Sweet, Tangy, Savory
Honey-Mustard Glaze? Sweet, Spicy, Tangy
Argentine Chimichurri Sauce? Fresh, Spicy, Tangy
Classic Barbecue Sauce? Sweet, Tangy, Salty, Savory
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Since I assumed he'd choose beef, I offered my brother a chimichurri sauce and a cumin-lime marinade.
He settled on the chimichurri, but called me just before the barbecue in a minor panic. The sauce was just... so spicy... so herby.
I told him to mix in a teaspoon of sugar and call me back. It worked like a charm. The barbecue was a success. The guests were impressed. But I realized afterward that I should have asked him a couple of questions about his general flavor preferences before winging recipes at him.
Ultimately the secret to sauces and marinades is in the balance of those flavors. Too much salt, too much spice, too much sweetness, too tangy and not savory enough... these are the problems that plague weekend grill chefs everywhere.
My advice is always this: taste the mixture before you marinate your steak/chicken/shrimp/whatever in it. Is it bland? Too full of high notes and not enough low notes? Take note of the following cures:
Could Be More Tangy: prepared mustard, a squeeze of citrus or a shot of vinegar, sometimes plain yogurt works
Bland/Needs More Salt: Try a shake of soy sauce, a little salt or a hint of fish sauce; or, try a dab of black olive or anchovy paste.
Needs More Depth (earthiness): Depending on the recipe, you could try ground cumin, ground coriander, toasted sesame oil, dried oregano or dried thyme.
Could be More Fresh-Flavored: Try chopped fresh basil, parsley, cilantro, mint or pesto.
Not Rich Enough: Kick up the umami with sesame oil, tomato paste, caramelized onions, mushroom powder, fish sauce, anchovy paste or Worcestershire sauce.
Could Use Some Spice: A few chilies, ground black pepper, mustard, cayenne powder or hot paprika usually do the trick.
Needs a Little Sweetness: Try a little sugar, honey, maple syrup, or fruit juice.
Too spicy? You can't take back the chilies, but you can add back some balance with a little honey or sugar.
For your weekend grilling needs, I offer the recipes I gave my brother, plus one extra for the folks who prefer their marinades a little sweeter and less spicy.
Lime-Cumin Skirt Steak
1 beef skirt or flank steak (about 1 1/2 lb)
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (or less, if you can't take the heat)
2 garlic cloves, minced/smashed
1 1/2 Tbsp ground cumin
1. Blend the marinade ingredients together.
2. Chill the steak and the marinade overnight in a zip-top bag.
3. Grill as you normally would. (Probably 3 minutes per side on a medium-high
4. Let the meat rest about 10 minutes, and cut into thin slices to serve. This is great with tortillas, grilled onions and peppers.
Another nice option (one that doesn't involve marinating) is the Argentinian chimichurri. They're big on steak there, and this is supposedly the traditional sauce of the gauchos.
Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
Flank steak (1 1/2 to 2 lb)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1-2 jalapeño peppers (start out with just one)
4 cloves garlic
4 bay leaves
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 cup fresh oregano
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar (optional)
Olive oil, salt and pepper (for the steak)
1. Blend the vinegar, pepper(s), garlic, bay, parsley, cilantro, oregano and olive oil until smooth.
2. Season to taste with salt and sugar, if using.
3. Dress the flank steak with olive oil, salt and pepper and grill over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side.
4. Let the meat rest about 10 minutes, then cut into thin slices (across the grain), and serve with the chimichurri sauce. Mmm. Tasty.
This recipe is great served with grilled green onions.
Sesame-Orange Marinated Steak
1 lb beef skirt, flank or tri-tip steak
1 Tbsp ginger, chopped
2 tsp soy sauce
1/4 cup orange juice (preferably fresh-squeezed)
2 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional, for garnish)
1. Combine ginger, soy, orange juice, sesame oil and honey to a blender and mix until incorporated.
2. Pour marinade into a zip-top bag, add the steak and marinate overnight.
3. Remove steak from the marinade, pat off any excess moisture and grill over medium-high coals for 3 to 4 minutes per side.
4. Let the meat rest about 10 minutes, and cut into thin slices (across the grain) to serve. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds if desired.