I stopped eating a lot of meat in college. No, it wasn’t a form of protest. It was a form of survival. Suddenly, I had to live on my own terrible cooking. I could deal with it being tasteless and unimaginative, but I had learned about these tiny creepy things called microorganisms with names like botulism and salmonella that get inside food from improper handling, storage, or preparation. And they can kill you. I began to look a bit more carefully at that cloudy pink liquid seeping from the chicken filet or the ground beef and contemplated investing in some latex gloves to wear in the kitchen, as well as an arc welding torch to heat everything to 800 degrees, just to be sure.
The habit stuck when I developed back-to-back crushes on a vegetarian and near-vegan, who exposed me to all the right YouTube videos (narrated grimly by Alec Baldwin) that I should know in order to properly proselytize all things anti-meat. While I genuinely developed a concern about the practice of factory farming, I never developed a fondness for the practice of proselytizing.
So now that The Worst Cook in Columbus has been assigned the task of grilling, she will not deny you the information you need to perfect your summer steak. Kenny Donnelly, my grilling instructor, has generously offered to do a veggie/meat combo to cover all bases.
When I arrive at the The Commissary, ingredients have been organized, and a chimney starter filled with hardwood chips is sitting on a kettle-style grill. No fancy propane, just the basic paleo tools, so to speak. Our table contains three ears of corn, two large portobello mushroom caps, and a thick bone in ribeye. Donnelly lights up the newspaper at the bottom of the chimney starter and gets us started.
Today Donnelly will be riffing off some Mexican recipes. His food cart-style multitasking is awesome, but to simplify each task in the process, I’ll be breaking down them individually.
Chimichurri sauce: Donnelly hands me a knife and has me start prepping some ingredients: cilantro, shallots, jalapeño, parsley, and oregano and we begin discussing my moniker of The Worst Cook in Columbus. I mention I was recently asked if I was actually a professional chef pretending to not know what I was doing, like some kind of culinary Batman, just to give myself writing material. And then I start bludgeoning the hell out the cilantro. (I really am just smashing it rather than creating smaller pieces). Donnelly tosses it in the mix with salt, oil, and red wine vinegar and stirs it up. Apparently it’s all good to him.
Meat and fungus: In 15 minutes or so, the hardwood chips have sufficiently “coaled out” and Donnelly shakes them out on one side of the grill, creating a “hot side” used for searing the meat and a “cold side” used for finishing the meat and to prevent overcooking. I have generously seasoned the ribeye with salt on both sides. The mushrooms have been brushed with olive oil and Worcestershire sauce, and everything goes on the grill. Because of the thickness of the cut of meat, Donnelly covers the grill, turning it into an oven, to promote faster and more even cooking.
Corn: While many people will grill corn in the husk, Donnelly does most of the cooking in the stockpot, and uses the grill to get a bit of favor and a few marks across each ear. He pours out a heavenly amount of mayonnaise in a bowl– and no, surprisingly, dying of food poisoning from mayonnaise has never really bothered me, probably a lack of pink ooze– and we mix in chili paste, lime juice, honey, and salt. This is a spicy sambal sauce, and Donnelly hasn’t yet told me exactly how we’re using it, but given a spoon and adequate privacy, I could possibly eat this as its own side dish.
I’m pretty sure that if that food on the grill knew I was in charge, it would have burned away by now. But I’m not in charge, and Donnelly pokes a finger on the top of the ribeye.
“The truest way to test doneness is with a meat thermometer,” he says. “The more steaks that you cook, the better you get at telling by the feel of the meat, along with the smell and appearance.”
The ribeye is cooked to a medium rare, and the portobellos are, well, cooked, and everything is sliced, topped with the chimichurri sauce and placed on grill-toasted ciabatta bread.
Finally, Donnelly picks up an ear of corn, slathers the ear with the spicy sambal sauce, adds some cotija cheese crumbles with lime zest, and tops everything off with a little chimichurri to create his version of an “elote,” or Mexican street corn. This is possibly the messiest I have gotten eating corn, but I swear I am never putting butter on it anymore. This is worth ruining your shirt.
I even try a small sliver of meat, meat that will not kill me, and then we take our haul inside to make friends. Yes, this stuff makes friends. I am going to be the Biggest Badass at the Vegetarian Cookout I’m going to later this month, which I realize is a title that’s only slightly better than The Worst Cook in Columbus.
Kenny Donnelly is the owner/operator of Kenny’s Meat Wagon, a gourmet sandwich cart that specializes in using locally sourced meats and vegetables, and creating sauces from scratch. Kenny’s Meat Wagon can often be found hanging at the Daily Growler in Powell and Land Grant Brewing. Donnelly is available for office lunches and catering events. Here are his recommendations you can take to your own backyard.
Equipment: You absolutely do not need expensive equipment to turn out a good steak, or anything else you want to grill. Donnelly’s method used no propane, no lighter fluid, no stainless steel, no copper, no timer. Use newspaper to start your chips. Your most important grilling tool is a meat thermometer. And then when you get really good, you can even skip that.
Fuel: Donnelly prefers hardwood chips to charcoal briquettes (often made of cheap wood and sawdust) and even uses them on a gas grill. Fruitwoods will produce a more subtle smoke flavor that isn’t overpowering. Donnelly likes cherry wood.
Seasoning: Meat can take a lot more salt than you think. Be lavish. Pepper your food after you take it off the grill. It tends to char while grilling. •
If you yearn to learn more about grilling, The Commissary is offering a grilling class on June 24th and another later in the summer. Visit thecomissarycolumbus.com for information.