It’s fascinating how new experiences in a somewhat familiar yet relatively new environment can – when the circumstances are right – bring you right back to the core of your memories, your childhood. It’s beautiful how by simply narrating back your own story to someone you love, your mind can perfectly replay vivid memories that fill your heart with joy, and maybe a little melancholy.
This trip down nostalgia lane began with our dinner tonight – grilled steaks and grilled corn on the cob.
When I was growing up, being invited to a grill out — a “parrilla”– was one of the biggest deals in anyone’s social life. You wouldn’t be caught dead eating ground beef hamburgers or hot dogs at the Venezuelan parrillas of my childhood: it was a veritable feast of top-notch cuts of steak, chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage), chicken, all garnished with tangy, fresh guasacaca, hallaquitas made of white corn meal, melt-in-your-mouth boiled yuca, and salad (though I always stayed away from this last one because back then, “I didn’t eat flowers”, as my friend Jorge would say).
And of course, if you were a grown-up, booze in the form of ice cold beer or güisqui (Whiskey/Scotch) flowed freely to your heart’s content. My dad, “Hectico”, sometimes used to drink his Scotch on the rocks, with coconut water.
The grill master, usually a charming man –not necessarily the host, would be the star of the show. But not everyone was good at their task. Many a beautiful steak were the victim of a disastrous grill master who never learned the art and the rhythm of a good parrilla. Impatience and lack of common culinary sense could ruin a perfectly planned parrilla.
My oldest brother, Hector, learned the tricks to making an excellent parrilla early on. To this day, the mere mention of steaks cooked by Hector on the grill make my mouth water.
Here’s the basics: for a good parrilla, you have chicken, fat-rich chorizos, morcillas and/or brats, and steaks. You only need salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and guasacaca at the end. Get out of here with that Heinz 57/A1 or Barbecue sauce.
You light up your charcoal and let the fire die down to red-hot coals. You cannot use lighter fluid!!! If you need something extra to get the fire going, use something like vegetable oil or animal fat.
Chicken takes the longest to cook, it goes on first. Chorizos and brats keep the coals going strong, as they drip delicious fat while they cook – and they are an appetizer, so they go along with the chicken. Once your first batch of chorizos is cooked, cut up in thick chunks and served to your somewhat buzzed guests, and your chicken is at least halfway done, ONLY THEN can you even think about putting any self-respecting steak on that grill.
The juicy piece of meat touches the hot grill and sizzles, as everyone’s senses are tickled by that distinctive aroma of freshly grilled steak. The party’s on, the steaks are going. Turn them over enough times so that they cook evenly, all the way to medium pink, succulent perfection. Find a grill assistant (trust me, at that point, people will be in line to help) and have him or her cut up the steak in large chunks as they come out of the grill, to smiling faces eagerly waiting to savor the parrilla.
Hector ingrained this process in my brain, and so these days, I can grill –or broil, if it’s winter– a pretty kickass steak. Fast forward to today: when Mike brought home two 12 oz ribeyes from Whole Foods, you bet I did my brother and my country proud when I served up our dinner.