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There are few bargains left in this world and if you add great flavor and versatility to the equation, the bargain choices become even less. Chuck steak fits this bill. Because the chuck steak is made up of several muscles of varying degrees of tenderness, people have avoided this very delicious meat. In addition, chuck has areas of fat between muscles, a fair amount of bone and some gristle to contend with. But that's why the Lord invented knives. These problems are easily cut away. For me, having a bone to gnaw on is a plus since I think the meat next to the bone is the best.
Since any given chuck steak will contain pieces of several muscle of varying degree of tenderness, look for steaks that include those particular muscles that are best suited for dry-heat cookery (dry-heat cooking means grilling, broiling, pan-frying and roasting) Look for chuck steaks that are cut adjacent to the prime rib section. These will include some rib bones. The meat next to the rib bone is called the rib-eye and will be as tender and tasty as rib-eye cut from the prime rib section and for a lot less money. Some butchers sell these steaks boneless, called chuck eye steaks. Often bone-in chuck steaks also include some blade bone. The strip of meat underneath the blade is tougher than the rib-eye meat but can be made more tender by marinating. For best results, chuck steaks should always be marinated (see recipe).
Bone-in chuck steaks are usually at 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick and may weigh between 1 1/4 and 2 1/2 pounds each. Since there is a fair amount of bone and other waste, allow 10 to 12 ounces of chuck steak per serving, which should yield about a half pound of boneless meat per serving.
One of my favorite ways to serve chuck steaks is marinated in a Mexican style marinade and then grilled over charcoal. I first ate these steaks in a restaurant in Nogales, Mexico. Slice the cooked steaks and eat the slices in warmed tortillas with lots of salsa and guacamole.
The marinade in this recipe will tenderize the somewhat tougher chuck steaks adequately and is also a superb marinade for fajitas made from skirt or flank steak. Chiles and other Mexican ingredients are available in Latino groceries. For best results, make this recipe the day before you plan to serve it.
Flavor Step: Nogales Steak Marinade
6 garlic cloves, mashed with 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a mortar or on a cutting board
1/4 cup fresh sour orange juice (from Seville oranges) OR 1 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons tequila (optional)
2 tablespoons ground chiles (ancho or New Mexico)
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
Two 1/2 to 1-inch thick chuck steaks, cut closest to the prime rib
Salt and freshly ground pepper
24 corn tortillas, preferably handmade (or the freshest machine-made you can find)
1 pound mild white cheese, such as Mexican casero, California Monterey Jack or Wisconsin Muenster or brick, cut into 1/2" x 1" strips
6 fire-roasted pasilla chiles or 10 Anaheim chiles sliced or equivalent canned green chiles, preferably Ortega brand, sliced
Salsas of your choice -- such as green chile salsa and salsa cruda
Flavor Step: Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk together, or put the ingredients into a food processor and pulse briefly. Lay 1 steak in a non-reactive dish. Puncture the meat all over on both sides with a fork or skewer. Pour over half the marinade. Put the other steak on top and repeat the process. Reverse the steaks to make sure that both are well coated with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, turning the steaks occasionally to insure full penetration of the marinade.
About an hour before grilling, remove the steaks from the refrigerator. Soak 6 mesquite wood chunks or 2 cups of mesquite, oak, or hickory chips in water. Fire up a covered charcoal grill with about 60 briquettes or the equivalent of mesquite charcoal. When the coals are completely covered in gray ash and you can hold your hand over them only for a count of three, scatter the mesquite chunks or chips over the coals.
Remove the steaks from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Put the steaks on the grill and cover the kettle immediately. Adjust the vents so that no flare-ups occur. Cook until steaks are done to your liking, about 6 to 8 minutes per side for medium-rare to medium. Set the steaks aside on a platter and cover with foil to keep warm while you prepare the tortilla/cheese setups.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Briefly heat each tortilla over the direct heat of the grill to soften them (or heat each tortilla in a heavy skillet over high heat to soften). Heat the tortillas only enough to make them pliable, so they don't crack when folded over the cheese. Place 2 pieces of cheese on each tortilla and fold in half. Fold 6 or so tortillas, wrap in foil, and keep warm in the oven. Repeat the process for all 24 tortillas. It takes about 10 minutes to heat the folded tortillas in the oven and barely melt the cheese -- don't keep them in the oven too long, or the cheese will ooze out. Pay attention to timing: if you put the tortilla packets in the oven when the steaks are done and let the steaks rest for 10 minutes, that should work out fine. You can leave the tortillas in their foil packets for serving or, if you'd like to be more authentic, wrap them in large cloth napkins or dishtowels.
To serve, cut the steaks against the grain into strips 3 to 4 inches long and about 1/2 inch thick. Put the bones on a separate platter. Set out the fire-roasted chiles, tortilla/cheese setups, guacamole, and salsas, and encourage your guests to go for it. Pass around the steak bones for true carnivores to gnaw on and toss over their shoulders to the dogs. Beer (preferably Mexican) goes great here, but a spicy Zinfandel would also be delicious.
Bruce Aidells is the founder of Aidells Sausage Company & has written and co-authored nine cookbooks including meat and poultry chapters for The New Joy of Cooking.