The sky is blue and the winter is retreating. As the days’ temperatures crest the mid-teens, Canadians don shorts, walk in parks, and file into patio seats for cold drinks in the warm sun. Attention shifts from the stove to the grill. Outdoor cooking becomes a focal social event, oddly attached to masculinity, and for all its fuss is often executed poorly. Meats are slapped onto the fired up barbecue, overcooked or undercooked, undersalted, burned.
Preparation is the missing ingredient in most poor BBQs. The grilling can be fast, or slow; searing hot, or gentle. Knowing what kind of heat to use and when, how to determine the doneness of your food, and how to salt and marinate makes all of the difference in producing a delicious spread instead of maimed meat.
In the summer months at Laohaus we grilled a lot. If it got slow there’d be business in the front, but a barbecue in the back. Ribs, chicken, steak perfectly cooked and seasoned on a broken grill facing the police station parking lot. Chris developed a multi-purpose meat marinade that produced stellar flavour relatively quickly and never failed to deliver on results. He called it his “Lao marinade” – but whether it’s a Lao recipe or a Chris recipe is still unclear.
I sent him a message asking for the recipe, and he texted me back a recipe typical of Chris. The essentials, no measurements, and a couple variations:
“Mortar and pestle:
-lemongrass a lot (bottom part until you don’t see purple, i’ll use 2 for a whole chicken)
-garlic your preference
-shallot a little bit (like a super small one or half of one)
-fish sauce a lot
-msg a little bit
-white pepper a little bit
-i do put in some sugar you can leave it out cause it burns quicker but I do think it adds something
I also like to put dried red chili flakes in a coffee grinder and put some in (i feel like this is what guy fieri would call “the kicker”)
Best way to cook it low and slow as close to the charcoal as possible until its just past fully cooked
You can do this with all meats, i would say one rack of ribs equals one chicken and if you do this with ribeyes its fucking crazy”
The way that cooks describe recipes to one another is vague, and really not useful to the layperson. That text is loaded with assumptions: that I know how to cook meat, control the temperature of the BBQ, know what a lot or a little of the various ingredients are, and that I know what the ingredients are. Keeping in mind that a recipe is more of a guide than an absolute (you can and should taste and adjust as you like), I am going to attempt to demystify this marinade to make it available to you.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED (good for 1 chicken or 1 rack of ribs or 4 steaks):
-A large mortar and pestle (kokk and sakk) OR a food processor
-2 stalks of lemon grass or 2 heaping tablespoons of lemon grass puree
-1 small shallot or half of a medium-large shallot
-4 cloves of garlic
-1 1/2 tablespoons of Kosher salt
-2 tablespoons of white sugar
-¼ cup of Panda brand oyster sauce
-¼ cup of Squid brand fish sauce
-¼ teaspoon of MSG powder
-½ tsp of white ground pepper
-Finely ground red chili flakes to taste
STEP 1: POUNDING AND STIRRING
This step is obviously better done in a large mortar and pestle. If you don’t have access to one (they can be acquired cheaply at most Asian supermarkets) then use a food processor for the first step.
First add the whole peeled garlic cloves, the chopped lemon grass (just the bottom part containing the purple), and the diced shallot. Add the salt to create friction and bind the flavors, and start pounding. Pound until the aromatics form a sort of paste with small-ish chunks. If you’re using the food processor, pulse the ingredients a few times until they’re broken down but not homogenous – then scrape the contents out into a small bowl with a rubber spatula (make sure you don’t miss anything!).
Next stir the remaining ingredients into the aromatic pulp. Make sure you stir the sugar for a 30 seconds or so until it dissolves. Taste the marinade. It should be pungent and salty with a bit of sweetness. It will taste much stronger than something than you’d want to eat by the spoonful.
STEP 2: MARINATING
This is enough marinade for 1 rack of ribs, cut into individual bones; 1 chicken, quartered; or 4 ribeye steaks. Place the meat into a heavy-duty ziplock bag and pour the marinade over the meat. Shake the meat around gently (so the bones don’t pierce the bag) making sure that the marinade is evenly distributed over all of the pieces. Put the bag of meat into the fridge and let it marinate for 4 to 8 hours. You don’t want to marinate anything for too long with this stuff. It’s high octane and after 8 hours the meat will taste too strongly of it. This is the perfect same day preparation for an evening grilling session.
STEP 3: COOKING
RIBS: You’re not aiming for fall off the bone ribs. Those are for people with no teeth. Instead, you want your meat to be tender but toothsome – ideally it stays on the bone but can easily be coerced off with a bite. In a preheated oven two and a half hours at 275, followed by a sear either on a hot grill or with the oven broiler will do the trick. To make them all the way on the BBQ, pre-heat one side of the grill to medium low. Place the ribs on the off side of the BBQ and close the lid. Checking periodically they should be tender after about 2 hours. Turn the grill up to high and finish them up placing them directly on the hot part for a few minutes until they’re crispy.
CHICKEN: Cook the chicken the same way as the ribs on the grill, but use a higher temperature of medium to medium-high. Only have one side turned on, put the chicken on the off side, and keep the lid closed. The reason for cooking it indirectly is to prevent flare ups that will burn the precious skin. Overcooking chicken is a terrible thing – you should spend the $10 on an instant read digital thermometer to make sure it doesn’t come to that (check the thickest of the breast and thigh – it should read 165 F or 74 C). When it’s close to that temperature open the grill, and put the chicken over the side that is on to get the skin nice and crispy.
STEAK: High heat. Flop. Flip. Done. Don’t over do it.
The final product will be bright tasting with caramel notes, an aroma of lemongrass and superb depth of flavor. Try it out. Impress your friends and win back your family!