While chef Govind Armstrong is busy this Memorial Day in the kitchen of his 2 1/2-month-old restaurant Willie Jane on Abbot Kinney in Venice, scores of Angelenos will be firing up the grill. To get ready for the second-biggest BBQ holiday of the year — July 4 is the biggest — Armstrong, who also runs the restaurant Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills, offers his advice on how to grill the perfect burger, whip up a tasty marinade and clean those dirty grates. June 1 is the grand opening of Willie Jane's 4,000-square-foot garden, and on Saturdays Armstrong plans to serve a selection of grilled items on the patio. Turn the page…
Squid Ink: What would you barbecue on Memorial Day, if you had the day off?
Govind Armstrong: Whole sirloin cap. It's relatively inexpensive and easy to get at most butcher shops. It's slightly leaner. The flavor is unparalleled when it comes to many of the other common cuts; it's one of those perfect meats to grill. I don't grill at too high of a heat — my grilling is closer to a hybrid of grilling and smoking. It's not a race.
My favorite thing to grill is probably soft shell crabs, because they're so delicious. Little bit of salt, pepper, oil — that's it. Toss in a little bit of garlic. Then, when they come off, a squeeze of roasted or crushed lemon and more olive oil.
SI: What else would you throw on the grill?
GA: Corn is available at the farmers market — the white corn that we've been getting at Post & Beam is super sweet and sugary. It really has a beautiful texture to it as well. I roast it in the husk, with just a little bit of salt, pepper, butter and maybe some thyme. Baby summer squash started up a little earlier this year — they're delicious.
SI: What do you put in your marinade for vegetables?
GA: It's generally pretty simple. A drizzle of good olive oil, touch of salt, cracked black pepper, splash of red chili flake and a little bit of vinegar, depending on where that vegetable is going in the meal. If it's going into a grilled vegetable salad, I might do just a few drops of aged balsamic, or if they're on their own, I might do something with a cider or sherry vinegar. Toss the vegetables in a bowl and just drizzle everything right on top, and toss it around a little bit. Let it sit for 15 minutes and then throw it on the grill. Baby squash are so young and tender you don't really need to do a lot to them.
SI: And what about your marinade for meat?
GA: Normally, for the whole sirloin cap, I do dry rub. My pantry is pretty stocked with a lot of different dried spices, mostly whole. I take a few types of pepper — black, white and pink peppercorn — a little bit of coriander and paprika. I bring it all together, maybe some mustard seed, but it depends on what else is going with it. If it's going to be the focal point, or if it's going with a funky potato salad, you sort of want to mirror or pick up some of the flavors that you have going on in the other dishes.
SI: Do you grill fruit?
GA: I saw early watermelon popping up that looked pretty decent. I put it right on the grill with a little bit of salt and pepper, a sprinkling of sumac; grill it, dice it and toss with a little bit of arugula, shaved fennel, touch of feta cheese. It makes for an interesting little side salad.
SI: Since most people will be grilling burgers, what are your tips for the perfect burger?
GA: Bring the meat out at least ½ hour prior to cooking. I mostly cook on charcoal, mesquite or live wood, and it's a matter of not cooking on extremely high heat. I like to take my time, even with something as simple as a burger. Low and slow, and the total cooking time ends up being 15 minutes or so, and it's still perfectly medium rare and pink and smoky and delicious and rich and fatty.
A lot of the seasoning goes back to the blend of meat. Most of the time, I will do just salt and pepper. If I'm doing just one cut of meat, like just chuck, I'll probably add more seasonings. If I'm doing a blend of chuck, sirloin and a little bit of tri-tip, all you need is salt and pepper. You're going to get plenty of flavor from the meat. My ratio of fat is pretty high — 15% is my magic number.
If I'm using mesquite, I normally like to get the grill going 40 minutes before I actually cook on it. I cook with indirect heat, so I'm not putting the burgers right on top of where it's roaring hot. I have my fire built to one side, and then I'll cook on the opposite side, and I cook with the cover on most of the time.
SI: What one grilling tool would you recommend for first-timers?
GA: A thermometer, so people don't overcook their burgers. If you're going to invest all of this time and get really good meat and season it perfectly and have friends over, the last thing you want to do is overcook the meat. Getting a $1.99 meat thermometer is probably one of the best investments you'll ever make. The ideal temperature for me is right around 125-130 degrees if I'm cooking for a lot of people. I prefer mine more on the rare side, but that's just me.
SI: How do you clean your grates?
GA: Once the grill is lit, I put the grates on to get them really hot and clean them while they're hot. I use a wire brush to clean it, and before I cook on it, I'll season it with a grill rag, which is a rag tied up with butcher twine that I'll dip in a little oil or fat, like if you have bacon grease.
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