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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Light Rain
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The lowly chuck gets its star turn (recipe)
Celebrity roast
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Like more and more people these days, I'm eating less beef than I used to. In the interest of flavor, health, the land and fair play (for the animals as well as the humans who handle them), what beef I do eat comes from grass-fed and locally raised cattle.

And yes, pastured beef is expensive. (It should be.) So most often I buy ground beef, because it's affordable and versatile. Yet there's still room for steak in my life. I shy away from cuts like T-bone and rib-eye - I love them, but it has to be an exceedingly special occasion for me to justify spending 15 to 20 bucks a pound. For many years, I relished flank steak instead. It was once relatively unknown and within reach of most budgets. No more, on either count.

Now there's a new grass-fed steak on my plate, one that's as cheap per pound as ground beef, but with the big beefiness and gratifying chew of the top cuts. It's chuck roast. Surprised? I was. I had always thought of chuck as a tough customer - tasty, but meant for stew or pot roast.

Then I remembered the grilled chuck roast my friend Harold served at a backyard potluck years ago. It was as big as a bible and as grippingly good as a Stieg Larsson novel. Harold is a nuclear physicist, so I assumed he had performed some technological wizardry to produce that juicy hunk of bold flavor. But all he had done was soak the roast in bourbon and green onions, and then slow-grilled it in a Weber.

I unearthed Harold's recipe last summer and have made it several times since, using chuck roasts from among the array of grass-fed beef vendors at area farmers' markets. I've varied the marinade. I've added dry rubs and relishes. I've paired it with all sorts of side dishes. All I can say is, using chuck roast for grilled steak has been making it more difficult to eat less beef.

Smoke-Grilled Chuck Roast

  • 1 two-pound (or larger) boneless beef chuck roast, at least two inches thick
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1 small bunch green onions, split lengthwise and chopped fine

Use a meat fork to pierce holes all over the roast. Combine remaining ingredients in a dish that's just large enough to hold the roast. Immerse roast in mixture. Marinate at room temperature 2-3 hours, turning occasionally.

Burn a wood or charcoal fire in a kettle-type grill. Let it burn down to the glowing stage. You'll need enough wood/charcoal to keep it glowing nicely for the entire time the roast cooks (35-45 minutes). Place the roast on the grill but not directly over the fire; rearrange the wood/coals if necessary. Place the lid on the grill (or not - it will work either way, but you'll get smokier flavor if you cover it, and you won't risk flare-ups).

Grill beef about 15 minutes on the first side, basting every 5 or so minutes with some of the marinade. Turn it over and grill the other side, basting often, for another 15-20 minutes. Check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer, inserting it into the thickest part of the roast. You want medium-rare, about 150 degrees internal temperature.

Remove the meat and let it stand at room temperature for 10 full minutes before slicing (not too thick, not too thin).

Variation: After the beef comes out of the marinade, dry it off on paper towels and press all over it with a mixture of 1-1/2 tablespoons ground cumin, 2 tablespoons minced garlic, a heap of chopped fresh cilantro, and salt and pepper galore. (For maximum yumminess, start with 3 tablespoons whole cumin seeds, toast them in a cast-iron pan and then grind them into a powder.) Grill as described above. The cumin mixture will form a crusty, feisty-tasting surface on the beef.

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