Brazilian Grilled Sirloin with Chimichurri Sauce
It’s time to bring home the beef. Despite my penchant for rice and beans, it would be sacrilegious to contemplate a Brazilian feast that didn’t include something grilled and bovine. When I think of South American cuisine, and Brazilian cuisine in particular, I think of meat. Lots of meat. Meat enough for everyone. Big, grilled hunks of meat just waiting to be sawed through and plundered into a hungry gullet. To me, Brazil means a lot of things, including a vibrant and lively culture filled with passion, celebration, and women that have no right to be as goddamn stunning as they are. But it also makes me think of cow.
Brazilian barbecue, or churrasco, is as simple as it is delicious. You take flavorful cuts of meat, treat them simply, and enjoy the carnal charms of flame grilled beef (or occasionally other meats). We don’t need any fancy marinades, special techniques or hours of painful effort and beseeching pleas to the gods of the grill . Nope. All we need is a trusted cut of beef, an easy mop technique to add flavor and keep the steak moist, and a hella lot of heat. Sounds good, right?
Let’s start with the meat. Brazilian grilling is about simplicity and how to draw out a rich meaty flavor from the beast, so don’t feel the need to splurge on a devastatingly expensive cut, or seek out a rare/unconventional slab of beef for the grill. Mind you, if you ARE going to seek out an uncommon cut, please let it be the picanha, otherwise known as the rump cover or rump cap.
Picanha is one of the most infamous cuts of beef in Brazil, but in North America, where we have a predilection towards strip steaks and boneless skinless chicken breast, the rump cap doesn’t get due justice. Basically, it’s the top of the rump roast (think back to Sunday night dinners during the leaner years of your childhood), with a nice chubby fat cap on top which is at least 1/2 inch thick. The beauty of picanha is that the rich flavor of the beef is kept juicy as the fat melts down to caramelize the outside of the meat, and the rump steak itself is juicy and thickly nuanced with flavor.
If you can’t find picanha, or the words “fat cap” don’t make you think, “YUMMERS”, a good second choice would be the lean mean cuts like hanger steak, flank steak or tri-tip. These are all fairly traditional cuts, although less popular than a striploin or a ribeye, but they also share a different character. All three of these cuts are quite lean and can be tough, fibrous choices. That said, they sure are flavorful. If you like your steak medium rare or….well, not at all well done, opt for one of these three readily available cuts which can be sliced thinly and retain their utter deliciousness.
For our part, we went for a sirloin tip (think of the tri-tip steak and then carry it back) which is quite lean and prone to drying out, but very affordable and incredibly flavorful. So, yeah, there’s that. Sure, it’s less tender than the top sirloin, but after you walk through the bulk of the sirloin (and think “sirloin steak” at this point) you approach the angled tip of the muscle. A “sirloin tip roast” refers to this part of the cow, the final end of which is the angular tri-tip roast. Because this roast does tend to dry out or get chewy when cooked, it’s a good idea to slice it very thinly and avoid cooking the meat more than medium rare.
I know that there are some of you out there who are thinking to yourselves, “But…but I don’t LIKE my steak rare! I like my steak burnt! Charred! Grayer than grandpa’s pits! What kind of cut should I use?” Truth be told, I don’t know how to answer your question about what cut to use for tender well done steak, because frankly I don’t think there is such a thing. I do apologize, because I don’t mean to be exclusionary, but gray meat is the reason that I spent the first 17 years of my life thinking that roast beef was the work of the devil. If this paragraph is talking to you, sorry bub – you’re on your own, and let your experience guide your selection. Might I direct you to some Port Braised Beef Shanks instead? Because that’s a dish we can both enjoy….and this quite possibly is not.
Now that we can answer the question of, “Where’s the beef?” (sorry guys, I was compelled), we start thinking about what goes WITH the beef. When you think of Brazilian grilled meat, your second thought should be, “Chimichurri! YUM!” In that order. Always. I promise, you won’t be sorry.
Chimichurri is ubiquitous on the Brazilian table (and throughout a great part of South America) for a couple of reasons. To start, it livens up everything it touches. What a nice, bright contrast to the rich meats and thick starches! We have common ingredients combined in a bright and vibrant way that even the po’ folk could afford, which no doubt accounts for much of chimichurri’s popularity. Add to that the fact that chimichurri is great as a dipping sauce, slather, marinade, mop or salad dressing base, is it any wonder that most Brazilian houses treat this as the condiment of choice?
Brazilian Grilled Sirloin with Chimichurri Sauce
- 3.5 lb beef sirloin tip roast*
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 cup hot water
- 2 tsp + 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- bunch fresh parsley (3/4 cup chopped)
- few sprigs fresh cilantro (3 tbsp chopped)
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar **
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 green onions
- 2 dried Bay leaves
- 1 tbsp dried oregano (or substitute 2.5 tbsp fresh)
- 1 tsp Spanish pimenton or paprika
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp red chili flakes
* If you’re not feeling enthused about a beef sirloin tip, feel free to use flank steak, hanger steak, or even a double thick (2-3″) rib eye as you see fit.
** Not all vinegars are created equally, and some are rather on the pungent side. You want the bright taste of red wine vinegar to come through and be bold, but not painfully astringent. If you are unsure about the acidic content of yours, start with 3 tablespoons and add the remaining tablespoon at the end if you think the sauce can handle it. An alternative is to substitute half of the vinegar for lime juice, which is a delicious variation.
Prepare the steak by rubbing it all over with the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of salt. Too be frank, I’m fairly generous with the oil when it comes to rubbing down this hunk of meat, and I make no apologies for that. Leave the meat to rest at room temperature for at least 30-45 minutes.
Peel the garlic and put the cloves into a food processor along with the olive oil and Bay leaves. Process the mixture until the garlic is very finely minced in the oil. Wash and pat dry the herbs and green onions. Give them a rough chop before adding them to the food processor.
Pulse the mixture until the herbs are well chopped but certainly not pureed like a pesto. You should still be able to see without any doubt that these are, indeed, the remnants of parsley and cilantro. Turn this out into a medium sized bowl.
Add the dried herbs, spices and salt. Stir to combine, and then slooooowly drizzle in the vinegar, whisking constantly as you do so, until it comes together as a saucy thick, herbal vinaigrette.
Put the chimichurri sauce aside to allow the flavors to marry, and prepare the mop for your steak. Crush or grate one fat clove of garlic into a small bowl and add the salt. Mash the garlic into the salt until you have a dry crumbly pulp. Pour in the hot water and stir until the salt dissolves.
Fire up your grill on a high flame and when it is hot you’ll want to throw on the meat. Let the meat sear, undisturbed, for about 8-10 minutes (obviously less if you have a thinner cut). Turn the meat over and baste that lovely brown crust with the salt water. Continue to grill the meat, flipping it only once more to finish cooking the previous side, and basting the lovely charred exterior frequently and liberally with the salt water. When the meat reaches your desired doneness, take it off the grill and tent the platter with aluminum foil.
How much time your meat will need depends on the cut and how you like it cooked. You can estimate about 12 minutes per side for a blood-toothed carnivore like me, or 15-18 minutes per side for the people that like it pink but not feral. If you like your meat browned straight through with a slight tinge of gray, this is not a recipe for you. Didn’t we already discuss this at the top of the page? Seriously.
Let the meat rest, tented under tin foil, for 15 minutes before cutting against the grain in thin slices.
Serve your gorgeous grilled beef on a platter with the chimichurri sauce on the side.
The chuffed hangers-on to this steak are feijoada com arroz (braised black beans with garlicky white rice), and a bright quick marinated radish salad to lighten things up. If you browse the recipes, you will see that absolutely nothing about this meal was difficult or overly time consuming. However, just look at that. What a thing of beauty! Those gauchos totally knew what it was all about.
And there you go! It *is* possible to bring part of the South American churrasqueria home with you on a Tuesday night, and if you do….let me know, ‘kay, because I’m free at 7 and I make a killer capirinha…..