Army Chow

By Beacon Staff

I was truly honored to be asked to cook dinner for 40 Army National Guardsmen (and women) last week.

As I pulled into their armory headquarters with a tow-behind huge honkin’ grill, the master sergeant who arranged for me to cook there greeted me as if I were five-star brass. And every single soldier, ranked or unranked, addressed me as “sir.”

A terrific evening, really, but I’ll save the best for last.

There are federal and state purchasing guidelines about how much can be spent per person for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My creativity was really put to the test because the request was for a steak dinner. This dinner, after all, was a reward to a hard-working company of men and women just back from training maneuvers.

So that “tow-behind huge honkin’ grill” was built from scratch by a friend of a friend and loaned to me for this occasion. If this Army wants steak, they’ll get steak. And we’ll make a show of it with a huge honkin’ grill and a scorching hot fire.

The last time I cooked so many steaks, I was the guest chef at a hotel in northern Montana. It was Valentine’s Day and rib-eyes were on the menu. I took charge of the grill that evening and much to my dismay, 58 of the 64 orders for steak were for medium well or well done. To my way of thinking, that’s a tragic waste of prime beef. And what usually happens in the restaurant world is that when an order for well done comes into the kitchen, the poorest cuts will be used because how will the diner know the difference?

If you like your beef medium well or well done, may I suggest that you order it medium? Taste it and if it’s not to your liking, send it back to be cooked more. At least you’ll get the advertised cut and not something the kitchen would like to dispose of.

Of the 40 young soldiers I cooked for, 25 asked for medium rare, 13 asked for medium, one asked for medium well and one asked for rare.

Now that’s my idea of the kind of steak eaters I like cooking for! How I wish that I could have provided them with larger portions. As I pointed out earlier, there are cost guidelines one must follow, so if steak is on a menu, then it’s going to be kind of thin. When I cut steaks, I like them about an inch to an inch and a quarter thick. At that thickness they can spend enough time on the grill for me to put grill marks on each side and cook each one specifically to order.

That’s the No. 1 question I usually get when beef is on the menu. How does a skilled grill cook or chef know when the meat is ready without using a meat thermometer?

Actually, it’s done by touch. As beef cooks, it shrinks – a natural reaction to heat from collagen and protein and fat. So here’s how a kitchen professional knows when a steak is medium rare, or medium, etc.:

If you hold your hand up with the fingers slightly apart (as if you were signaling “five” to someone), feel the muscle just below the thumb. It’s soft and pliable. That’s what rare beef feels like.

Touch the index finger to the tip of the thumb. Feel the muscle. That’s medium rare. Touch the middle finger to the tip of the thumb. That’s medium. The ring finger to the tip of the thumb is medium well and the pinkie is well done.

This really only works for beef. Other meats, especially poultry, require the use of an instant read thermometer.

Earlier, I promised to tell you what the “best” part of cooking for this group of Army Guardsmen was. After the meal was over, the master sergeant came to me and said he would put together a KP detail and they would wash and scrub all of my pans and utensils.

Thank you, Sarge, for that KP detail. What a treat. Thank you, National Guard. Thank you for calling me sir, for enjoying the food I prepared for you, and for what you do for our country.

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