Smoked prime rib deserves sit-down treatment

Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Wood-Smoked Prime Rib.

Personally, I don’t get it. Turkey? Ham?

For the holidays?

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Look, I have nothing against either of those predictable choices. Some of my best friends serve turkey and ham between now and New Year’s.

But this is the season to do something special, to go all out. This is the season to grill a prime rib. It is a kingly meat, made all the more glorious when smoked. You not only get the glistening crust; you also get the magnificent aroma of wood-smoked beef. And gasps of admiration from around the table.

Catch that? Table.

There comes a time when it’s good to celebrate the holidays like a grown-up. The table is key to that transition. Unlike, say, pizza-and-beer parties or even cocktails-and-canapes soirees, you can’t be standing around while eating prime rib. You must sit.

That sitting is essential to adulthood because it signals that you choose to take your time, and the time you choose to take is for an appreciation of those things that age teaches us to truly cherish: family, friends and really expensive cuts of meat.

By taking the extra step to place the prime rib on the grill where it will bathe in smoke, rather than simply shove it in the oven, you honor both it and your guests.

It isn’t solely that grilling beef does something wondrous to it; grilling prime rib adds an element of risk that demonstrates you are willing to take a chance. For love.

See, if you overcook a burger on the grill, so what? It’s a burger, for cryin’ out loud. You overcook prime rib on the grill and you’ve ruined an occasion. No matter what has been served to that point — cream of chestnut soup, perfectly blanched asparagus in a velvety hollandaise, whatever — a messed-up prime rib can send you spiraling into a funk that leaves you with two bad choices: seethe in silence or bemoan out loud.

You might as well have served turkey.

I’m not trying to scare you. I am saying that, as with anything special, you want to handle this undertaking with care. That means an instant-read meat thermometer.

It’s that simple. All the fear-mongering of the last couple of paragraphs was intended to get your attention, so that you treat the process with a little more respect than is customarily accorded the grill.

Generally, cooking outdoors is a pretty carefree endeavor. It’s so breezy that you can drink beer the whole time and still get it right. Prime rib requires a bit more seriousness.

Before I tell you how to prepare this glorious meat, I’d like to tell you why you should.

It was New Year’s Eve six years ago that my wife and I finally made the holiday transition to adulthood. In magazine terms, we went from musicians splayed on ratty backstage couches in a Rolling Stone photograph to characters in one of those famously droll New Yorker cartoons.

We chose, wittingly or not, to be grown-ups.

No wings or glugs of whiskey that year. Instead, we dined with a small group of friends on a feast that began with deviled quail eggs with wasabi and white truffle filling topped with sturgeon caviar, peaking six courses later with beef tenderloin and foie gras-stuffed morels in a Bordeaux reduction. After a midnight toast and a cheese course, the meal ended with a sampling of three desserts, my favorite being the hot chocolate shot infused with cinnamon and a hint of ancho and chipotle chilies.

Most years since, we have rung in the New Year with those same friends. The dinners are always special, with dishes such as creamed salt cod and lamb osso bucco in harissa sauce. Even the salads are memorable: Lentil and couscous with arugula, feta and persimmon with a mint vinaigrette comes to mind.

These were, in other words, mature holiday celebrations.

Unaccountably, we never served prime rib. I can’t explain it. For there is nothing more special for a sumptuous feast.

I would like to tell you that we are making prime rib for this New Year’s Eve. But some time ago it was decided that we would make a “Big Night”-style meal of Italian dishes.

But just because I’m not grilling a prime rib for the holidays this year doesn’t mean you can’t. (Actually, I did, for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with friends. The meal set the tone for the festivities to come.)

Prime rib is from what’s called the “primal rib,” a section of ribs from the upper section of the cow. When sliced, a prime rib yields rib-eye steaks.

The first question is whether to smoke the meat bone-in or boneless. Bone-in makes for a majestic presentation. And tearing the meat from the bone allows adults to be children again.

I decided to go boneless, though. Three reasons: It cooks evenly, it gets a nice crust all around and it is easier to carve at the table.

It’s a funny thing to say about a big hunk of beef, but prime rib is finicky. Although robust in flavor, it exudes a subtlety. Its texture is silken, its taste complex. As a result, it’s best to practice some delicacy when smoking it.

Unlike a brisket, which takes well to a deep, penetrating smoke over its day-long, low-and-slow roasting, prime rib responds better to a gentle caress. If you over-smoke it, you lose some of the prime rib’s essential character. If you smoke it lightly, you heighten that character. The elemental flavor of the grill elevates prime rib, making it, paradoxically, earthy and elegant at the same time.

Prime rib, remember, is basically a giant steak. While a cooking temperature of 225 degrees or so is optimal for brisket, about 325 degrees is best for prime rib.

It is also unforgiving. While a brisket can be cooked past its perfectly done point and still taste incredible (the main problem will be texture; it will wither to shreds), a prime rib must be cooked with precision. Five or 10 degrees’ variance in internal temperature can make the difference between medium-rare and medium.

In other words, prime rib is not a barbecue meat. You shouldn’t rely on the “touch” method, as a lot of barbecue cooks pride themselves on doing with other meats. With prime rib, the investment is too great and a misstep too costly to wing it. That is where the instant-read meat thermometer comes in.

With a thermometer, you reduce the fretting long enough to walk away from the grill, go inside and make a suitable condiment. Horseradish sauce is one of those unquestioned accompaniments for prime rib, like drawn butter with lobster and pepper-vinegar with barbecued whole hog. Somebody, somewhere, got it right a long time ago, and it would be an affront not only to prime rib but to culinary history to not serve a bit of the creamy, tart white sauce on the side. Besides, making it provides a welcome break from the worrying.

Just when you wonder whether all that fuss was worth it, you sit down to dine. You carve slices of the rosy meat, and, after serving others (very adult of you), serve yourself. You cut a bite-size piece and dip it in a puddle of horseradish sauce on your plate. You taste phenomenal flavor, a truly special and grown-up flavor.

You survey the scene. The holiday table gleams with wine goblets and the good china. The guests are into it.

Sometimes, you think as you take another bite of prime rib, it is okay to spend the holidays like characters in a New Yorker cartoon.

Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.

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