How can you not like Ike? How can you not like a guy — a president, no less — who invites people over for dinner — at the White House, mind you — and throws their steaks in the fire?
Not on the fire, as in grates above the fire. In the fire. Directly atop the red-hot glowing coals.
Dwight D. Eisenhower had an impish sense of humor, but he also had a point. His guests might have thought he was making a mistake, but he knew something they didn’t. Their steak was going to be the most amazing cut of beef they had ever tasted.
Cooking a steak directly on the coals produces an unbeatable crusty char, a juicy and beautifully red-pink medium-rare interior and a satisfying campfire aroma.
The result is called caveman steak, dirty steak and, yes, Eisenhower steak. Ike himself called it “outdoor steak.” A recipe with that title in his personal collection begins: “Build a charcoal fire on the ground.”
The technique is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, I will admit to some hesitation when I first tried it a few years ago. As I stood at my kettle grill, glancing first at the glowing coals and then back at the steak, my internal musings went something like this: Take one of the most expensive cuts of meat and hurl it into an inferno and somehow it won’t emerge black, dried out and covered in more ash than a miner?
I shook off my anxiety and took the plunge. And my leap of faith was rewarded with a steak on par with those from the best steakhouses. The meat emerged with a crispy black char and only a smidgen of ash, which I dusted off with a pastry brush, and a juicy, red center, each bite infused with the flavor of fire and smoke. The surprisingly little ash resulted from my use of hardwood lump charcoal, which not only burns hotter than the pillow-shaped briquettes but also lacks the fillers and binders that create so much ash. (Hardwood lump is best for the cleaner, hotter burn, but if you want to use briquettes, fan the coals with a piece of cardboard or even blow on them lightly with a hair dryer to remove most of the ash before setting the steak on them.)
Now, I frequently cook my steaks Eisenhower style.
Because there is so little room for error when cooking this way, I have experimented extensively. The 34th president liked his steaks thick. Really thick, up to three inches. I tried cooking a three-inch-thick steak, Ike-style, and the interior was not medium-rare, which I prefer, or even rare, which I can tolerate. It was meat sushi.
A one-inch steak too easily ends up medium. A two-inch steak suffers from the same uncooked interior as the three-inch, if not quite as egregiously. The depth that, time and again, comes out of those glowing coals with a glistening char and a medium-rare center is 11 / 2 inches.
Eisenhower also preferred a strip steak, another point of departure between the president and me. A well-marbled rib-eye, in my opinion, is the way to go. I think the blast-furnace approach intensifies the cut’s deeply beefy flavor, inherent juiciness and supple texture.
Whatever our differences, Eisenhower’s little parlor trick earned the chief (chef?) executive an enduring legacy in grilling circles. Whether he used the method for foods other than steak, I can’t say — and neither could the archivists at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., who helped me research this story. But what you might call extreme grilling is a technique that works well with vegetables, too.
The smoky eggplant dip baba ghanouj is incalculably improved when flecked with some of the vegetable’s crisped, fire-roasted skin. The inner layers of an onion, softened and sweetened by about a half-hour in the coals, all but faint onto a plate.
Tossing food into glowing embers conjures memories of childhood evenings in the woods, the purple sky fading to black while a counselor told ghost stories around a crackling campfire. Those aren’t my memories, mind you. I quit Scouts before hiking into the darkened forest.
Not that I was deprived of the experience of flame-cooked food altogether. When I was a boy, my father proved he was the magician I imagined him to be when he’d wrap potatoes in foil, toss them into the embers of the fireplace and fish them out some time later. Those potatoes, I’ll remember always, were nothing like the regular oven-baked potatoes or french fries or skillet hash browns. They were flavored with something mysterious, a taste as old as cooking, but one that, back then, I only vaguely associated with the cause-and-effect of live fire on spud.
To this day, I often wrap vegetables in foil and set them on the fire. I especially like sweet potatoes that way. Their charred skins coddle the almost-creamy orange flesh. Sometimes I mash them, but more often I like to slice them in half and slather them with a maple-syrup-and-ancho-chili butter as I watch the steam rise and inhale their cloak of smoke.
My go-to vegetable, though, is corn on the cob. After submerging the corn in water, I lay the corn, husks and all, on the fire and turn them every couple of minutes. When I pull them from the blistering heat, they are deeply tanned and blackened here and there. When I bite into the corn, its plump, caramelized kernels squirt with juice, and their natural sweetness is so enhanced by the flame-roasting that the first time I tasted it, I forced it on my dining companions in an ill-mannered enthusiasm.
“You will not believe this,” I said.
“I have one,” a guest replied.
“I know, but you haven’t taken a bite,” I said, in what might have sounded vaguely like a threat. “Try it.”
I feared that maybe the perfection of the moment would be lost, and I would be the only one to have experienced nirvana. Seems to me that nirvana is not nirvana unless it’s shared. Otherwise, it’s just you, alone, with the world’s most amazing corn.
Put that corn on a plate with that Eisenhower steak and that scorched sweet potato, and you don’t just experience nirvana. You experience magic, magic good enough for a president. What’s not to like?