Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saturday churrasco - Part 2 PICANHA

In my previous post, I mentioned how a typical Brazilian family churrasco consists of a series of grilled meats served directly from the grill and served in small bite-size pieces. There's often chicken or pork at a churrasco and sometimes even grilled coalho cheese but there is always beef of some sort. The majority of Brazilians are confirmed carnivores, and I'm sure a large majority would say that beef is their favorite type of meat. And if asked what cut of beef is their favorite, the same majority would loudly acclaim picanha as the best, most noble cut of beef.

I've previously posted about the differences between Brazilian and North American cuts of beef, and how differing styles of butchering means that it's impossible to directly relate a Brazilian cut to a North American one. The cut known as picanha is probably the most famous example of this - Brazilians consider it the best cut, and in North America it doesn't exist. Or at least almost doesn't exist. The picanha is part of what's called "top sirloin" in North America, and it's not usually separated from the rest of that cut. On the odd occasion when it might be cut separately, the correct name is "rump cover." With that name, it's no wonder the cut hasn't become popular in North America - somehow the name lacks gustatory appeal. "I'm dying for a nice rump cover for dinner tonight" or "I think I'll have the rump cover" bring rather unfortunately visual images to mind (or at least to my mind!)

Call it picanha or rump cover, it's a delicious cut of meat, either way. A fairly thick layer of fat covers a tender and lean nugget of meat, and in grilling, this layer of fat moistens and flavors the meat. Picanha is served with the fat attached, and although most people cut the fat away, some consider it the jewel in the crown, and eat it alongside the lean center cut.

 In typical churrasco style, picanha is simply grilled, seasoned only by salt. However, salting a picanha or other cut of meat for grilling is done in a unique was in Brazil. The salt used is very coarse rock salt, and it's applied very liberally to both sides of the picanha before it goes on the grill. Here's how a piece of picanha was salted yesterday by my friend Marcos César:

Interestingly, this enormous quantity of salt doesn't mean over-salted meat. By using coarse salt and by totally covering the surface of the meat, a crust is formed during cooking, which keeps the meat inside juicy and tender. When the picanha is removed from the grill, the salt crust is knocked off, and only then is it sliced and served. I've done something similar with a whole fish - roasting it in a bed of coarse salt, and then knocking away the salt crust to reveal the juicy fish inside. In Brazil, the same technique serves to ensure a juicy and properly seasoned steak - give it a try next time you fire up your grill and serve your steaks Brazilian churrasco style.


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