SANTA MARIA TRI TIP: BARBECUE’S MOST DESERVING STEP CHILD
Living in Texas, I’ve been privy to many, many debates on the true origin of quality barbeque: Central Texas, West Texas, East Texas. Then usually some unfortunate soul mentions some other state or town in the south and is shouted out of the room.
Texans are dogmatic about their barbeque, and admittedly I am no different. To me the absolute best and truest expression of barbeque is brisket or sausage cooked over oak with a quality rub and no sauce—the kind you’d find in Lockhart or better yet, a knowledgeable friend’s backyard or tailgate. Nobody does barbeque like a well qualified Texan with a brisket. That said, I have had some knee-buckling pulled pork from my North Carolina friends that borders on a religious experience. And St. Louis style ribs that are so good they make you want to slap somebody. And then, there’s the Santa Maria tri-tip. It’s drop you on your balls delicious, if not quite fitting the standards of what we usually think of as good ‘que.
As a cut it’s smaller, leaner, has no chewable bones and lacks the delicious globules of fat so many Texans and southerners fight over. In other words, it matches up nicely, if coincidentally, to the rest of California in its health-righteous contrasts to my state and our southeastern neighbors. As a cooking style it lives in a limbo somewhere between grilling and barbequing: cooking directly over burning oak, but at far enough a distance to allow safe, slow cooking. And as a flavor it’s damn good. It has more beefy oomph than flank and less false refinement than your typical top sirloin. But its real brilliance is in giving you a smokey, char-y outside and a medium to medium-rare middle. It’s like a smoked brisket and a New York steak mated– which if it happened I would probably watch, if only out of curiosity.
In my own version I like to rub the beef with a mixture of salt, pepper, brown sugar, dried chilies and garlic. Although I know some old timers swear by salt, pepper and oak alone. I served this one with cheddar chive grits and a salad of marinated cucumbers with onions and tomatoes. It makes a fine meal when you’ve got the taste and inclination for smoky backyard-cooked red meat, if not the time.
Santa Maria style tri-tip
Ancho, guajillo and arbol chilies, toasted and ground to a powder
Oak fire with grill grate placed at least 1-2 feet above it.
Start your oak fire. Rub the tri-tip generously with salt and pepper, and then the rest of the ingredients. Once the fire is going well, place the grate over it and cook the tri-tip, turning occasionally until it feels a little under medium in the center and has a nice char on the outside, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes before cutting.
Cheddar Chive Grits
4 cups water
Kosher salt, black pepper
1 cup stone ground grits
½ bunch chives
½ cup crème fraiche or sour cream
½ cup grated sharp cheddar, like Tillamook
Boil the water, add your salt. Wisk in your grits and return to a boil. Simmer for about an hour. Remove from heat and add other ingredients. Season to taste and garnish with extra chives.
Marinated Cucumber Salad
This was a favorite of my mother’s garden dinners all throughout the summers of my childhood. At the time I hated it, now I realize I was an idiot. She always used Good Season’s Italian dressing. Here I make my own, but her’s was pretty damn good.
1 cucumber peeled and sliced
½ pint cherry tomatoes, sliced
½ red onion, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Red wine vinegar
Apple cider vinegar
Parsley leaves, chopped
Mix all marinade ingredients except the oil and pour over the cucumber and onion. Let rest for several hours in the fridge. Salt the tomatoes and leave in a bowl for an hour or so. Before serving combine all ingredients and marinade, dress with olive oil and season to taste.