A Central Coast Delicacy — Grilled Tri-Tip

September 21, 2009

Grilling, broiling, barbecuing – whatever you want to call it – is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.
~James Beard

One of those Elysian Fields. The Central Coast is an idyllic stretch of California, roughly spanning the area from the Monterey Bay through Santa Barbara. Ruggedly bewitching: with broad shouldered beaches, craggy vistas, serene tangerine-salmon sunsets, lofty valleys, closely cropped chapparal, patterned vineyards, hay-hued hills with solitary oaks, crisply scented eucalyptus belts, fecund avocado groves, herbal aromas, quaint inns and high end resorts. The Central Coast is also home to the heralded Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Paso Robles, and Monterey wine countries.

On this coastal stretch, located in the center of Santa Maria Valley lies the town of Santa Maria, the largest city in Santa Barbara County—80 miles north of Santa Barbara proper and 30 miles south of San Louis Obispo. Not only does Santa Maria rightly boast of its own breed of vaquero barbeque, its wineries produce exquisitely complex pinot noirs. Pinot loves a cool climate, and the conditions in Santa Maria Valley deliver. Constant ocean breezes coupled with an east to west transverse geography that channels the cool air into the valley combine to foster a long growing season for this most delicate and temperamental grape.

Miles, the protagonist from the engaging film Sideways, described pinot as “transcendent,” noting that it is a grape that “needs constant attention…(I)t’s not a survivor like cabernet which can be grown anywhere.” Compared to their northern neighbors in the Russian River, Santa Maria wineries are considered the nouveau riche of pinot noir with a tendency toward to experimentation. At the pour, Santa Maria pinots exalt in lavender, orange peel, sandalwood, wild strawberry, berries, cherry, rhubarb, and anise.

Tri-tip is a roast cut from the bottom of the sirloin primal. There is only one tri-tip per side of beef (a total of two per animal). In this country, tri-tip also answers to “bottom sirloin butt” and “triangle roast”, due to its triangular shape. It is a nicely marbled, tender, and robustly flavored cut which weighs about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds trimmed and measures around 3″ thick. Look for a tri-tip that still includes the fat on one side which will make it a little heavier than the norm.

The American origin of the tri-tip cut is believed largely happenstance and rooted in Santa Maria. There, as elsewhere, butchers would customarily carve beef loins into sections of preferred top block sirloin and filet, and then set aside the triangular shaped tips for stew cubes or hamburger. Then, sometime in the 1950’s, on a day when there was an overabundance of stew chunks and hamburger (and the triangular cut was about to be trashed) a local meat market manager experimented by placing a seasoned whole piece of the “unwanted” meat on the department’s rotisserie rack. An immediate hit with his guinea pig staff, he undertook a successful marketing campaign with this now cherished cut. The rest is history…well, recent history. A baby boomer dish.

Tri-tip marinades well and can be cooked on a grill, on a rotisserie, or roasted in an oven. Marinades usually contain an acidic ingredient, such as citrus juice, vinegar or wine. The acid breaks down the meat fibers some, but only at the surface.

Marinades are are usually founded upon the sum of: acid + salt + alliums + sugars + chiles + herbs. But, the variations on this basic equation are endless. Below are two marinades that couple well with tri-tip with a single grilling method for both.

GRILLED TRI-TIP

Asian Marinade
1/4 C soy sauce
1/4 C nuoc mam chay pha san
2 T oyster sauce
2 T sesame oil
4 T Chinese black vinegar
2 T peeled and minced ginger
1 T five spice powder
8 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 yellow onion, peeled and minced
Juice of 3 fresh limes
1/2 C chile oil or canola oil
Abundant freshly ground coarse red, white, green and black peppercorns

In a large, heavy duty zip lock bag, combine all ingredients. Seal, squeezing out excess air, and refrigerate for 24 hours. Turn several times during the marinating process to make sure the meat is well coated. Let stand until it reaches room temperature before grilling.

Chile Marinade
Juice of 2 fresh limes
Juice of 1 fresh orange
3 T ground cumin
3 T ground coriander
2 T dried oregano
2 T chipotle chile powder
1 t ground cayenne pepper
8 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 jalapeno chiles, seeded and finely diced
1 small bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy duty zip lock bag, combine all ingredients. Seal, squeezing out excess air, and refrigerate for 24 hours. Turn several times during the marinating process to make sure the meat is well coated. Let stand until it reaches room temperature before grilling.

Grilling
Set your grill up for an indirect cook at medium high heat. Toss in a couple of small chunks of pre soaked smoking wood (red oak is traditional) to the coals or smoker box. Put the roast on away from the heat and close the lid.

Cook the tri-tip for about 10 to 12 minutes per pound, turning every 5 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches near 130 F—the land of medium rare. Because tri-tip is so lean, cooking beyond this point will render it tough.

Let stand for at least 15 minutes before carving, and then savor with a regional pinot noir (preferably one of those Santa Maria lasses).

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One Response to “A Central Coast Delicacy — Grilled Tri-Tip”

  1. Kady Says:

    Wonderful descriptions of Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir–do you mind if we quote you for our blog? (We’ll post a link, too). Our blog will be up and running later this fall. Thanks!


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