Updated 2013-09-02 23:32:13 ID=673:0

© 2013 The Romantic Table
©2008 The Romantic Table, Susan McGourty's Table Talk, a California Central Coast Lifestyle blog. 2011-06-09 16:33:16:80
©2008 The Romantic Table

Susan McGourty's Table Talk

Santa Maria Style BBQ -A Barbecue Tradition Unique to The Central Coast

Santa Maria-style barbecue is a regional culinary tradition rooted on the Central Coast of California from the frontier days of Alta California. This method of barbecuing dates back to the 19th century and today is regarded as a gem of Central California's culinary heritage. It is still popular with ranchers and vintners alike especially for large group outdoor barbecues. Here are the the basics if you want to learn more about it and try it on your own!

It's almost the end of July! We're starting to peak into the hottest time of summer, and it is prime-time for outdoor evening barbecues when the sun goes down and the cool evening breezes pick up. And here on the Central Coast, nothing dominates barbecues styles more than Santa Maria Style Barbecue. It is a true California Central Coast tradition.

This is a such big deal here in Central California that publications can't feature a serious article about the Central Coast's cuisine without at least a mention about its traditional barbecue method. Most recently Sunset Magazine has taken interest and in the current August issue devoted several pages to describing through words and photographs this unique Central Coast culinary tradition. It's a “right of passage” originally for vaqueros celebrating a big cattle round-up, but now enjoyed more likely by vineyard-workers and their friends to celebrate their harvests. It is an uncomplicated-style of eating and a rustic way of barbecue that's really fun to cook with others gathered round. The traditional menu is pretty “basic” --which helps with the easiness for entertaining large numbers of guests, open flame oak charcoal roasted beef cut in thick slices, salsa, beans --preferable a local variety, garlic bread, macaroni and cheese and a green salad.

When someone from another part of the country such as the South encounters OUR barbecue method, initially he or she might think it seems a bit simplistic --like where is the sauce? This style of slow grilling is all about the meat and the complex flavors that develop as it is slowly roasted over a bed of hot oak wood coals.

Decades ago, the original meat cut of choice was always a full beef sirloin --still the choice of purists of the art. Nowadays, for most people, Santa Maria-style barbecue centers around a cheaper but equally delicious local cut --beef tri-tip. Tri-tip is a unique cut of beef that pretty much was only found here on the Central Coast of California. But now most California grocery stores at least occasionally carry the cut—or CAN custom-cut it for you.

The meat (3 pound minimum chunk!) is seasoned with black pepper, salt, and olive oil –sometimes some chopped garlic is also rubbed-in as well before grilling over the prerequisite live fire of of Red oak or Blue oak. Here in Paso Robles, the mainstay is Blue Oak, our most available local oak variety. The secret to a good barbecue is to get the oak-fire burning hot down to even burning coals then maintaining an even heat on the grill as you roast the meat.

To grill traditionally, you need a Santa Maria style Barbecue. From small family size grills to giant-sized grills that require a tow from a truck, tractor –or a few well-built men to move them, they are all basically the same, an open firebox with an oak wood fire and a hand crank that lifts or lowers the grill over the wood coals to maintain an even level of heat as the oak coals burn down. Yes, the grills are hot and do smoke a lot --and you need to use this grill away from trees, roofs, overhangs and anything else that could catch fire from high heat or sparks! The grill is probably not the type you would use outside of your track-house home on the patio in the city. Nowadays, with all the pressures from the environmentalists, Fire Departments and zoning laws, these are rarely seen out of their regional part of California.

For many years, my husband Larry and I have had annual July “neighborhood barbecues” with at least twenty-five to thirty neighbors, friends and relatives. Because we wanted to do it right, we had a specially-made black iron grill made to our cooking specifications. It's quite phenomenal and really does the trick!

We would start by grilling white corn with the husks on until the corn kernels were almost done (OK, so I'm from Indiana --what is a barbecue without corn on the cob!). Then quickly (with gloves on) de-husk the corn, then grill the cobs directly on the hot grill until just starting to blacken—and caramelize to sweetness. These then go into a Styrofoam-insulated container lined with heavy-duty aluminum foil. And that part was done. The cobs keep their heat well—and take a while to grill, so ideally, you want to get them out of the way first.

Then my husband --our family grill master (or so he fancies himself anyway!) would put the prepared meat on and cook it to perfection. Because our grill is so large, we would cook several meat sizes at the same time so we could have different levels of done-ness ready at once. We would start grilling by searing the meat, then lifting the grill high when the fire was hot and slowly lower the grill as the fire burned down to maintain a nice even heat. The REAL flavor comes from grilling SLOWLY to help smoke the flavors in.

When the meat was cooked preferably to rare, we would take the meat off and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. While the meat was resting and the fire is not so hot, we would finish by grilling several loafs of our The Ultimate Garlic Bread.

In the meantime, inside in the kitchen, I'd be making a raw tomato-salsa to serve with the meal (a Pico de Gallo salsa), my Country Cousin Baked Beans to substitute for the plain beans normally-served, as well as a huge Spring-Mix salad with a fresh Raspberry-Walnut Vinaigrette and a big bowl of my Cole Slaw-Paso Robles Style.

Plus I would always have extra-large fresh-fruit platter to nibble on. (The old-time cowboys decades-past would probably run me out of the county if I had shown-up with one of these. But remember, today's ladies --and even a few 'gents' adore fruit ---and this IS “The Romantic Table” --and a stalwart of the Mediterranean Diet!)

For dessert I'd have have home-baked Boysenberry and Dutch Apple pies and Mom’s Divine Chocolate Brownies served with vanilla ice cream.

For beverages, I'd make a huge pitcher of home-brewed-then-chilled iced tea to be outside on the patio near the tables where I also had another huge Styrofoam container filled with plenty of ice and cold water, soft drinks, beer, and definitely a local Zinfandel wine--the perfect match for this style beef!

It was quite an effort, but we had done it so many times, it was almost a by rote. But for only two people to orchestrate and cook the whole thing—as well as try to entertain and be good hosts, it was VERY tiring! --And then, after the event, there was just the two of us to do the clean-up!

But it was a very “satisfied-tiredness” that we felt. It was then that my husband and I could really appreciate how all the “magic flavors” of a Santa Maria Style Barbecue could bring friends and strangers together to know one-another and appreciate each others company and conversation in a very non-formal and unpretentious get-together here on the Central Coast.

Try it sometime if you get the chance!




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A tip from Sue!

An easier way to pound your meats and poultry

Been frustrated by plastic wrap that won't stay as you pound your meats? Save yourself some grief by using an extra plastic bag from your grocery store's meat or produce counter. Simply place the breast of meat inside flat between the top and bottom of the plastic bag, laying flat and pound away.