So you are the barbecue king, the master of meats and flame, the lord of the grill? I, too, once believed these things about myself. And then I had homemade churrasco.
I refer not to the first time I had what passes for Brazilian-style beef at the Mandalay Bay casino in Vegas, as bikinied women danced in cages above our table. (Dancers, it should be noted, perspire--but I digress.) Rather, I'm recalling a beautiful late afternoon this past January on a patio at the foot of the Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro. As we watched tourist helicopters buzz Christ the Redeemer, as little monkeys swung down merrily from the jungle on power lines, as the sun turned Sugar Loaf peak pink and shimmery in the distance, our friend Marcio demonstrated who really knows of beef and fire: Brazilians. When he's not surfing, Marcio spends most weekends there at his girlfriend's father's poolside barbecue, seasoning, skewering, and charring to medium-rare perfection in the style taught by his forefathers. Home churrascarias are everywhere in Brazil and are not all that different from the masonry meat altars that once dotted the backyards of America, but they do have their special features. If it is true barbecue perfection to which you aspire, this is the pyre you must build.
With churrasco, long, flat skewers of food are cooked directly atop a firebox, or on one of three pairs of horizontal stainless-steel rods above it. The first row of rods is for high-heat searing, the second for gentler cooking, the upper for keeping food warm. Marcio begins by lighting a bagful of natural charcoal, preferably the traditional eucalyptus. When the coals are covered in white ash, he places skewers of pork sausage directly atop the box, where they brown and burst and drip fat onto the coals, which fuels the fire and flavors the smoke. Then, the beef: The Brazilians enjoy most parts of their fine cattle, but the most famous, flavorful, and classic is the cut called picanha, which comes from the sirloin American butchers typically slice into steaks. In Brazil, this glistening slab is cut into three thick pieces with a generous layer of white fat on one side and threaded onto skewers in a C shape with the fat on the outside to baste the meat during cooking. In the gaucho tradition of simplicity, the meat is seasoned with nothing but a good rub of rock salt and then basted with a saltwater solution during cooking; Marcio does this using a handful of fresh cilantro as a brush. And then, at exactly the right time, he takes the swords off the fire and cuts thin, perfect slices onto each diner's plate. To which we aficionados of the good old American barbecue kettle can only say, humbly, ravenously, obrigado.