About 10 years ago, I was camping at Summer Camp Music Festival at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe near Peoria. Summer Camp is a four-day event over Memorial Day weekend featuring over 100 bands and attended by over 20,000 people. Back then my camping set-up consisted of my van, tent and E-Z Up canopy. That year I was set up next to a conservative-looking old guy named Bud who was camping out in an old brown school bus covered with Grateful Dead stickers. Amid a sea of tie-dye he seemed quite out of place. It turned out that he was a multimillionaire commercial real estate broker who happened to prefer following the Grateful Dead around in his bus to sipping cocktails at his country club. We became friends that weekend and began traveling together to music festivals. Several years later, after the front end of my van was destroyed by a teenage driver texting on her cellphone, Bud talked me into buying a school bus.
Bud enjoyed telling stories about his past music festival experiences. He recalls: “The first year I was at Bonnaroo [a mega festival held each summer in Tennessee], I ran into this guy who flew over from Germany. He rented a car at the Nashville airport and stopped at Walmart and bought a red tent. The problem was that several thousand people were camping in the same red tent from Walmart and he could never figure out which was his red tent. He kept coming by the bus to borrow stuff. He asked if he could borrow some charcoal. I gave him a bag. He came back and asked if he could borrow my grill. A little while later he returned and asked if he could borrow some meat!”
When I camp, I like to cook and Bud enjoys a good steak, so he started bring prime dry-aged Porterhouse steaks to our festivals for me to prepare. People started showing up around dinnertime and we ended up splitting our beautiful big Porterhouses six or eight ways. Bud, though rich, was cheap (which is probably why he became rich.) He grew tired of sharing his Certified Prime with freeloaders. He called me one day about a festival we would soon be attending together. “Doc, do some research on Romanian skirt steaks. If we are going to give away food, we are going to need to cook cheaper cuts!”
Skirt steak was traditionally an inexpensive cut that did not often end up on butcher counters because each steer only yields a small amount. However, around the early part of the last century, while the downtown hotel dining rooms served the fancy Porterhouses, Jewish restaurants in the area around Chicago’s Maxwell Street market and the Chicago stockyards offered comparatively inexpensive “Romanian Steaks” made with skirt steak. Noah and Rae Bernamoff in The Mile End Cookbook write that “the glory of the skirt steak” is that it’s relatively cheap and “full of flavor.” When seared on a skillet, “it cooks to a gorgeous, crisp-edged medium rare in just minutes.”
Skirt steaks are the trimmed, boneless portions of the cow’s diaphragm muscle attached to the sixth through 12th ribs. Skirt steaks are long and flat and though a bit tough, are very flavorful. They are often tenderized by marinating, cooking quickly and cutting against the grain, which makes them easier to chew. In addition to being served as Romanian Steaks in old-world Jewish restaurants, skirt steak is used in Asian stir-fries and fajitas.
When I met up with Bud at the next festival, he handed me a big butcher paper-wrapped bundle of skirt steaks. I seasoned them with salt, pepper, garlic, paprika and dry oregano and repackaged them in zip-top bags with a generous amount of olive oil. The steaks spent the night in the beer cooler. I should mention that our campsite was very close to the stage. The next evening, between bands, I started up my grill and spread the long thin steaks over the grates. As they cooked, olive oil dripped onto the burners and created dense clouds of smoke which blew out to the stage. The sound check was interrupted by musicians coughing due to the smoke, delaying the start of the next set. Solo artist Jaik Willis wandered over to the bus into the epicenter of the smoke cloud. “Hey Jaik! Want some Romanian Skirt Steak?” Bud asked. “Well I’m a vegetarian, but I’m also a Romanian,” he replied. “Sometimes in life, you have to make choices!”
- 1 1⁄2 lbs skirt steaks
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Hot Hungarian paprika
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
Place skirt steak in shallow baking dish. Season both sides of skirt steaks generously with salt, pepper and paprika. Drizzle olive oil over skirt steak on both sides. Press the chopped garlic and dried oregano into steaks with your fingers. Place in a resealable plastic bag and marinate in refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours or overnight. Heat grill to high. Brush the grill grate with oil. Place steak on the hot grate, turn down burners if using gas to avoid flare-ups, and cook to taste. (Alternatively, sear in a hot cast iron skillet.) Cooking time for medium rare is about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Steak should be nicely browned on the bottom when ready to turn. Transfer to platter and let rest for 2 minutes before serving. Cut across the grain.
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