By Chris Winstanley
I was sitting in one of my favourite little bars in Portimão the other evening sipping my first caipirinha of the summer and it got me thinking about trying out cooking picanha on the BBQ for the first time.
For those of you who do not know what picanha is or have not tried it in a restaurant, the best two places I have had it are at Zé do Norte on the EN125 close to Quatro Estradas roundabout near Almancil – the portions are huge and you know it will be good by the large amount of trucks you see parked outside at lunchtime – or alternatively at a great little restaurant called Machado in Portimão, which is so tucked away I am not even going to try and tell you how to get there – besides the food is so good and cheap, I do not want it getting any more crowded than it already is!
So, finally, what is a picanha? It is a triangular cut from the top of rump region of the cow, and just like our rumps – well, mine anyway – it has a beautiful layer of fat. It is not a muscle that moves much during the animal’s life and so remains tender. The picanha’s blanket of fat lends the meat flavour and juiciness while protecting it from human error that may occur during grilling.
The ideal weight for a whole picanha is between 1.3 kg and 1.5kg (2lb 13 oz. – 3lb. 4oz.), so that’s enough to feed quite a few hungry campers. Anything larger than that is more than picanha, and will include a part of the tougher outer-thigh region running below the rump. The wide end of the picanha is the thickest and the toughest part. The tip is heaven, more of this later!
To get started score the fatty blanket on the picanha by making criss-crossing cuts into the fatty blanket covering one side of the picanha. Fat behaves differently than meat when cooked. It loses more liquid and therefore shrinks more.
By scoring the fat, you can prevent the piece from curling and dis-forming while it grills. It helps to free the liquid deliciousness in the fat allowing it to run into the meat fibres.
Roll the pieces of picanha in rock salt and nothing more. The tradition of Rodízio celebrates the flavours of the meat. Marinating or extra seasoning is reserved for cuts that are less tender and flavoursome. A picanha already has all the flavour and tenderness it needs. A little rock salt will seal in its juiciness and enhance its natural goodness.
Picanha is best cooked on a large skewer as they do in Rodízio restaurants. When preparing the meat for the skewer cut against the grain. The picanha is a big piece of meat and should be cut again at home before it is grilled. Cut the picanha in three pieces on an angle perpendicular to the fibres running diagonally through the picanha.
Then bend these pieces into semicircles, fat-side out, and place them on one large oiled skewer. This allows you to slice off delicately tender pieces without having to remove the picanha from the skewer. You can then rub the exposed surface with more rock salt and grill it some more. Every slice will have that outer, salty, crusty grilled deliciousness of the first slice. This is how they do it in Rodízio restaurants. If you are cooking on a gas or charcoal BBQ, it’s best to go for a high heat option, turning the meat continuously.
All polite sociability may break down when it comes to the tip of the picanha. The tip is special … I suggest inventing some story claiming that according to Brazilian tradition the tip of the picanha traditionally goes to who’s manning the grill – you might get away with it!
Picanha is traditionally served very simply with fluffy white rice and black beans cooked in their own juices. I also prepared some large chunks of garlic bread and put the picanha on top. Yummy! Of course a robust red wine is best suited for this dish, however, at this time of the year, an ice cold beer just hits the spot. Enjoy!
This recipe has been provided by Chris Winstanley, owner of Moveison, The Algarve’s finest outdoor living store.