Tim Hollingsworth cooks tri-tip just like his father did, which is certainly not to suggest he cooks it the same way that his father did.
After all, Hollingsworth is the chef at the new-wave barbecue joint Barrel & Ashes in Studio City as well as the much-anticipated Otium restaurant at the new Broad museum downtown.
And while he learned to love tri-tip cooking it with his dad, he now prepares it with the finely honed techniques he developed while working his way up the ladder at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley. Hollingsworth started there as a commis and ended up chef de cuisine — and America’s representative in the 2009 Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition.
“I want to get meat that tastes like what I grew up with,” he says while prepping a couple of tri-tips in the loft-style apartment above Sunset Boulevard he shares with his wife, Caroline, and their Rhodesian ridgeback, Roscoe. “Tri-tip is the meat I grew up on. It was our way of having a steak dinner for a family of seven.”
Hollingsworth buys the tri-tip untrimmed, with its fat cap intact. He prefers to trim the meat himself, peeling off the fat and then carefully stripping away every trace of silver skin, the tough membrane that surrounds the muscle. When left on, he says, the silver skin will shrink during cooking, compressing the meat and making it tough.
Then Hollingsworth sprinkles the meat liberally with a peppery dry spice mixture, rubbing it to distribute the flavoring evenly over every surface. He then sets it aside for a couple of hours to let the flavors set.
After the dry rub, he marinates the tri-tip for several hours with lots of thinly sliced onions and what is essentially a vinaigrette: an acidic mix of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “People think it’s crazy when they see the recipe because there’s a crazy amount of acidity. But it actually starts to cook the meat on the surface and gives a better sear.”
Compared with the prep, the actual cooking of the tri-tip is relatively straightforward, though still a far cry from simply throwing it on the fire. Hollingsworth starts the meat over a relatively high heat (at the restaurant, he uses a wood fire; at home, he uses the communal gas grill at his apartment building).
After searing the meat all over — not just the top and bottom, but also the sides — he reduces the heat and cooks it through more slowly, turning the meat frequently.
Unlike most steaks, which come from the little-used loin muscle, tri-tip is from a muscle that gets more work and is naturally tougher. So Hollingsworth prefers to cook it to a medium-rare or even medium. “You need to do that to break it down and make it tender.”
He determines when the steak needs flipping and even when it is done by feel and color rather than by using a thermometer. “I’m constantly turning the meat and touching the meat, the thick part, the thin parts, seeing how fast they’re cooking,” he says. When the meat is done, he lets it rest for 10 minutes or so to let the juices settle and the muscle relax. Then he carves it thin, holding the knife at an angle to slice it on a bias and always across the grain.
Then it’s time to serve. But rather than presenting the tri-tip plain, Hollingsworth prefers a lot of accompaniments. “It’s a heavier piece of meat. The flavor is really rich, so I like to lighten it up, maybe serving it with a pico de gallo salsa. I definitely want to pair it with something sharp and acidic, and lots of black pepper — that’s really underrated.”
For this recipe, he serves it with arugula, chopped tomato, avocado and a lot of onion, saucing it with more olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
“You know what? I just realized I think of tri-tip as a salad.”