By JeanMarie Brownson

Chicago Tribune

Grilled Steak with Avocado-Lemongrass Sauce

Preparation time: About 1 hour, 25 minutes

1-inch thick, bone-in lamb chops or small boneless skinless chicken breasts work well here too. Adjust timing of the cooking after you flip the meat. Vary the herbs as desired.

1 beef flank steak, or 4 small top sirloin steaks (1 inch thick) or 4 small boneless New York strip steaks, total weight 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons each, chopped, fresh: chives, cilantro (or arugula)

1 to 2 tablespoons very finely sliced fresh mint or basil leaves

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

Spicy avocado-lemongrass sauce, see recipe

1. Put steak(s) in a shallow dish. Sprinkle one side with half of the salt, pepper, herbs and olive oil. Flip and sprinkle the remaining over the steak. Cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

2. Prepare avocado-lemongrass sauce and tomato-lemon relish, if using.

3. Let steak stand at room temperature about 30 minutes while you heat the grill.

4. Prepare a charcoal grill, and let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash. Arrange the coals in a single layer in the center of the grill. Put the grill grate in place, and heat it with the grill covered. Or, heat a gas grill until hot; reduce heat to medium-hot.

5. Position steak(s) directly over the heat source. Cover the grill and cook, without opening the grill for 4 minutes. Turn the steak(s) over, they should be nicely grill-marked. Cover the grill, and continue cooking until the steak yields to medium pressure for medium-rare, 4 to 5 minutes more.

6. Transfer steaks to a cutting board to rest. For flank steak, use a sharp slicing knife or an electric knife to slice steak across the grain into very thin slices. Sprinkle steak(s) lightly with salt.

7. To serve, put a smear of the avocado-lemongrass sauce on each plate. Top with slices of flank steak (or the whole steak if this applies). Spoon some of the tomato-lemon relish on the side of the steak. Serve hot with sharp knives.

Steak on the grill ranks as one of the best summertime meals ever. Heck, best meal ever, anytime, when cooked to perfection.

Learning to grill a steak perfectly takes practice, but it’s worthwhile. I believe that if you can cook a steak, you can tackle nearly everything that cooks quickly on a grill — from beef steaks to chops, chicken, seafood and many vegetables.

Heat modulation proves the secret to good grilling: Use enough for flavor, perfect texture and browning, but not so much that food tastes burnt or acrid. Restaurant chefs, especially those who work over live fire, spend hours honing their skills. Most of us spend just a few minutes over the weekend tinkering with the grill. This season, if you do nothing else to improve your cooking, make setting up the grill properly your first objective.

For most quick-cooking cuts of meat, poultry, fish and vegetables, the best grilling is done by centering the food directly over the heat source — a method known as “direct grilling.”

If you cook over charcoal, heat the coals with a chimney starter or electric starter. You’ll need roughly 3 dozen coals to cook over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. After the coals are glowing red and covered with gray ash (getting there takes 20 to 30 minutes), spread them out in roughly a single layer in the center of the grill. Then, position the grill grate and let it heat with the grill covered.

If you are cooking on a gas grill, heat it to high with all the burners on until the grill and the grate are hot. Reduce the flame (or turn one or two burners off) as needed for medium-hot cooking. If you want to add a smoky flavor, set a pile of soaked wood chips on a square of foil directly over the heat source.

For the most accurate grilling, set an oven thermometer on the grill grates — grill temperatures hovering at 375 to 425 degrees yield very nice results for most quick-cooking foods.

Just before adding the food to the grill, scrape the heated grill grates clean. Dirty grill grates cause sticking and can impart nasty flavors. Trust me.

Then, brush or spray the food with a bit of oil. Do not spray the grill grates with oil; this causes excess smoke and unnecessary goopy buildup on the grates. Position the food directly over the heat source, close the grill and set the timer. Don’t give in to the temptation to open the grill too much or move the food around excessively. Trust the timer.

Nearly all red meat, poultry and pieces of fish and vegetables that are 1-inch-thick or more will develop a beautiful browning and grill-marking by spending 4 minutes on a hot grill without turning. (Thin steaks and cutlets, such as skirt steak, need 2 minutes only.)

Then carefully open the grill; use a spatula or tongs to gently flip the items and move them to cooler spots on the grill if things are browning too fast. Finish the cooking, with the grill covered, as directed in your recipe; for most steaks, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, that means 4 to 7 minutes more.

That’s it — practice testing doneness with the squish test by pressing on the meat — the firmer the protein, the more done it is. For medium-rare beef or lamb, the meat should not be firm but rather, should squish in a bit when you press it with your thumb. For chicken, the meat should not yield much to pressure. If you must, insert a knife to check the color until you get the hang of your grill.

When choosing a steak to grill, the more expensive it is, the more tender and less beefy-tasting it will be (think soft, mild beef tenderloin). I happen to like to chew and the flavor of beef, so I prefer the moderately priced steaks such as flank, sirloin and flat-iron. My butcher tenderizes flank steak and then rolls it into pinwheels for attractive individual serving portions with a pleasant chewy flavor.

When steak is on sale, I like bone-in rib-eyes and T-bones or New York strip steaks (with or without the bone). Steaks freeze well for several months. Wrap them individually for maximum protection and ease of thawing (overnight in the refrigerator).

Take another cue from fine dining, and put a combination of flavors and textures on the plate alongside the grilled meat. Pair richness, such as a creamy sauce, with tang in the form of a tomato relish or lightly pickled vegetables.