Tasting the Volcano – Kona Coffee Rubbed Steak with Hawaiian Pink Salt

Earth. Fire. Water. Air. A volcano erupts and lava spews into the sky. Giant waves crash down on a salted and sandy island shore rolling with the mist of rainforests. Massive animals roam among a wild range. The intensity of all of this would be too much for the average tourist visiting Waikiki in shorts and sandals while wearing colored socks. This isn’t the beginning of time however. Or a bad luau in Honolulu. Or even a tiki inspired Brady Bunch episode for that matter. I am talking about combining the unique ingredients of Hawaiian grown Kona coffee and volcanic pink salt as a flavorful rub to coat a thick grilled steak.

If you have never been to Hawaii, you need to go. Not for the beautiful beaches, mind you. Nor the exploration of the magnificent volcanoes at Kiluaea or Mauna Loa. You can even skip the touristically expensive luaus in Honolulu serving forgettable poi and teriyaki “whatever was cheapest at the market that day”. Although I would be hard pressed to defend that the only reason to go to Hawaii is the food…I would be close. Hawaiian regional cooking is fairly unknown, yet simply unparalleled in regional American cooking. Cajun food? Oh, I love that. But quite frankly it’s just not as good. Northeastern clam bakes, crab cakes, lobster rolls and other Atlantic seafood delicacies? Not that I would ever say no to that region' s best fare either. But it isn’t overly exotic, which oddly, matters in this instance. Southern BBQ? Certainly well understood and made with a lot of passion. And it gets my vote for our country’s culinary national treasure. But none of this uniquely American cooking compares to what you can get in Hawaii.

A chain of islands formed in the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago from undersea volcanoes, Hawaii is an archipelago considered part of Polynesia with a culture that is truly it's own. What makes it so special to the food world is the natural abundance of land and aquatic agriculture that represents the islands. Setting aside the amazing climate, which is what draws all those hibiscus flower printed shirt and sock clad sandal visitors, the key driver to the success of the region’s growing ability is its soil. Rich volcanic ash and lava that provides a growing medium like no other. And you can truly taste it. Deep. Dark. Clean. Rich. Vegetables have a fresh and intense flavor that is literally unmatched. And I do not say that lightly given the food growing and eating haven in Marin County where I currently live. Hawaiian grown tomatoes served with raw sweet onions from the islands are sensational. And with the natural abundance of seafood in the middle of the world’s greatest ocean, well let’s just say that the “fish option” on any menu rules in the Islands. If you have never understood the interest in the "local" cooking movement sweeping the world right now, a meal at a well selected restaurant in Hawaii will make you understand.

All of this said, it’s Hawaii’s relatively unknown “Cowboy Culture” that made me see the light to this unique American regional cooking approach. Here lies a rich ranching and cowboy tradition dating back more than 200 years in the Big Island’s “upcountry”. Cattle roam the open range, eating volcanically grown grass high up in the hills away from the shoreline. Paniolos, which are Hawaiian cowboys that settled the area after John Parker, a ship wrecked American, found favor with King Kamehameha in the early 1800’s. Parker was able to convince Mexican Vaqueros to come to the islands and teach the locals how to ranch. Horses were literally referred to as “Canoes on land” by the island natives. We visited the upcountry on a previous trip to Hawaii, leaving behind the beautiful Kohala Coast and white sandy beaches for a trip up to the mountains an hour a way. A pleasant surprise, we enjoyed learning about Parker Ranch and the rich free range ranching traditions that evolved over a relatively short time here given the ancient and exotic island beach culture commonly associated with Hawaii.

I digress temporarily away from regional cooking and cattle ranching to say that I have a love affair with coffee that requires counseling and medication. I actually don’t love coffee. I live for it, as I have written about previously here. Don't give me weak American brewed Sanka or I'll curse you to a fate worse than Greg, Peter and Bobby dealt with in the Tiki episode above. Or lock you in a room with Don Ho crooning "Tiny Bubbles" over and over. And over. Nothing in my mind is better than the coffee grown on the Kona Coast of Hawaii. Rich. Decadent. Deep. It tastes of the volcanoes. The aroma is ancient. Similar for me to wine in a sense. I enjoy smelling it as much as tasting it. It is an experience.

We have a tendency to think of coffee as only something to drink. It turns out coffee is a phenomenal and versatile ingredient that is very misunderstood in the world of cooking. Although not the first to introduce the concept into popular culture, Roy Yamaguchi, widely credited as one of the major forces behind launching Hawaiian regional cuisine, and the founder of Roy’s Restaurants, a rare global chain with serious cooking chops, regularly uses coffee in his cuisine. I was introduced to his incorporation of it when I curiously spotted a Kona Coffee Crusted Rack of Lamb on his menu on a separate trip to Maui some years back. It sounded so exotic. And when it arrived at the table I devoured it. Not realizing I was actually doing my best Meg Ryan impersonation, a vocally passionate interlude in front of Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally”, except in this case I was wearing a bad Hawaiian shirt. Not pretty, I realize, plus my wife was annoyed. Not about the attempt at besting Ms. Ryan in such a public setting mind you, but for the fact that I didn't leave her a bite of this marvelous dish. Rich and deep, the lamb would have not offered its best had the coffee ground crust not been present.

From the Paniolo country on the Big Island we drove to Kilauea, on the south side. An active volcano in the middle of the amazing Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, we toured the area learning of domes, lava tubes, Pele - the goddess of fire and protector of the volcano, and taking in prehistoric views that were breathtaking. We had an early evening dinner at the park’s restaurant sitting on the edge of the volcano’s rim, a glorious fiery sunset enveloping the glass views surrounding us. My wife and I ordered the prime rib roasted in Hawaiian Pink Salt. This salt is a high quality ingredient with touches of salinity and volcanic ash, bringing out the best of the high quality local beef. On its own, this salt is a magnificent ingredient. A real treat to use for a basic salt crusted prime rib. Now, my eight year old daughter is a ravenous meat eater. If she had roamed the earth during the Jurrassic period, Tyrannasaurus Rex would have fled her in fear. She ate most of our dinner that night, nashing her teeth as we tried to steal a taste of this fabulous prime rib offering.

With the global financial meltdown erupting all around us consumers can currently get very high quality “prime” grade beef for a bargain. Even the Wall Street Journal is commenting on this interesting gauge of consumer spending as it relates to the current state of the economy. I created this version of a coffee crusted grilled steak combining finely ground Kona coffee and Hawaiian pink salt into a rub with a richness of depth that shows off the meat to its fullest. I will say that while I used Hawaiian ingredients for this recipe, you don't have to. Just buy a good coffee bean and use kosher salt and the outcome will still be as a rewarding as watching a hula dancer. For this treatment I combined finely ground coffee, to a level of an espresso ground or finer. Do not grind to a medium texture or the end product will taste like sand. There is no one way to create a rub like this, just use what you like. A lot of recipes use garlic and onion powder, something I am personally not a fan of. In this case, I wanted a bit of sweetness and added brown sugar for additional caramelization of the meat on the grill. I also added cayenne for heat and some smoked paprika to complement the coffee flavor. I lightly coated the steak with the rub and let it "marinate" in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. I think this step really promotes the flavor of the rub into the meat. All in all, the overall approach really worked.

From a steak perspective, any cut of beef will work. I originally intended to do this with a ribeye to play off the salt crusted prime rib we had on the rim at Kiluaea. Given the fact that my local Whole Foods had my go to cut, New York Strip, grass fed and on sale at $9.99 per pound, I went with that. And it did not disappoint.

So in the meantime, if you can't get over to the Islands anytime soon, I want you to turn on "Tiny Bubbles" and go outside and light the BBQ. Put on your best black socks, sandals and your most obnoxiously colorful Hawaiian flower print shirt. Toss on a cowboy hat and a slab of beef and let this luau of flavor begin.

Recipe for Kona Coffee Rubbed Steak with Hawaiian Pink Salt
Serves 2

2 1lb steaks (New York, Ribeye, etc...)
2 Tbsp finely ground Kona Coffee (or other)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp Hawaiian Pink or Kosher Salt
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 Tbsp canola or olive oil
Make the Rub*
Combine the coffee, brown sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne and black peppers in a small bowl.

Marinate the Steak
Dry steaks and sprinkle 1 Tbsp of the coffee rub onto each side of the beef. Place on a plate and cover with saran wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes up to 4 hours.
To Cook
Remove steaks and bring to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Heat a BBQ grill to high for 10 minutes. Scrape the grill and carefully coat with cooking oil. Lower heat to medium high. Lightly drizzle the steaks on both sides with the oil using a spoon or grill tongs to ensure the surface area is covered as this will prevent sticking. Place the steaks on the grill and bring the temperature down to medium high. Cook 5 minutes per side, turning the beef 90 degrees every 2 1/2 minutes for grill marks and to carmelize the rub crust. Keep the lid closed until last 2-3 minutes after you have turned the steaks. When the steaks are cooked remove them from from the grill and let them rest for 5 minutes. Slice in 1/2 inch thick strips and serve.
* The rub will keep for up to 2 months in an airtight container. Add 1-2 Tbsp into any chili recipe and you'll win your local cook-off contest.


Elra said...

Hi Marc, I always impress with your ability to make anything and everything using the less common ingredients (at least to me). You are very adventurous for sure, and I like that!

Karine said...

I love coffee but I am far from being able to cook with it. And I have never been to Hawaii..

But your dish looks great! I love to see a main dish with coffee as one of the ingredients. Maybe, one day, I won't just drink coffee; I will cook with it :)

Juliana said...

Interesting, we were in Hawaii so many times and did not have a chance to try this steak marinated in coffee. I love coffee and meat, so I'll definitely try this recipe. The steak looks so tasty...yummie!

April Marie Claire- GIRL Japan said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, your writing is fun and snappy (witty)-- coffee has its own culture, I second what Elra says... you always impress.

Carolyn Jung said...

This sounds like heaven in meat form. All I need is an icy drink with a paper umbrella in it to be totally in the tropical groove.

john said...

Nice one, but let's put some smoke with that fire, using some Spanish, smoked paprika or smoked sea salt. Too much?

Kelly said...

You're reminding me that I need to pull out the cookbooks I picked up in Hawaii. I made some amazing short ribs based on a recipe for ribs I ate at a restaurant there that were soooo tasty and I really have no reason for not trying more Hawaiian cuisine.

Lori Lynn said...

Great post Marc. Excellent sounding rub!

Nazarina A said...

It is so funny... I came here to visit you with my cuppa( a herbal brand of coffee called Teeccino of which you will most probably not approve!) Nevertheless, as I read this post, I decided that I am going to find your brand on the internet, try this recipe and report back to ya! You have me sold!

Vinogirl said...

Hmmm...love steak...love coffee, but together? I'll take your word for it.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

This is one smokin' recipe, Marc. ;)I couldn't resist.

Carolyn Jung said...

You're right -- I am a coffee drinker, but I DO forget about cooking with it. Well, except for the occasional instances of adding espresso to my brownie batter. I'll have to get my hubby to do a coffee rub the next time he smokes a rack of ribs. Yum!

Brian. w said...

Just took a trip to Orlando Florida. They had a restaurant called "the capital grille " had a 10 sirloin with almost the same recipe. Best steak I've ever had period! Ruth's Chris, got nothing on this one

Anonymous said...

Just tasted Chef James Babian's version @ Ulu, Four Seasons, Hualalai. Died & went to heaven. Kona coffee rub on a prime New York cut. Will try to duplicate at home with Kona coffee & Hawaiian pink coarse saltt, both of which I keep stocked. Can't replicate that sunset & locale. One of my favorite places on earth.