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In steaks, rub out that predictability

(ran SP, NP, TP editions)

Grilled steak is one of the original convenience foods, and in many ways it remains the champion. What else offers so much flavor and satisfaction with so little work? The best cuts of the best beef are so delicious that most attempts to improve them are futile.

However, not all steaks are in that class, and, to be honest, as great as a steak right off the grill can be it is also somewhat predictable.

The easiest way to reckon with boredom _ or the quality of the steak _ is to use a spice rub, one that adds flavor and crunch without overwhelming the steak.

The possibilities include mild chile- or curry-based rubs and those using a little sugar, which helps the meat to brown. Even a rub of nothing more than good olive oil will do the trick.

My favorite is a variation on a summertime herb mix I often use on lamb, a combination of what might be called Provencal seasonings, though in fact they are equally common throughout much of the Mediterranean, in California and, indeed, wherever there is decent weather and a good gardener.

The basic triumvirate is lavender, thyme and rosemary, and I augment the mix with fennel seeds, garlic and plenty of black pepper. The whole thing is held together with olive oil, and, if you have a small food processor, it can be produced in little more than a minute.

The rub can be prepared while the grill is heating, then spread it on the meat just before cooking. Extra marinating time does nothing for the flavor.

I like a relatively thin cut of meat but one that can be sliced. Flank steak is ideal, first, because it is best to keep the cooking time fairly short so the spices don't burn, and, second, because I like to serve a well-flavored sliced steak like this over a pile of mixed salad greens sprinkled with lemon juice.

Fresh lavender can be hard to find if you don't know a gardener, but more and more stores, even supermarkets, stock it at this time of year. If you cannot find it, leave it out or use a little bit of dried lavender.

Just be stingy with the dried lavender, or you will turn your beautiful steak into something that tastes a lot like soap.

Grilled Flank Steak With Provencal Spices

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves

2 teaspoons fresh lavender leaves or { teaspoon dried lavender

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1{-2 pounds flank steak.

Start a charcoal or wood fire or heat a gas grill or the broiler. Combine all ingredients except steak in a small food processor and blend until minced or mince by hand). Do not puree. Rub all over the steak.

When the fire is hot, grill or broil about 4 minutes to a side or until nicely browned for medium rare, turning only once. Remove from fire and let rest about 5 minutes before slicing thin and serving, preferably over a bed of greens.

Yield: 4 servings. Time: 30 minutes.

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