It is grilling time once again, with July and August being the peak months for outdoor cooking activity. Granted, I know at least a couple of die hard individuals out there who insist on standing at a grill just outside a gaping garage door during bone-chilling January just to satiate their cravings for grilled meats sporting braised grids and dripping with sweet and spicy sauce. In my household, the grill typically gets shrouded and relegated into the shed for the winter months, the last cookout occurring sometime in late October. By that time, huddling around the warmth of the flames or sipping a glass of merlot around the fire pit while Brian grills is usually requisite. Whether enjoyed in the crisp and colorful months of autumn or during the hazy days of summer, everyone loves a cookout. It is the nationwide quintessential American pastime that symbolizes summertime. In recent years, the fine culinary art of the grill has become more popularized than ever by grilling gurus that include Steve Raichlen and Bobby Flay.
First established in the southeastern United States, four key areas rival for the honor of boasting the best barbecue: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and North Carolina. Original barbecue technique called for slow roasting pork over a wood platform for several hours. The result was tender meat laced with the flavors of wood smoke. This was barbecue. Not to be confused with grilling. Grilling is what most of us outdoor cooks perform. Grilling basically means cooking food more expediently over a hot grill, and the traditional barbecue flavors are imparted through additives such as aromatic wood chips, cedar planks and flavorful ingredients for seasoning. Do not, under any circumstances, confuse the two terms. Those who participate in serious team competitions to strive for the best true barbecue don’t like it! Food editors won’t like it either. Many casual cooks tend to use them interchangeably. If a diehard Texas barbecue chef gets wind of such an uttered grievance, the punishment will be swift banishment to a cell where you will be served exclusively bread and water. The bread will not be grilled Texas toast, either.
The aromatic tale of hickory smoke, spices and tangy sauce entices and beckons, a mouthwatering invitation for outdoor gathering. Cooking, dining and socializing outdoors is as casual and relaxing as entertaining can get. A backyard cookout with a select group of close friends and family is a regular occurrence in most households. Larger affairs with longer guest lists take to the local parks and beaches. Either option offers the perfect atmosphere for social scene cookery. The head chef who swelters at the grill gets a helping hand from a whole crew of sous chefs. While he or she craftily wields the tongs to turn the ribs, others are relegated to contributing salads, sides, appetizers and desserts. There is often a designated bar tender who has been drafted into duty as well. The proper carriage while attending these functions is as follows: mingle and socialize with a drink in one hand; the other hand must remain free to lend assistance in cooking and, of course, nibbling.
All grilling involves flaming action. However, the most heated topic of debate among grill masters involves how the fire gets started. Purists like my husband swear by charcoal, insisting that this is the traditional method of grilling and that gas grilling does not impart the same blackened, authentic grilled appeal to the food. Gas grill enthusiasts tout the instant gratification factor of simply pressing a button and the grill is ready to go. Perhaps gas grillers are more ravenous and to wait the extra fifteen minutes could purge them into the throes of starvation. Guess it hasn’t yet occurred to them that you do get to eat while the grill heats up too! Brian and I always enjoy a homemade dip or a cheese platter or some other appetizer with a cool cocktail while waiting for the coals to glow.
The next topic of debate among barbecue chefs and grill masters alike surrounds the formula for perfect barbecue sauce, and it is a formula that might leave some chemists stumped. First there is the decision of whether or not to create a tomato-based sauce, a mustard-based sauce, or an Asian glaze. Then the actual ingredients for each come into the arena. Even a mustard sauce spurns further discussion: do we want painfully hot mustard sauce or milder variation with sweet nuances of honey? When it comes to traditional barbecue sauces, sweeteners can mean brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup or the incorporation of fruit, as in peach preserves, blackberry jam or grape jelly. Even beverages sometimes get poured into the mixing pot, including any of the following: beer, tequila, whiskey or bourbon and even coffee.
When barbecue originated, pork was primary meat used. Southern traditions like barbecued ribs, pulled pork and pork chops all graced the menu. Beef followed, hitting the grill in the form of hot dogs, burgers, steaks and brisket. Today, no meat is excluded from the searing grill top. Chicken, duck, fish and seafood all get their chance to shine. Grilled vegetables are a healthy side dish alternative, from eggplant rounds to skewered cherry tomatoes to slices of zucchini. Even fruits have earned a supporting role on the grill, from grilled peaches to garnish a pork chop to grilled pineapple served with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Just as within our kitchens, international flavors have been embraced in our outdoor cooking projects as we welcome the spices and marinades from every continent. Moroccan spice rubs, Mexican salsas and Asian marinades have all transformed our grilled meats into flavorful entrees.
The abundance of corn, which grew ideally in the humid southern climate, gave rise to corn bread as the favored accompaniment in the originating barbecue setting. Today, the traditional outdoor cooking side dish of grilled corn on the cob, slathered with butter, remains a perpetual favorite. Spiced butters can be mixed to lend the corn an added facet of flavor, tailored to echo the ethnic flavors of the entrée. Try butter with finely grated lime zest and chili powder for a southwestern flare.
Potato salad, Cole slaw and macaroni salads are traditional outdoor menu standards. While a basic potato salad containing hard boiled eggs, celery and onion is an old fashioned charm that promises to be satisfying and delicious, potato salads have evolved to include an infinite array of ingredients, from blue potatoes to blue cheese, bacon, nuts, green beans, etc. For one example, try my recipe for this variation, a Smokey Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans
Cole slaw has been reinvented from the ubiquitous cabbage and carrot mixture to include a host of other ingredients as well. One of my favorite side dishes for an Asian seasoned grilled meat entrée is an Asian slaw, made with long shreds of broccoli stems and carrots, plus bean sprouts, scallions, red pepper, an Asian sesame vinaigrette and a handful of peanuts, cashews or crunchy wasabi peas. I have seen fall Cole slaws that contain shredded fennel and apples, plus walnuts and sometimes dried cranberries in addition to the cabbage and carrots. The longer ingredient lists of most newer Cole slaw incarnations benefit from lighter, vinaigrette type dressings that won’t smother the flavorful salad.
Appetizers can be conjured on the grill. Examples include bruschetta with prosciutto, peppers and mozzarella, grilled shrimp for plunging into cocktail sauce, and chicken satay served with the traditional Indonesian peanut sauce.
There have been some unexpected new surprises to come off the grill, one of them being pizza. A couple of years ago I embarked on producing a pizza on the grill. It was amazingly quick and so good. Have a tray with all of the toppings ready grill side. Toss the pizza crust dough on the grill, wait a minute, flip it. Immediately and quickly arrange all of the toppings on the crust and close the lid of the grill. The activity level during that thirty seconds of topping the pie is performed at a frenetic pace. However, once your close the lid, wait one minute, open the lid and voila! A perfect pizza ready to eat, dinner in THREE minutes!
Next time you fire up the grill, throw another shrimp on the barbie, grab yourself a good cold craft brew, and then whip up Brian’s simple barbecue sauce to paint over chicken, ribs or chops. Serve that up hot with some grilled corn on the cob and that potato salad in the aforementioned link and you’ve got a winning barbecue dinner to feast off of.
Brian’s Smoke n Whiskey Barbecue Sauce
2 12-ounce bottles chili sauce
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
4 tablespoons Jack Daniels Whiskey
4 teaspoons liquid smoke
salt and pepper to taste
Hot Sauce to taste (we like it hot! Brian used about 6 tablespoons)
Combine all ingredients in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. As soon as the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer for ten minutes. Makes 3 cups of barbecue sauce.
This sauce is so quick to make, very easy, no chopping involved. It is the most basic sauce, containing the tomato factor (the chili sauce), the sweetener (brown sugar), the sour facet (the vinegar) and a thickener (tomato paste). The flavor enhancements for this sauce come from the liquid smoke, whiskey and hot sauce. This sauce is versatile, it will work on grilled ribs, chicken and pork chops.
Tools of the Trade
Just as a surgeon proudly picks up scalpels and hemostats and forceps from a surgical instrument tray in order to deftly carry out an operation, the devoted grill master welcomes the assist of a good set of barbecue tools. There are entire sets available, packaged in tool cases of their own, or pieces can be purchased individually. If you can splurge, it’s actually more beneficial to buy separate tools of better quality, piecing together your own set to suit your needs. Stick to tools that are made exclusively from metal, they will be more durable in the elements of extreme heat and flame flare-ups. The tools should be specifically designed for grill use; they will have extra long handles to keep a safer distance between your hands and the food that is being tended. Basic necessities include a spatula, a meat fork, tongs and at least two brushes for sauces and seasoned oils – yes, there will be meals when you will need more than one. Tongs should have teeth in the design in order to better grip the food that is being turned; otherwise your hovering and eager golden retriever will end up enjoying the rib that slipped off onto the ground (sorry, puppy, not good for you!). When it comes to skewers, stick to flat variations so that the shrimp or cherry tomatoes don’t spin every time you go to flip the kebab. Personally, I like those packages of long, disposable wooden skewers that can be found in most supermarkets in the seasonal section when grilling accessories are displayed. You simply soak the skewers in a pan of water for the day, thread them with the food to be cooked, toss them away after dinner. Soaking the skewers prevents creating an additional fire, and the non-slippery wood surface prevents the spinning foods that don’t end up cooking evenly. If you like to sauté veggies or simmer sauces at the grill, a cast iron skillet and a small cast iron saucepan will also be valuable.