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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Daddy-O of the Patio

From the Grill Dept.: Ten years ago I offered some outdoor cooking advice. Except for the effloresence of smokers in my backyard, not much has changed. Here's my piece from a decade-old Metroland. Stop by for a burger some time.


WITH MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND looming, I’m already lugging patio furniture out to where the patio would be if we had such a thing. By autumn’s arrival, this patch of grass will be scuffed and threadbare and singed by depth charges of glowing charcoal, but it recovers.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Which is more than I can say for myself after I’ve supervised one of those weekend parties in which I turn into a one-man burger-flipping assembly line. It’s great to be surrounded by both friends and nature, but the kinds of menus I’ve come up with in the past have made it impossible to spend quality time with either.

Last year, however, I realized that all the extra effort was winning me no points and wasting much time, so I simplified. It’s still work, but I’ve spread it out and pared down the menus.

According to an informal canvas of some workmates, burgers are still the monarch of the summer grill, and are colored with much opinion. I’ve gone through phases of working the meat with various additives, and have lately decided that not much besides salt and pepper is really needed. But I prefer burgers to remain a reasonable size so there’s room for slices of tomato and onion.

While some like the simplicity of frozen patties, recent massive recalls have provoked uncertainty about such meat. I don’t know if you’re much better off at many retailers, but as long as you cook the stuff properly you shouldn’t have any problems.

So it is, too, with chickens. They need a lengthy cooking time. Keep the lid of your grill closed once the bird hits the heat, and resist the temptation to peek in too often.

Even that’s too much for some stalwarts. “I like chicken kabobs,” said my friend Susan. “I can make them a day ahead, and they’re mostly vegetable pieces, which saves money.” Shrimp, too, are good kabob candidates if you don’t mind doing some peeling.

Grilling and salmon were made for each other, and the fish even has a built-in indicator to let you know when to flip it: it stops sticking to the grill. Season the fish, then start it pink side down for a couple of minutes. The natural oils will cause it to let go when it’s hot enough. Flip it and don’t forget to take it off the heat.

While considering seafood, consider clams. “Spread them across the top of the grill,” said another friend, Heather, “until there’s no room. Grill them until they open, and then tab each one with butter and garlic. Your grill will smell like clams for a long time after that.”

If your budget is more generous, grill a load of oysters, touching them with a little barbecue sauce as they finish. Or get some sushi-grade tuna and sear the outside as quickly as possible. Serve it with grilled new potatoes tossed in kosher salt and your best olive oil.

Many salads can be day-ahead items. Toss some fresh tomato slices with slices of onion in an oil-and-vinegar dressing with some chopped basil leaves and let it sit for a day to intensify the flavors.

Oil and vinegar are great summer meal companions. Add some seasonings and you have a vinaigrette, just the thing to brush on squash or eggplant or any other vegetable you’d care to grill. (Work a little ahead with the eggplant and you can turned the grilled slices into babaganouj, a savory Middle Eastern dip.) Vegetarian friends tend to get short-shrifted by the typical American grill, so keep veggies on hand and explore the complex flavors that grilling will elucidate. Soak ears of corn in water, husks intact, for half an hour before putting them on the grill. Rip the husks off and watch the steam escape. Boiled corn never tasted this good.

Marinate asparagus in oil and vinegar for a couple of hours, and if you’re handy with the tongs, you can quickly cook them over the grilltop. As with all vegetables that hit such high heat, the sugars caramelize quickly and give it a deeper flavor.

I reserve a relatively cooler grill area for a medley of onion and pepper slices, which then can be applied to any sandwich.

Although mayonnaise-based dressings are most common for summer-entertaining salads, keep in mind the risk of having mayo out in the sun for too long. Doesn’t hurt to have a cooler nearby in which you can store the potato salad during meal lulls.

According to the Weber Grill company, the latest trend in outdoor dining is the dedicated entertainment center, where your grill (or grills) and prep area converge upon seating for guests. You get the feeling of camping without actually leaving home.

I’m all for anything that puts creative food preparation in the spotlight; with the approach suggested here, you will reap ironic praise for your master touch when all you did incur Thoroeau-vian approbation by keeping it simple.

Metroland Magazine, 22 May 2003

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