Fire up the grill for national BBQ month
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With the weather warming, longer afternoons and broad blue skies beckon for outdoor living. Summer is evoked by waifs of smoky grills fired up, parading about neighborhoods inciting Pavlovian instincts from Frisbee-slingers, golfers, campers and tailgaters alike. Perfect then, that Tahoe’s sudden swing towards 70-degree highs coincides with the beginning of May, and National Barbecue Month!
This month marks the beginning of grilling season, and should serve as a reminder to fire up the Weber that was recently buried with the deep snow we’ve received late this season. Nearly anything that could be cooked on stovetop or inside an oven can be thrown over hot charcoals (or convenient gas) and cooked slowly, and leisurely, just like the perfect summer day.
The world of Barbecue can be confusing, with distinct stylistic differences between Kansas City, North Carolina and Texas BBQ. Instead of concerning ourselves with the technical nuances between these ” or for that matter, between grilling (quickly cooking over a direct, hot fire), barbecuing (long, slow cooking over a cooler fire by smoking the food) and grill-roasting (over indirect, moderate temperature with a lid to trap the heat) ” we’re going to simply discuss the joys of foods cooked by any method over an open fire. This is creative culinary California, where rules don’t apply, and ingenuity is encouraged. This is California, where peaches are as likely to be grilled as are porterhouses and tenderloins.
Cooking by placing food over an open fire, while arguably the tastiest way to prepare a meal and perhaps the easiest, is indisputably the most ancient method of preparation. Man had wood and fire long before he had non-stick pans and microwaves… long before.
In fact, evidence of grilling pits has been discovered at sites over 25,000 years old, and is documented in Greek history from 1,600 years ago. The word barbecue itself has a history, arriving to English from the Caribbean Arawak tribe (present-day Haiti), via the familiar Spanish barbacoa. The Arawak’s original word brabacot referred to a grill of ripe green sticks which they would place a good distance above a slow fire. They would then arrange their meats on the grill and cover them with leaves, to allow the smoke to preserve the roasting meats.
Ideally, barbecuing should be a leisure-time activity. It always has been. The same Caribbeans who gave us that word contributed another to the English language: hammock. We ought to thank them for summer weekends altogether, short of horseshoes and wakeboards. It was the Carib custom for a hunter to retire to his hammock for as many days as he had been hunting or fishing. There, he would patiently wait for his meat or fish to slowly smoke to perfection.
Other than actually hunting one’s meal, this all sounds incredibly simple, and it definitely calls for a cold Budweiser. It is so simple in fact that not only cavemen, but even my own Dad could figure out how to grill a good steak. Dad’s pasta sauces always left everything to be desired, and he certainly had no business baking, but his flank steaks always came out tender and flavorful.
The slow heat of a smoke-filled grill breaks down the collagen (a fibrous, structural protein) of muscle tissue in meats, leaving tender treats from lamb to pork to shellfish. As with any roasting technique, grilling also allows caramelization of the surface of the food, which enhances its flavor.
This is all science working, but this is not a science class; just remember that meats benefit both texturally and flavor-wise from a good summer grilling.
However, don’t limit yourself to proteins for that good, hot-off-the-grill flavor. Zucchini, corn, mushrooms, bell peppers and even toast are delicious straight from the coals. If you have the barbecue and a match, generally all you need are some olive oil, salt and pepper, and you’re good to go.
Of course, a great group of friends, some backyards games, buckets of beer and pristine Tahoe skies only sweeten the deal. For the best barbecue in town, you don’t need to go any further.
Kick your feet up in the hammock and check out the hot grill tips below.
Soaking chicken or turkey in brine ” a solution of salt (and often sugar) and a liquid (usually water) ” provides it with a plump cushion of seasoned moisture that stays with it throughout cooking, resulting in meat that is both tender and juicy. Whether you make a brine, or use Soy Sauce, which works great too, you’ll want to give it about an hour to soak. To ensure crispy skin, be sure to allow a little drying time (uncovered in the refrigerator), as the benefit is well worth the extra effort.
Southwestern Steak Marinade:
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Use as brine as described above.
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Keep it Simple:
You can scratch all the above “complications” and maximize that hammock time by being sure to use quality meats that need no more than a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper before grilling. Again, the salt acts as science, bonding to liquid molecules, and preventing “drying out.”
Whether you marinade or not, all meats should be allowed to stand for five minutes after being removed from the heat, but before being sliced. This preserves the juices inside, and allows for even coloring.
Don’t Limit Yourself:
An earlier reference to grilled peaches was no joke. Even Fritos makes a “grilled” variety, so throw those tortilla crisps over the coals to impart smoky flavor.
You may want to consider treating vegetables like bok choy, corn or eggplant with a pre-grill blanching. Blanching (immersing into highly-salted boiling water for only a couple minutes) then shocking (in a cold water bath to stop the cooking process) acts similarly to the brining process for poultry. It allows veggies to be placed over open flames without drying out or burning. The bright natural green, yellow and purple of those particular vegetables come out in full force, and need only a brush of olive oil with the essential salt and pepper, after blanching but before grilling.
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