The Hungover Gourmet

 

Grill-a-Rama: A THG Guide to Outdoor Cookin'

According to the Barbecue Industry of America (BIA), there are 2.6 billion "barbecue events" in the United States each year. Our own independent research shows that 70% of these events result in inedible hamburgers that look like hockey pucks, curly hot dogs with a crust that resembles printer toner, and more singed arm and eyebrow hair than I got lighting cigarettes off a gas burner while toasted on Thunderbird at 3 in the morning. Never fear, The Hungover Gourmet is here...

Believe it or not, the BIA has even more fascinating research to share with the common man, though I certainly hope none of my tax dollars are going towards this funding. For instance, here's a few tidbits gleaned from an afternoon on the web:

  • 83% of American families own grills, which translates into about 74 million households based upon current census data.
  • While the average American household squirts out an average of 2.5 kids, they also own 1.4 grills. Believe me when I tell you that Mrs. Nitrate and I are doing our part to blow that average off kilter...we have zero spawn, but three grills. Go figure.

So the weather's warm, and you've got a taste for some grilled meat flavored with a hint of hickory. You pick up some steaks from the local butcher -- I hope you're lucky enough to have one and don't resort to buying your meat from the supermarket -- and you want that romantic, heady rush that comes from tossing a few steaks (or chops, or chicken legs, or filets, or lobster tails...stop before I fire up the grill now!) on the grill and drinking in the sounds and smells of an outdoor meal.

But what if you don't know the first place to start? Maybe you don't even have a real grill, just one of those $5 hibachis from K-Mart that you use for tailgating at a football game. Well, sit back, drink in this article, and you'll be ready to invite some company for your very own Grillarama in no time.

STEP 1: Select Your Grill

Grill afficionados are a loyal bunch, and you'll get as many answers to "What kind of grill should I buy" as you will to "What's your favorite color." With that in mind, select from one of the following (in my order of preference): Kettle, Gas, or Open.

To put it simply, the Kettle-Shaped Grill is the Carl Lewis of outdoor cookery. It revolutionized the concept of grilling, and brought about its current popularity. Instead of having to control heat by raising and lowering the grill, the precisely-placed air vents in the cover and bottom provide the necessary airflow to virtually eliminate flare-ups! If you've never used any other type of grill, you simply can't appreciate the control and even cooking the kettle design provides. To me, it's the only way to go.

Now, truth be told, I used to be a Gas Grill man. (Unfortunately, these grills tend to attract thieves looking to stock their own slice of backyard heaven, so purchase with that in mind. However, in a wildly fitting piece of karma, the person that orchestrated the theft of my gas grill was later shot dead during a dispute over drugs.) While a kettle or open grill can take up to an hour to properly prepare for cooking, the gas grill is little more than an outdoor version of your kitchen oven. Fire up the burners, and the lava rocks (or porcelain-covered metal bars) are ready to go in next to no time. Plus, like your oven, the gas burners allow for even temperature control that can't be found in any kettle.

However, the gas grill is not without its drawbacks, theft risk aside. If you purchase a lava rock version, you'll find the rocks next to impossible to clean, which leaves them greasy and prone to imparting your food with an unpleasant flavor. Plus, if you're like me and get into adding wood chunks or chips to the fire, you'll find it nearly impossible with a gas grill. Ah, forget all that...turning on some gas jets just doesn't seem like real grilling!

Last, and certainly least on this list, comes the Open Grill. Once the staple of the school of outdoor cooking, these contraptions should only be used in a pinch; like when the kettle can't make your camping trip.

While the open grill is considerably cheaper than either the kettle or the far more expensive gas grill, you must realize that it's: a) harder to use; b) more susceptible to unsightly food-charring flare-ups; c) shouldn't be used for foods with oil-based marinades or food with a fat content higher than fish or poultry (in other words, forget burgers, steaks, or chops on this puppy); and, d) can't be used for the all-important indirect method of cooking!

STEP 2: Accessorize

I need everyone reading this to promise me that they'll never wear an apron that says "Kiss the Cook." (Thanks!) Other than that, any of the following will come in handy when grilling up a feast:

  • Basting Brush: essential when cooking burgers, steaks, ribs, chops, or chicken.
  • Disposable Drip Pan: if you're gonna indirect cook, you'll need one of these.
  • Broil Basket: great for fish and handy for a quick broiled steak or two.
  • Instant-Read Thermometer: crucial if you get into smoking. If you're just barbecueing or grilling you can tell by feeling the meat with your finger.
  • Skewers (metal or bamboo): grilling means Shish-Kabobs! Remember that wood skewers will need to be soaked before cooking so they don't char and burn.
  • Spatula: get one with a long blade so you don't inadvertently toss a burger into the flames.
  • Spray Bottle: if you heed my advice and go for a kettle grill, your flare-ups will be few and far between. Still, you'd be advised to keep one of these puppies on hand for fat flamers.
  • Tongs: Don't get sucked into purchasing the extra-long ones they sell at cooking stores and shops like Reading China and More. The hairs on your hand might get singed a tad, but a set of simple tongs be fine for turning steaks, chicken and chops on the grill. Remember! Never use a fork to turn anything on the grill! Piercing the flesh releases the juices you're trying so carefully to keep inside! As Butt-head would say, "Treat your meat carefully."
STEP 3: Name Your Fuel

This isn't an issue that's as hotly debated (no pun intended) as grill type, but the type of fuel you use to power your grill does require some consideration. If you're using the Kettle or Open grill design, you've got two basic options: Charcoal Briquettes or Wood. Me, I'm a briquette kinda guy. I can't help it. It's the way I was raised and it's a tradition I'll pass down to any lil' Hungover Gourmets that follow in my footsteps.

Here's a brief history...briquettes were invented by Henry Ford (whose second most important invention was the automobile) when he discovered that the wood scraps from his plant could be smoldered into flammable lil' carbon chunks. The rest, as they say, is bbq history. Wood, on the other hand, was invented by God, Yaweh, Buddah, Satan, Vishnu, or whatever deity you subscribe to. Me? I believe in the one true god. His name is Zargon and he lives below that lake behind me...

Charcoal is probably the most popular of the grill fuels, selling approximately a gazillion bags per year (all statistics unofficial). It's probably poltically incorrect to suggest dousing a towering pyramid of briquettes with lighter fluid, but that's exactly how I fire up the grill. Don't use those briquettes presoaked in lighter fluid, though. (You know who I'm talkin' about Match Light!) Not only are they made by using petroleum additives, but they're unsuitable for smoking, indirect cooking or any method that requires a closed cover. (Yes, I know "they" say it burns off, but "they" also said that Vietnam vets weren't exposed to Agent Orange and no Gulf War GIs were exposed to chemical warfare or its fallout.)

Follow the simplest method available: measure out the amount of briquettes needed for the type of cooking desired and stack them in a pyramid on the grate. Soak the briquettes with odorless lighter fluid and let them set for about five minutes. Light the charcoal and wait until a thin layer of gray ash develops. Separate the briquettes into a single layer (direct) or layers stacked on the side of the drip pan (indirect) depending upon the desired cooking method. Wait until a layer of gray ash develops before coating grill with oil and placing on kettle (about 45 minutes).

Some cooking -- namely smoking -- requires the addition of more charcoal during the cooking process. If that's the case, pick up a chimney or additional charcoal pan and prep the coals as needed. You'll need 30-40 briquettes for an hour of ooking, and 15-20 for each additional hour.

Then there's wood (insert Beavis-like laughter here). Romantic as it may sound to cook your food on a wood- fueled grill, there are certain drawbacks that you need to consider. First and foremost is that wood takes twice as long to get ready to cook as a fire started with briquettes, and the fire dies more quickly. Instead, I'd suggest using the small pieces of wood for kindling a briquette fire (with or without lighter fluid), and the larger chunks for flavoring the fire.

An important note! Don't use any softwood for kindling or grilling. It produces an ashy, unplesant taste on the food.

STEP 4: Buy a Cookbook or Two

While I'd love to think that you'll rely solely on this web site for your grilling info and recipes, I know you're too smart for that. Plus, there's no shortage of great books on the subjects of grilling, backyard entertaining, and the like.

Barbecuing, Grilling & Smoking is part of the Cole's Kitchen Arts Series, and it's one of my few indispensible grilling references. It's a tad more serious than some grilling books, but that's offset by more than 140 recipes in the course of 127 full-color pages! Buy this book NOW if you're unsure about grill types, fuels, additives, smoking, accessories, or just about anything about grilling. Actually, I wish I'd had it last year when I purchased my water smoker. Our Memorial Day meal was excellent, though it took a hellaciously long time (duh, it's a smoker, not a grill) and wasn't favored by some due to the intensely smokey flavor. Eh, live and learn. We still smoke on occasion, though I tend to save this long, slow style for weekends when Mrs. Nitrate is on the road with her all-girl band and softball team. I'd highly recommend it, plus I use it on a weekly basis when firing up the grill or water smoker. (ISBN: 1-56426-060-7) I'll give this one a rousing "Five Spatulas"!

Patio Daddy-O is a tad more fanciful and campy than the former, written and illustrated with a wink of the eye and a clink of ice on a martini glass (nothin' wrong wit dat!). Granted, I was ready to plunk down my $12.95 after getting a gander at thge book's wonderful collection of retro trays, aprons, photos, etc. used as illustrations throughout. That rare breed of cookbook that you'll enjoy reading, even if you never whip up "Turkey Sands with Sassy Apples and Sage Mayo." (ISBN: 0-8118-0871-8) To purchase Patio Daddy-O from amazon.com, just follow the title link.

Last, but not least, comes the Better Homes & Gardens Barbecue Book , circa 1956 and without one ounce of the campy nostalgia of Patio Daddy-O. This time, they're serious. Purchased for a buck or two at a recent flea market, the Barbecue Book is the ultimate testament to the "outdoor gourmet" movement of the 1950s. Chauvanist to the max, get ready for intros like: "This is Dad's domain. Sit back, Mom; admire Chef. He has the fascinating how-to on big steaks, other, juicy meats that take to charcoal..." Thanks Mom! (wink!) Now, raise your skirt, drop your panties and pass the monosodium glutamate.

STEP 4: Cook & Enjoy!

The most important aspect of cooking -- indoors or out, night or day, winter, spring, summer, or fall -- is your enjoyment. Here at THG we stress that imagination is more important than knowledge, and fun is more important than both! So fire up the grill, pour a martini for us, and get grilling!!!

[This article originally appeared in THG #1]



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