Wherever we are, we have BBQ in common

Photo: April L. Dowd
On the first day of spring back in March, I had gazed at the snow piled deep on my backyard deck and thought, “Better get ready for barbecue season.”

It wasn’t a matter of denial. It was the sight of the charcoal grill peeping out from the snowdrift, that shiny, dome-topped apparatus I never did get around to dismantling and putting away for the winter. Again.

Unlike some of my neighbors who swear by the use of gas grills and use them year-round, I favor the old-fashioned charcoal version to be used "in season." The kind that provides leaping flames that help whet the appetite and add flavor to the meats, fish and vegetables grilled on it that I can never fully discern from foods cooked over propane jets.

True, this preference can occasionally lead to experiences that evolve into legend among people in my circle. Such as at the wine tasting/barbecue gathering I hosted and forgot I already had put starter fluid on the charcoal. A second dose and a flick of the butane lighter resulted in a roar of flames so high we feared planes overhead might mistake them for a landing beacon.

But, I assure you that was an aberration. What normally happens is a smooth-running event, be it for the immediate family or an extended circle of friends and acquaintances. The key is planning.

So here we are at the Memorial Day Weekend, the traditional time for prepping the swimming pool, checking the tire pressure on the bikes, cleaning up the garden and handling a hundred and one other chores, pleasurable and otherwise. And, most of all, time to begin barbecuing.

It’s a task, or a pastime, that has intrigued me since childhood. My first Boy Scout merit badge was earned by cooking a four-course meal unassisted over an open campfire, no mean feat at age 11.

In many American backyards grilling remains stereotypically a man’s domain. You know the old saying: “Give a man barbecue and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to barbecue and you’ve kept him out of your hair all summer.” However, the inexorable blending of gender roles in our society is changing that job. Bobby Flay, high-tech grills and accessories that mimic indoor stoves and ovens, and a return to group dining that had faded for a generation or so are encouraging that change.

Which seems only right. Cooking over an open flame and eating together have been a human communal event ever since Ooog the Hairy accidentally dropped a hyena steak on the fire and everyone in the cave crowded around to discuss what happened.

Barbecue -– or barbeque, BBQ, bar-b-q, barbie or however one cares to spell it -- has become a word that refers to both an event and a style of cooking, although there are purists who insist one should always say grilling  when cooking and barbecue for the style. The more you travel, the more variations you find on the zen of barbecue or the local equivalent of the term. And, the more you know about them the more fuel you have for barbecue party conversation.

For example, during a trip through rural parts of Kentucky and Tennessee I availed myself of one heaping platter after another of “barbecue,” but there the term referred to pulled pork with a barbecue sauce ladled over it rather than being restricted to meats grilled after being soaked in the tantalizingly stereotypical vinegar-based Southern marinades.

In most of Spanish-speaking South America, the term churrasco refers to a cut of grilled beef; in Portuguese-speaking Brazil it refers to the actual process as well. In Hong Kong, outdoor barbecue grills fired by coal are popular. Even in old civilizations such as the United Kingdom where outdoor cooking was anything but commonplace, the influences of American, Australian and Caribbean barbecue cultures have resulted in a boom in backyard barbecuing since the late 1980s.

Most commercial barbecue operations try to differentiate themselves from the others by emphasizing one style of cuisine over another -- St. Louis, Memphis, Southwest, Texas, Cuban, Cajun, whatever. However, in most parts of the country barbecue remains primarily a backyard event and those who take it seriously go far beyond the standard burgers, hot dogs, chicken and steaks no matter how much we love them.

The rise in fish consumption, for example, has impacted grilling. Tender fishes cooked in foil packets with onions, peppers, herbs and a dot or two of unsalted butter is an easy dish. Swordfish, ideal for grilling because it takes to marinades well and is dense enough to keep from falling apart when cooked directly on the grill, is popular. It also is ideal for cutting into chunks and being threaded on skewers with vegetables and fruits.

Speaking of skewers, the increasing ethnic diversity of the American population also is affecting what we eat.

An influx of people from cultures that have clung for centuries to cooking over open flames rather than “rediscovering” it as a seasonal backyard thing has broadened our menus. Ethnic food stores are allowing local residents to obtain the ingredients to mimic what they’re experiencing in ethnic restaurants. We’re seeing such toothsome items as doner kebabs from Turkey, usually lamb or tightly-packed ground chicken loaf slowly roasted on a vertical rotating spit then sliced very thinly as it cooks and served on pita bread with a salad and fries. Or seekh kebabs from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, marinated in spiced olive oil, grilled on skewers and served with sweet-and-sour fruit salsas or chutneys.

Beyond what you’re cooking, drawing up several checklists, mental or otherwise, can save a lot of trouble in how you’re cooking it.

The most important of these actually is good practice for any type of cooking, indoors or out. It is mise en place (MEEZ awn plahs), a French term referring to having all your ingredients selected, measured, cleaned, sliced, chopped or whatever you need to do to them up to the point of combining them into your dishes. Just as your favorite TV cooks have many of their ingredients laid out for them by their crew before taping a show, this is one way to have family or guests have fun helping do the prep work, making it a true communal experience without losing control of the process to well-meaning hands that can otherwise get in the way.

• Having a written menu plan, including specific amounts of food to properly feed the size of the group you’ve invited, is a must. It helps you in shopping and in preparation. The latter is particularly important if you’re the lone chef because in some instances you may be simultaneously cooking indoors and out -– grilling your kebabs on the deck but cooking the rice to go with them in the kitchen, for example. Your menu should take such things into account.

Mise en place also can cover making as many things in advance as possible –- the marinades, the cooked-ingredient salads, the cleaned and cut-to-size fruits and vegetables you’ll be cooking on skewers or in a metal grilling basket.

• Have all your seasonings on a tray at your fingertips –- the salt, pepper, paprika, lemon or lime wedges, etc.

• Have all your cooking implements –- long-handled fork and knife, tongs with insulated handles, spatula, etc., handy. Better still, if your grill did not come equipped with an implement holder, pick one up at a home supply store. It keeps utensils from “walking away” at crucial times.

• Particularly if you use a kettle-shaped barbecue, be sure to get cooking baskets with angled handles that allow you to place the entire basket evenly over the flame. Straight-handled baskets tend to keep food tilted over the fire at varying distances, making for uneven cooking.

As with so many things, your menu comes down to a matter of taste. Even budget doesn’t have to factor into it because marinating, slow cooking over low or indirect heat, and plenty of patience can make even less-costly cuts of meat tender and appealing.

Pairing up the main dish with traditional make-ahead items such as baked beans, potato or macaroni salad, crusty artisan breads with herbed butters and some sliced tomatoes and onions drizzled with olive oil and fresh-cracked black pepper can result in a “wow” factor meal that looks complicated but isn’t. Which will leave you time to enjoy your guests and the results of your own labors.

One final observation. While I enjoy a bowl of greens as much as anyone else, when it comes to a backyard barbecue it’s all about the meat and sides. As some movie macho guy once said, you don’t win friends with salad.

DO's & DON'Ts

DO be sure to clean up your grill if you procrastinated on that chore at the end of last grilling season. Soap and water, steel wool, scrapers -- a lot of things can be used to clean the non-cooking surfaces. To cleanse the parts that come in contact with food, try one of several things. (1.) Use an indoor oven cleaner spray, letting the sprayed grill sit in the sun for a half-hour, then thoroughly wash off the cleanser with soap and water. (2.) Cover the grills with aluminum foil, turn the propane up, and let it work until any leftover particles turn to white residue, which can be brushed away.

DO discourage chipmunks, squirrels and other rodents from gnawing on your gas hose to get at the barbecue drippings by at least occasionally wiping down the hose with ammonia water when the grill is cool.

DO look into the newer types of ready to-light charcoal even if you’ve been dissatisfied with the older versions that imparted an unpleasant taste to some foods. I’ve found the current versions, particularly Kingsford Match Light, quite satisfactory and a definite timesaver for after-work grilling when you don’t want to wait forever for the fire to be ready.

DO keep a spray bottle of water handy to quickly put out any flare-ups that might char the food or be a danger to anyone.

DO use apple juice or flat beer as a spritzer liquid on chicken, ribs or any slow-cooking meats to keep them moist. Both liquids are thicker than water so they last longer without turning instantly to steam, and they don’t negatively affect the taste.

DO soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before putting ingredients on them for cooking. That will prevent the skewers from burning through and breaking during the grilling process.

DON’T ignore your grill owner’s manual. You might be surprised the things you’ve forgotten, or neglected, when it comes to upkeep and operating maintenance. Like replacing a gas grill’s lava rock more than annually if it becomes saturated with drippings. That keeps the heat even and avoids flare-ups.

DON’T forget to use the proper ventilation setting on your charcoal grill to maintain proper airflow for even burning. Top and bottom vents should be fully open while cooking, and closed only when you are ready to extinguish the flames or want to lower the temperature for slower cooking.

DON’T slather your meats, fish and poultry with sauces too early. Unlike marinades that have permeated the food, most of the sauces tend to merely cook away or get excessively caramelized. It’s best to brush on the sauces late in the process.

DON’T be reluctant to use wood chips to add smoky flavoring both in charcoal or gas grills. Soak the mesquite, applewood or hickory chips in water for at least 20 minutes before using. For charcoal grills, shake excess water off the chips, then sprinkle them evenly atop the cook-ready coals. For gas grills, wrap the moist chips in aluminum foil, poke several holes in the foil, and place the packet directly on the lava rock or ceramic briquettes.

DON’T cook everything right over the heat source. Some foods need direct cooking, but others should be cooked indirectly, meaning food is placed to the side of the heat source. A good rule of thumb: If foods take less than 25 minutes to cook (steaks, burgers, boneless chicken, etc.) use the direct method. Others (roasts, whole fowl, etc.) should be cooked indirectly.

DON’T put cooked foods back on plates that have held raw foods or you may pick up dangerous bacteria.


The Barbecue Bible
National Barbecue Association
Barbecues & Grilling
• So You Wanna Learn to Barbecue
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