Outdoor cooking shouldn't go up in smoke in cooler months

September 22, 1996|By ROB KASPER

THE POPULAR PRESS often links outdoor cooking with summer weather. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day are proclaimed to be the beginning, middle and end of the grilling season.

I disagree. I am sure there are some folks who, as the leaves begin to fall, cover up their kettle-style barbecue grills and stop cooking outside. I tend to think these are the same people who leave baseball and football games early to beat the traffic home. They prefer certainty over chance, convenience over flavor.

There are, however, a few of us who, in the jargon of the '90s, don't regard cooking outdoors in cool weather as a "challenge," but instead view it as an opportunity. Right off the top of my head, for example, I can think of one advantage of grilling after Labor Day: no bugs.

Well, almost no bugs. There are those male yellow jackets, which, in the fading light of fall, tend to gorge themselves, get really aggressive, then crash to the ground. These bad boys of autumn are pesky, but their behavior reminds me of closing time at the neighborhood tavern, and so I am tolerant.

Another advantage of cooking outdoors in cool weather is that your choice of backyard companions doubles. As you tend the fire you can listen to the radio broadcast of either a baseball game or a football game. Both are in season.

Recently, I was looking for cooking tricks to try out in the back yard when the weather and common sense tell us we should be indoors. I talked with Tim Mullen, executive chef of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, and with Patrick Kearney, executive chef at Eddie's Supermarket of Roland Park. These chefs told me about several ways I could play with fire. They told me to put gin in my sprayer, to freeze my wood chips, and to match my fish with my chips.

Kearney was the one who suggested putting gin in my sprayer bottle, the plastic apparatus commonly used by gardeners to spray water on houseplants. The squirt of gin was the final touch in a grilled-oyster dish he described. Get some plump oysters still in their shells, he said, adding that in cool weather oysters tend to put on weight. Scrub the shells well, then place them on the grill over a hot fire, with the small side of the oyster shell facing up.

When the oysters pop open, Kearney said, you give them a shot of gin from the spray bottle. Then you pop them off the grill and pop them into your mouth. You can substitute vermouth for the gin or clams for the oysters and get equally pleasing results, Kearney said.

If the oyster shells are too hot to handle, you can pull a pair of tongs from a kitchen drawer and go oyster tonging on the grill, he added.

Mullen told me about freezing my wood chips. Wood chips are small pieces of hickory, mesquite and fruit woods that are soaked in liquid, such as water or wine, bourbon and other forms of booze, then tossed onto the burning coals of a kettle-style cooker.

Tossing the chips on the coals has several effects. It makes a lot of smoke. The fire crackles loudly. Moreover, once you put the chips on the coals and put the lid on the cooker, the smoke flavors whatever you are cooking. Finally, the whole process makes the chip-slinger feel very primal. Smoke. Fire. Noise. It doesn't get more basic.

Chips do their best work when they have been soaking for several hours. Consequently, it is common for a confirmed smoker to have three or four jars of chips sitting in the fridge, soaking up liquid, waiting for action.

Fresh-frozen wood chips

That was the situation in the Mullen household until Laura Mullen told her husband to get that ugly mess out of her refrigerator. Knowing that a man doesn't easily part with his wood chips, she suggested her husband try freezing them. Mullen wrapped the wet chips in foil and put them in the freezer. Now when he has a hankering for some chips, he simply reaches into the freezer and grabs some. Wood chips without waiting.

Mullen also suggested I try matching different kinds of wood chips with different kinds of fish. This is something Mullen has been doing both in his back yard and down in the kitchen of the Renaissance hotel in downtown Baltimore.

Since the large, flat grill in the hotel kitchen didn't come with a lid, Mullen got a local craftsman to make a "smoking box," a metal rectangle about 2 feet long and 2 inches deep. When he grills fish in the hotel kitchen, Mullen puts chips on the fire and the smoking box over the fish.

Mullen also passed along these general fish-and-chips guidelines. "For fish with a lot of oil, like salmon and tuna, use chips with a lighter flavor, the apple wood chips, the cherry and other fruit woods. For the fish with less oil, like halibut or swordfish, you can use a stronger chip, a mesquite or a hickory. Or you can even use a blend of chips, say 60 percent mesquite, 40 percent hickory."

The other day I began making preparations for the change in the outdoor cooking season. I converted a plastic sprayer from plant-misting to oyster-shooting duty. I blended a few wood chips and then I froze them. Bring on the cold.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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