With springtime and onions in the air, who's going to quibble over the recipe?

April 16, 1997|By ROB KASPER

FIRST, YOU GRILL an onion. After that, everything else pretty much falls into place. Grilling onions transforms them. Like a sourpuss uncle who turns into a great guy after eating supper, ordinary, make-you-cry onions turn sweet after they have been charred on the grill.

This truism of outdoor cooking came back to me recently during the jumble of warm and cold, calm and breezy hours that make up a spring day. There is a certainty to the days of winter and summer -- they are mostly cold or mostly hot. Fall days have a feeling of ripe decline. Yet spring is a time of halting starts, of bursts of promise and sudden stumbles.

I got a surprise the other evening as I started the charcoal fire. When I lifted the lid off the kettle cooker, I expected to find lumps of leftover charcoal briquettes sitting inside. Instead I found ashes. It seems that the last time I had used the cooker -- an evening that had started off with the promise of warm breezes and ended with me taking shelter inside the house -- I had failed to close the air holes in the kettle. If the holes are shut, the fire subsides, leaving some half-cooked coals that can to be used again. If the holes are left open, wind and time attack the coals, and soon all that remain are ashes.

As I remedied my early season barbecue miscue, by removing the mound of ashes and adding fresh briquettes to start a new fire, I discovered another seasonal mistake. The garden hose had been left running. Earlier in the day the hose had been yanked out of winter retirement and pushed into car-washing service. Its flow had been turned down, but not quite off, and water bubbled out. By the time I discovered the font, it had formed a small lake.

Once the water had stopped rising and the charcoal was glowing, the serious cooking started. Fajitas were on the menu. The plan was to grill a hunk of marinated beef over a hot charcoal fire, cut the meat in thin slices, and stuff the slices, along with salsa, sour cream and grilled onions, inside warm tortillas.

Since I didn't have several of the ingredients the recipe called for, I substituted what I had. The recipe called for 2 pounds of skirt steak. I had 2 1/2 pounds of London broil. The recipe called for making a marinade out of 1/3 cup tequila, 1/4 cup of lime juice, two cloves of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. I didn't have any tequila, which is made from the agave plant, so I substituted triple sec, which is a liqueur flavored with oranges. I didn't have any green peppers, which were supposed be a topping on the fajitas.

But I did have plenty of onions, and I believe that a mess of grilled onions can cover up for a multitude of missing ingredients. After I had given the beef its bath in triple sec, garlic and friends, I put the beef on the grill. According to a home economist I later spoke with at the National Cattleman's Beef Association in Chicago, the London broil cut is often called flank steak. This cut has very little fat, which means it can easily dry out in the presence of a hot fire. So to keep the cut of beef moist as it cooked, I slathered it with more marinade, and used the indirect cooking method. This meant the glowing coals sat off to the side of the meat, not directly underneath it. This left room on the grill for the onions.

I cut a couple of ordinary onions, the kind that come in mesh bags at the grocery store, into slices as thick as my finger. Then I brushed the slices with olive oil, sprinkled on a little salt, and put them right over the coals, on the hottest part of the fire.

The familiar aroma of the almost-burning onions rolled out of the cooker. When edges of the onions were almost black, I flipped them over, let the other side come close to burning, then scooped them off the grill with a spatula, and hurried them and the meat to the supper table.

The fajitas made with the thinly sliced meat topped with fragrant onions were a success. The four of us, myself, my wife, the 16-year-old and the 12-year-old, virtually demolished the 2 1/2 -pound piece of London broil, and two large onions. Even the kid who refuses to eat onions admitted that they smelled good.

The perfume of grilled onions, or perhaps the pool of water, brought some unexpected springtime visitors to our home. As we ate in the kitchen, a pair of doves fluttered around the back yard, swooping near the kettle grill, cooing to each other.

I took the cooing couple's arrival as a sign that warm days, and good times, were just around the corner. The following morning, however, the air was cold and lacking the sweet perfume of onions. As I got in my freshly washed car to drive to work, I spotted a calling card from a bird on the trunk. It had been put there, I surmised, by one of doves. Spring, I reminded myself, can be bumpy.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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