Warm weather triggers a powerful will to grill

March 15, 2000|By Rob Kasper

JUST AS THE swallows return to Capistrano, the rockfish to the Chesapeake Bay and the pigeons to roosts underneath the Jones Falls Expressway, I am drawn, at the first hint of warm weather, to the backyard barbecue grill.

The other evening, as the temperature topped 70, I found myself standing in the back yard, feeling compelled to grill something.

Over the winter, I made several visits to the grill, but had not lingered. Instead, I scampered out of the house, put a hunk of something on the fire, periodically checked its cooking progress with a portable light strapped on my forehead, then hurried back inside.

Now that the sun had become strong and the breezes benign, I could hang around the grill and savor the scene. I could, in other words, stop and smell the charcoal.

The other night I was so excited about being outdoors that I started a fire in the barbecue kettle grill before figuring out what I was going to cook. Once the fire was going, I plowed through the kitchen grabbing anything that seemed vaguely grillable.

One of the first things I grabbed was onions. For me, grilling onions is a ritual that marks the beginning of the smoke-gets-in-your-eyes season. Grilling an onion is appealing on several fronts.

First, it smells terrific. Second, it requires no skill. Just slice an onion in half and put it on the rack over the coals. Third, it is OK to burn the onion. A slightly blackened onion tastes sweeter than a raw one.

The next thing I grabbed was bell peppers. They too have a pleasing aroma when grilled. They too benefit from being burned. When the peppers blistered and their skins turned black from the heat, I took them off the fire and with a sharp knife removed the bitter skin. I was left with pieces of sweet, smoky peppers.

As I tossed some links of Italian sausage on the grill, a concept of supper was forming in my mind. I had visions of a meal composed of grilled sausages, topped with grilled onions and peppers. This vision was appealing, yet I sensed something was missing -- bread.

I cut thin slices from a loaf of homemade bread, then cooked them very quickly, no more than 1 minute on each side. Unlike grilling onions and peppers, it is not OK to burn the bread. Moreover, slices of bread can burn faster than a firecracker.

After grilling the slices of bread, I brought them to the table with the sizzling sausages and charred onions and peppers. Paired with a big salad, sandwiches made of grilled sausages, topped with peppers and onions, made a satisfying start to the outdoor cooking season.

The next warm night I was again "grillside," cooking some basic burgers and some garlic-flavored potatoes.

Fixing the potatoes was a bit of work. First, I had to boil them on the stove until they were tender when pierced with a skewer. Next, I had to let them cool. Then I sliced them and brushed them with garlic-flavored olive oil, and tossed them on the grill to cook for 10 to 12 more minutes.

They were good, a new outdoor treat. On warm nights, I could see myself regularly sitting in the back yard, soaking up the atmosphere and polishing off plates of these grilled fries.

Garlicky Grilled Fries

Serves 4

1/3 cup olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

3 medium baking potatoes, scrubbed

3/4 cup spicy-hot tomato salsa

3/4 cup ketchup

Combine olive oil with garlic and let stand for at least an hour before using.

Place the potatoes in a large pot, add cold water to cover, and bring to boil over high heat. Lower the heat and boil until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a skewer. Drain and let cool. (If time permits, wrap well and refrigerate overnight.)

Stir salsa and ketchup together in a bowl. Set aside.

Light fire in grill. Wait until fire reaches medium-high heat.

Cut each potato lengthwise into 6 wedges. Generously brush the potato wedges on all sides with garlic-flavored oil. Lay wedges on grill rack, cover and grill, occasionally rearranging wedges, until they are crisp and brown on all sides, about 10-12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, accompanied by the salsa-ketchup mixture for dunking.

-- From "All on the Grill" (Harper Collins, 1997) by Michael McLaughlin

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