A decision to grill after red robins give the green light

March 08, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Blame it on the approach of St. Patrick's Day, when I feel the urge to eat potatoes. Or blame it on the false stirrings of spring, such as red-breasted robins appearing in the backyard. Or blame it on the fact that you often are tempted to toss something on a grill that could pass for a side dish.

For these and other reasons, I recently cooked fingerling potatoes on my backyard barbecue grill.

I stress that these potatoes were on the grill top, not in the coals. I have done the bury-them-in-the-coals routine. I have coated handfuls of small spuds with olive oil, wrapped them in aluminum foil and deposited the foil-covered package in hot coals. After about 30 minutes or so, these potatoes were done. But they did not display much evidence, other than some rogue bits of ash, that they had been cooked over an open fire.

This time, however, I cooked fingerling potatoes - the ones that are about as long as your middle finger and about twice as thick - above the coals, on the grill grate. There, they sizzled like sausages.

They tasted pretty good. They were not as crunchy as I had hoped, but were not bad for a first-time effort. A big thing these grilled potatoes had going for them was that they were easy to fix.

I washed them, but didn't have to peel them. Then I cooked them twice, first blanching them in a pot of salted water, then splitting them and grilling them. Finally, just before being served, they were sprinkled with some blue cheese.

The grilled potatoes would have been better, I think, if the robins had not tricked me.

The robins lured me out of the house and into a false sense of warmth and well-being. Technically, it was still winter. Yet one recent afternoon, I looked out the window into the backyard and saw a flock of red-breasted robins. There were about a dozen of them, routing through the leaves and perching in the holly tree, nibbling on its berries.

Believing that the arrival of robins was a sure sign of spring, I went outdoors to cook without bothering to put on a coat.

I was wrong on a couple of counts. First of all, these birds were not harbingers of spring. They were winter robins. That is what Janet Millenson, president of the Maryland Ornithological Society, told me later when I described them to her during a telephone conversation.

The fact that there was a flock of them, not just one or two, was a clue, she said: Robins travel in flocks during the winter. Lately, Maryland bird-watchers have seen flocks of robins numbering in the hundreds, often in the woods, she said.

The robins in my backyard were either migrants from the North, or were Maryland birds - perhaps from the mountains - that had changed their residence to the lowlands during cold weather, she said.

Spring robins, she said, often travel as a couple. One of them often hops from branch to branch in a tree, marking territory with musical songs. The robins I saw in the backyard holly tree were not singing much. The only thing they were marking was the roof of my car, parked underneath the trees.

Being duped by the robins into going out in the yard without a coat, I was subsequently hoodwinked by the weather about how long I could stay there. I thought Mother Nature had switched to her more comforting springtime schedule for how long she lets you stand next to the grill. Instead, her bitter winter rules were still in effect.

Birds, Millenson told me, mark the change of seasons by the length of the days and the height of the sun. I mark it by how long I can sit at the backyard kettle's side and poke at what is cooking.

In the summer, grill-tending sessions last for hours. In the fall and spring, the segments run for half an hour or so. In the winter, they last for mere minutes.

When I put the potatoes on the grill, the sun was shining and I thought I could tend the fingerlings for 30 minutes. But then the sun went down, the wind picked up and I was shivering. I had to abandon my post, in prime grilling time. With my tongs behind my tail, I took refuge in the warm house.

I returned to the kettle, several minutes later, disgraced but clad in a winter coat. The grilled potatoes suffered, I think, from this period of neglect. They temporarily lost their way and failed to reach that much-desired, but often-elusive, crusty-edged state.

I vow to do better by them next time. Then, I won't be strung along by those deceptive robins or taken in by fleeting periods of sunshine. The next time I grill potatoes, I will wear a coat - a thick green one on St. Patrick's Day.

Oyster soup

Inquiring minds wanted to know exactly what kind of coconut milk I used in last week's recipe for oyster soup that yielded such a low calorie count and fat content. The answer is unsweetened coconut milk.


Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Grilled Fingerling Potatoes

Serves 4

1 pound fingerling potatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese

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