Neither snow nor ice will keep griller from his task

February 28, 2007|By ROB KASPER

As a hard-core griller, I try not to let bad weather stop me from starting backyard fires. For a time, I thought my winter grilling habit marked me as a smoky-smelling fanatic. Then I read the results of a national survey that reported 54 percent of grill owners say they fire up all year long.

Of course, grilling on a sunny Florida patio in February is a much different experience than cooking in a frigid Maryland backyard. The pollsters did not ask these year-round grillers if, like me, they sometimes have to dress like they are climbing Mount Everest.

Nonetheless, I embraced the results of this survey -- conducted in 2004 by Harris Interactive for the makers of Weber Grills -- as proof that I am part of the American mainstream.

Scott Smith is another admitted cold-weather griller. Smith owns Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbeque on the 5700 block of Harford Road.

He said that while his restaurant fare is cooked indoors, his home cooking often involves sprinting to a spot in the backyard where he keeps a barbecue cooker. "It is the first spot of the sidewalk that gets cleared of snow," Smith said. "Cooking over an open fire produces the best flavor, so what else are you going to do?"

In a bow to the power of Mother Nature, Smith does alter his backyard cooking style during the cold months. "I don't do smoking; that is too lengthy, and I don't want to be outside that long," he said.

Instead, he opts for "hot grilling," quickly cooking fillets of fish or seasoned chicken over a hot fire. "You grill a piece of fish, then mix it with some fleshy fruits that have picked up a little smoke, then cut the fruit up and mix it with a little garlic, olive oil and onion and there you are," said Smith. "A dish like that, or some jerk chicken, might even make you forget that it is cold outside."

After a recent snowstorm, I was embarrassed to discover that my backyard kettle cooker, like much of Maryland, had become icebound. Its plastic wheels were stuck in a layer of ice and snow covering the patio.

The morning after the storm, I had cleared the snow off the kettle lid, but I had failed to shovel my usual patio path to and from the cooker. By the time I got back to that spot, a day later, the snow there had turned rock-solid.

The other night when I cooked supper, my first duty was to free the cooker. Using a metal shovel, I chipped ice from around the cooker's wheels, then hauled the cooker over the crusted snow to a spot near a cleared walkway. The snow was so rigid that the cooker rested on top of it without making an indentation in the icy surface.

No sooner had I ignited the charcoal briquettes in my chimney starter than new snowflakes started falling. "It is just a flurry," I told myself as I headed back in the kitchen to warm up. But for a time, it snowed so hard that I couldn't tell whether the air was white with snowflakes or with smoke from my fire.

The snow was short-lived. The briquettes fired up and soon I scurried outside to pour the ashy charcoal into the cooker. I had increased the number of briquettes I was using by one-third. Adding extra fuel to your fire, I have learned, is one of the adjustments you make in winter grilling. The cold air eats the heat, so to compensate, you build a bigger fire.

Another adjustment is keeping the lid on the cooker. The lid traps heat in the vessel. When the temperature is below 40 degrees, repeatedly lifting the lid off your cooker can drop the temperature of the fire and lengthen cooking times. The temptation to peek at the green peppers and onions I had put on my grill was strong, but I resisted.

With the lid on, the fire had plenty of muscle. When I did lift the lid, I saw that the bell peppers had burned. Fortunately, this was part of the plan; burning the peppers made removing their pungent skins much easier.

After the peppers and onions came off the grill, Italian sausages went on it, as did the lid. I peeked at the proceedings through the vent holes. But, mainly, I left things alone. I was dressed in a thick ski jacket, warm pants, boots, a hat and gloves, but still felt chilly.

After about 20 minutes, the sausages were done. I shut down the fire. As I carried the sizzling sausages into the house, I had almost no feeling in my feet, but a feeling of accomplishment in my psyche.

I had won one round in a battle with the elements, Other challenges, especially grilling in the fierce March winds, loomed ahead.

Tips for grilling in the elements

Remove snow from the grill before firing up.

Position grill outdoors on a cleared, stable surface at least 10 feet away from house, but within view of a window or door.

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