A desire to grill despite the chill

December 19, 2007|By ROB KASPER

In the deepening dusk of a chilly Sunday, I was drawn to a crackling fire. The flames came not from a fireplace, a traditional source of winter warmth, but from my backyard kettle cooker.

It was not ideal weather for outdoor activity; the temperature hovered in the 40s and rain loomed on the horizon. But a griller has gotta do what a griller has gotta do, and I had some skewers of meat and vegetables that needed the kind of searing that only a hot, outdoor fire could produce.

Moreover, like a moth is drawn to the flame, I was drawn toward the embers by the allure of grilling in December. The glowing coals in the kettle cooker somehow looked redder and felt warmer than they do on a summer evening. And when the fire crackled - I was using hardwood charcoal - I felt a flash of kinship with cowboys around a campfire. In reality, I was only about 10 yards away from a warm kitchen, a comforting beverage and a flat-screen television. But for a fleeting, elemental minute or two, I felt I was part of that ancient man-fire fraternity.

A trio of elements - the wind, cold and the dark - work against you when you grill in the winter. I once had a spotlight trained on my backyard grill. But a few years ago, my wife and I had some renovation work done and replaced the spotlight with subtle lighting. Bad move on my part. Now to see what I am grilling, I have to carry a flashlight. Grilling in the dark can be an ethereal experience, but it is full of guesswork.

There are certain dishes - pork ribs, some fish fillets and the Christmas Eve prime rib - that I feel compelled to cook outside, regardless of the weather.

But the other night, I more or less backed into backyard grilling. I was in charge of supper, and there wasn't much to eat in the house. I came across a recipe for skewered, grilled chicken and pork, flavored with lemon juice and a seasoned salt.

According to notes in Italian Farmhouse Cookbook, these skewers, called "spiedini," are traditionally served in June at an outdoor feast in the village of San Giovanni. It seemed like warm-weather fare, but when I matched the ingredients that the recipe called for with what I had in my kitchen, this dish quickly became a December supper in Baltimore.

I had to make a few adjustments. Instead of the cut-up chicken breasts that the recipe asked for, I used chicken thighs, boned and sliced. Instead of pancetta, Italian bacon, I used a little prosciutto that I had on hand. When that supply ran out, I substituted a few slices of American bacon. I also didn't have any pork shoulder, so I substituted extra portions of Italian pork sausage.

Still I had enough of the fixings to load several metal skewers with an impressive array of meat, chicken and vegetables.

I doused these skewers with fresh lemon juice, then let them bathe in the juice while I made the intriguing "special" ingredient of this recipe - salt flavored with rosemary, garlic and lemon zest.

Stepping into the darkened backyard, I spread the radiant coals on the bottom of my kettle cooker. The fire hissed as I placed the skewers on the grill.

One trick to working with skewers is to wear insulated gloves. When you are wearing gloves and using tongs, it is much easier to rotate the hot metal skewers than when you work barehanded.

But even when I was armed with gloves and tongs, the skewers gave me trouble. Some chunks of the meat and vegetables refused to rotate when I turned the skewer over. Part of a skewer would have golden-brown chunks; another part would still be raw. Slowly I lifted the skewer with a gloved hand, and turned these "refuseniks" over toward the fire.

After about 20 minutes and several turns on the fire, all of the skewers had the "golden crust" that the recipe called for.

Rather than leaving the cubes of meat and vegetables on the skewers, I pushed them off and into a serving bowl. Again, the gloves came in handy as I held one end of the hot skewer and used a fork to maneuver the cubes.

Next, I tossed the grilled items with a little olive oil, then sprinkled them with that intriguing salt, which imparted fiery garlic and sprightly citrus flavors.

The meat and chicken chunks were crisp yet moist; the vegetables were crisp. Served on a mound of basmati rice, the spicy "spiedini" were quickly polished off.

As I cleaned up the dishes, I looked outside. A winter rain, hard, cold and unforgiving, bounced off the top of the kettle cooker, sending up puffs of steam. My grilling session, a burst of Italian warmth, had ended just in time.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

Sausage and Chicken Skewers With Lemon-Rosemary Salt

Serves 4

8 ounces pork loin or shoulder cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large red or green pepper, stemmed, pith and seeds removed, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 good-sized onion, cut into 1-inch chunks

8 ounces boneless chicken breast or thighs with bone removed, cut into 1-inch cubes

5 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon) or prosciutto

8 ounces pork sausage cut into 1-inch lengths

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