Old Grill, New Tricks

For Father's Day, the latest books for the outdoor cook have some fresh techniques to try

June 11, 2008|By ROB KASPER

As Father's Day approached, I looked for new grilling tricks that a smoky old dad, a fan of live fires, might employ. Leafing through a slew of new grilling books and testing recipes, I found several.

In retrospect, I see that most my insights would qualify as "Duh!" - or as Homer Simpson, one of my favorite father figures, might say, "Doh!" - moments. They involved simple changes in procedures and taking liberties with recipes.

For instance, one of the tastiest dishes I made was grilled shrimp flavored with a sauce made with Old Bay seasoning.

Usually any time I place raw shrimp on a hot grill grate, some of the shrimp fall through the grate into the fire, a loss I wrote off as an appeasement to the grill gods.

My "Doh!" moment came when, instead of trying to place shrimp on a hot grate over a sizzling fire, I removed the grate from the cooker. When the grate was cool, I placed the shrimp on it and could position them in safe spots without fear of burning my fingers.

Then I returned the shrimp-laden grill grate to the cooker. When it came time to flip shrimp, I used tongs. When the shrimp were done, I donned insulated gloves and carefully lifted the grate from the fire and dumped the bounty of cooked shrimp into a large bowl. There were no casualties, human or crustacean.

I liked the Old Bay sauce a lot. But the trouble was that much of it ended up on the shrimp shells, not on the flesh. I spotted a pool of the sauce at the bottom of the bowl and used it as a dipping sauce, dragging the peeled bodies of the shrimp in it. Eureka!

If form holds, a lot of us dads will be firing up, grilling shrimp and other fare, on Father's Day. Father's Day is the fourth-smokiest holiday of the year, trailing the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Memorial Day, says the GrillWatch survey sponsored by the makers of Weber grills.

Moreover, according to the big boys of barbecue that I spoke with, the current corps of backyard fire-starters is getting smarter and is wielding more gear.

Steven Raichlen, a Baltimore native and author of the recently revised 10th anniversary edition of The Barbecue Bible, told me that sales of barbecue paraphernalia pick up around Father's Day. Three top-selling tools on his Web site store are spring-loaded tongs equipped with LED lights, a grill cleaning brush that has the size and feel of a baseball bat, and the ever-trusty instant-read thermometer.

I have tried versions of them all. I love the big brush and the instant-read thermometer. But it was a sad night at my house when the lights went out on my tongs.

While many backyard barbecuers are self-taught, products of the school of several trials and many errors, there are also opportunities for higher learning. The day I spoke by phone with Raichlen, for instance, he was wrapping up a session of Barbecue University. These are three-day, $2,400-per-person classes at Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., for serious students of smoke.

Another big bubba of barbecue, Chris Schlesinger, who presides over The East Coast Grill restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., and along with John Willoughby has written Grill It!, the latest in a series of well-regarded grilling books, said that on the whole, American grillers are getting better. The grilled shrimp recipe I mastered, sorta, came from Schlesinger's new book.

"Nobody used to know what a multilevel fire was," he said, referring to the technique of layering coals in a grill to produce hot and cool zones. "Now that is a given."

A tradition

Schlesinger also talked about the link between fathers and fire. "The grilling at cookouts," Schlesinger wrote in the introduction to his new book, "has traditionally been performed by dads who at other times have tended to treat cooking as a foreign realm of endeavor." In other words, if you build a fire in a backyard cooker, men will come. And occasionally, as I did, they will learn.

Another of my slap-of-the-forehead moments came when I read Raichlen's instructions for the great American hamburger. Even though the hamburger is, the GrillWatch survey reports, still the nation's No. 1 grilled food, I feel that cooking it is not as challenging as grilling a rack of lamb or a fillet of grouper. I rarely read a cookbook recipe for grilling burgers.

But the other night I did and was glad of it. Coat the hamburger patties and accompanying slices of onion with a little butter, The Barbecue Bible said, and you will be delighted with the results. The burgers and the onions had delectable crusts.

"We like butter," Raichlen said when I reported my success to him. His daughter, a nutritionist, tells him he could substitute olive oil for the butter, he said.

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