This weekend, an Indianapolis 500 announcer will tell assembled race car drivers, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines." Meanwhile the nation's backyard cooks will respond to another seasonal directive. We, the ladies and gentlemen of backyard barbecue, will fire up our grills.
Memorial Day is the start of the serious outdoor cooking season. Sure, in the colder months, some of us have occasionally ventured out, dancing around the barbecue cooker in our heavy coats, battling the elements to try to produce a dish with a smoky flavor. But by Memorial Day, the weather is generally warm enough to gives us the chance to burn something for supper on a regular basis.
Ordinarily I am a hunk-of-meat cook, but to kick off this year's smoky season, I grilled vegetables. One recent May afternoon, I grilled asparagus, corn, carrots, green beans and potatoes.
They turned out surprisingly well. In addition to possessing some pleasing fire flavor, the vegetables had terrific looking grill marks on them. Among the backyard smoky set, these grill marks are badges of honor.
Grilling vegetables made me to change the way I approached my cooker. When preparing a pork shoulder or a beef brisket, I would simply slap a seasoned rub on them then let them cook slowly over low fire for half a day or so. However, when working with the vegetables, the cooking time was quick, 20 minutes at the most. The preparation, getting the vegetables ready for their short dance in the fire, was more elaborate.
For instance, to get corn on the cob ready for the fire, I soaked the ears in salty brine for several hours. This technique came from folks at America's Test Kitchens in Boston, publishers of a new spiral bound cookbook, Cook's Country Best Grilling Recipes. The book said that testers tried a variety of methods of grilling corn, including cooking it with the husks on. But, according to the book, brining the corn in a saltwater bath, similar to what some folks do with their Thanksgiving turkey, plumped up the kernels and made the corn tender.
After tasting the corn, I had to agree. The supermarket corn that I husked and soaked in salt water was exceptionally tender when it came off the grill. Soaking the corn did require thinking ahead. This was somewhat foreign ground to me, a guy who grills "in the moment." Soaking the corn on cob, I surmised, is something I might do before a big feed, a family picnic. But I am not sure I would go to the trouble for a weeknight meal.
The grilled carrots had excellent flavor and outstanding grill marks. But they did have to be cooked twice, a bummer. First I blanched them in boiling water. Then, after rubbing them in a mixture of butter, orange zest and maple syrup, I popped them on the grill for a few minutes. I decided that the grilled carrot dish was one that I would roll out on special occasions, when I was showing off.
Grilling asparagus, however, was easy, a dish I could throw together as the grill fires heated up. Following a recipe in Weber's Way To Grill, I made vinaigrette that contained lemon zest , then sprinkled it on the asparagus spears. The sprinkled spears cooked quickly. The trick was to align the spears so they remained perpendicular to the cooking grate. If any spears got parallel to the grate, they would dive into the fire. I did not lose a one. Moreover, the combination of the smoky asparagus, the lemon vinaigrette, and the crisp pieces of grilled prosciutto that were crumbled on top of the vegetables made an outstanding dish. This was a keeper.
Cooking the potatoes in the fire required a lot of aluminum foil, a tablespoon of Old Bay and patience.
I found this recipe in Serious Barbecue, a book by Adam Perry Lang. Lang ,a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, lives in New York, but was familiar with Maryland's favorite seasoning , Old Bay. Following his instructions, I wrapped two pounds of little golf-ball size new potatoes in a double layer of foil. I added butter, herbs, the Old Bay and a cup of water. I sealed the package and, wearing insulated gloves, put the foil package of potatoes directly on a mound of hot coals in the bottom of barbecue cooker. After 20 minutes, I tested to see if the potatoes were done by piercing the package with a metal skewer. The skewer moved easily. Again donning the insulated gloves, I lifted the package from the coals and unwrapped it. The potatoes were done, but to my taste they could have used more Old Bay. The potatoes did not have any grill flavors, but cooking them directly on the coals was fun, a page from my Cub Scout youth.