If it's Christmas, it's time to fire up the grill

December 16, 2009|By Rob Kasper

At Christmastime, I am drawn to fire.

But the flames that attract me are not glowing in a fireplace; rather they are crackling in my barbecue kettle cooker. After all the commotion and tension of the holidays, standing out in the cold and watching a fire sparkle is strangely soothing.

Traditionally on Christmas Eve, I find myself in the backyard in the company of beef tenderloin. I have rubbed it with 1 tablespoon of sea salt and 1/2 tablespoon of black pepper, and I cook it over an indirect charcoal fire until the interior registers 125-130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Usually these chilly cooking sessions last about 30 minutes to 40 minutes, depending on the temperature and the wind.

It is a recipe I found some years ago in "The Thrill of the Grill." Written by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, this cookbook is a well-stained favorite, and when I crack it open each December, I experience a rush of good feeling. It's my culinary equivalent of catching the first whiff of this year's Christmas tree.

This is also the time of year to catch up with friends. Recently, I called Schlesinger and other smoky souls across the country and asked them what they grill on Christmas.

In Cambridge, Mass., Schlesinger had this suggestion: "I would go with a fresh ham and a hard cider raisin sauce." The 8-to-10 pound fresh ham is grilled in a roasting pan over charcoal for 2 1/2 hours, basted with maple syrup, then served with raisins soaked in dark rum and a sauce made from the pan juices and cider. The recipe is from his book "How To Cook Meat."

"I made it last Christmas," Schlesinger said, adding that cooking a holiday dinner on the grill is good for family dynamics. "It gets the guys outside," out of the way of the women, he said.

I called Jamie Purviance in Sacramento, Calif. The author of five cookbooks published in cooperation with grill makers Weber-Stephens, Purviance said he was oscillating between a tenderloin covered with pink peppercorns or a turkey brined in apple juice. Both recipes are on the Weber Web site (weber.com/holidaygrilling.)

It was snowing in Sacramento the day I spoke with Purviance. The snow was a rarity, but grilling in December weather presents challenges, he said. On windy winter days, he moves the bottom vents of his kettle cooker to the half-open position to prevent the fire from being extinguished by the wind.

"It is kind of like sailing in bad weather, every moment is different," he said. "Yet it is strangely rewarding. There is a sense of great pride. You are battling the elements."

I caught Steven Raichlen, author of the bestseller "The Barbecue Bible," at his home in Miami. He suggested a dish he found in Bogota, Colombia.

"It is called lomo al trapo, which translates into tenderloin in a cloth," Raichlen told me. "I heard about it and within 24 hours I had booked a flight to Bogota to experience it," he said.

It is a straightforward concept, he said. "You take a clean, damp, white cotton cloth, you cover it with about a quarter-inch of salt, and then you wrap it around the one pound beef tenderloin. You tie it up, then place it on the embers of a fire."

The salt forms a crust, he said, and the cloth sometimes catches fire. You cook it for 17 minutes, flipping it with tongs after the first nine minutes. It looks "like a fire-charred log," he said.

The whole procedure is outlined on Raichlen's Web site (primalgrill.org) and will appear in his new book, "Planet Barbecue" set for release this spring.

All these dishes sounded tempting, but the idea of wrapping beef in a salt crust was especially alluring.

So last weekend I gave lomo al trapo a trial run. I wrapped a two-pound tenderloin in the remnants of a clean, water-soaked T- shirt, covered with a layer of sea salt. I placed the package on glowing coals. At precisely 9 minutes, I turned the meat over. That was when I lost half of the shirt. The cloth that was on the coals had virtually disappeared. The remaining part of the cloth was intact, and when I flipped the meat, the salted cloth formed a shell around it.

At 17 minutes, the meat was still rare, registering a mere 90 degrees. I cooked it until I got a reading close to 120, another 12 minutes. Then I let the meat rest on a cutting board for five minutes. Finally I brushed off the salt with a pastry brush. The meat was flavorful, but too salty. I suspect that my shirt was too thin or my fire not hot enough.

This Christmas Eve, I will be back at the grill, but I think I will cook the traditional way, with the meat over the fire, not in it.

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