May is here. We have eaten our ramps, fiddle-heads, spring onions and now the gods demand a sacrifice of meat…marinated please…with some lovely salads of potato and don’t forget the coleslaw…watermelon salad? Yes, that too. In case you missed it, I love to grill food. There is something primal about grilling and flesh seared over wood embers tastes good. Recently, I posted several recipes that I used my cast iron grill for lately and I can’t wait to skewer up some meat, marinate it and grill it over a natural wood fire. Another favorite is to employ a brine and smoke the meat over natural wood smoke; long and slow so the natural smoke flavor penetrates deep and mingles with the brine. Ribs, chicken, brisket, I’ll have some of all three please.
I admit to being a grill snob. I prefer natural lump charcoal over briquettes and I would use that over propane. OK, I am not sure about that one…propane is convenient and some grills are hot enough but lack any flavor benefit…briquettes add some flavor and you can make it hot…but the flavor is like coal with a side of lighter fluid…not really what I am after. I am looking for the flavor of real wood and don’t put accelerants near my wood. They are made of chemicals found in petroleum like naptha, not at all good to eat and they don’t taste good either. It seems odd that food companies would add flavors like this to their food to give it a “grilled” flavor when it is really just a petroleum flavor. Grill flavor comes from properly cooking over real wood. Well…OK, how should we light the natural wood charcoal.
There are several reasons to use natural lump charcoal. One could just build a fire, but to make a fire acceptable to cook on, the flames have to die down making what would be essentially what you have when you use charcoal and the extra soot and chemicals from the burn would pollute urban areas even more. It might be good to note that several communities have banned the use of lighter fluid and one of the reasons is the pollution associated with its use. Charcoal lights very quickly and easily with electric charcoal lighters, charcoal “chimneys” or my favorite the Bernzomatic TS400 mapp gas torch. A good reason to use natural lump charcoal is that it lights quicker that briquettes even though the briquettes have additives that help them catch fire more quickly. Hmmm…what should we grill?
One could cook just about anything over a natural wood charcoal fire. There are some guidelines to keep in mind here too. Lean items can be cooked hot and fast. That well marble, dry aged, USDA Prime NY Strip Steak you were going to throw on that 600°F fresh bed of coals is going to start a magnificent and expensive fire. You will be able to smell that beauty for miles. It may be OK to sear that steak over the hot coals, but then it is going to need a more gentle place to congeal that well fatted flesh into the tender, juicy medium rare hunk of ecstasy that it could be. In this case you will not want to take your eyes off of the meat so when the fat melts and the fire begins to flare up you can move it. Roasted fat tastes great, burnt fat tastes like lighter fluid which I already expressed a specific dislike for. The idea here is the fattier the meat the slower you want to cook it but don’t be afraid to sear the meat properly. Lean meats like boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be cooked hot and fast. The thickness of chicken breasts lends itself well to this quick cooking method. Two things can help here: 1. a little time with a meat mallet to even out the thick and thin parts of the breast and 2. some time in a brine to add a little salt and water to the inside of the meat, overnight should do it. I will post some brine recipes before we get too far into grilling season, it is a great way to add moisture and flavor. The larger the piece of meat the lower and slower you need to go. I always loved smoking a whole beef brisket over indirect heat with lots of smoke in a cooking chamber for about 6 hours (god I miss that smoker…I can’t use open flames at the condo). Finally, my vegetarian friends love the vegetables cooked on the grill. When they come to dinner I put all kinds of things on the grill like: onions, peppers of all colors and spice levels, yellow squash and zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, radicchio, carrots, potatoes of all kinds, corn and garlic. Cooking these vegetables brings out some of the best flavors you will have ever.
Natural lump charcoal is available at almost every hardware store and even Whole Foods carries it. It is not expensive, lights quickly and easily, imparts a wonderful flavor and provides a hot fire to sear your favorite foods admirably. The last reason is one of the most important for the flavor it gives the food. A hot fire is necessary to kick of the Maillard Reaction which is critical for the seared meat flavor. By far the most important reason to use natural wood is that it makes your food taste like wood smoke which has been flavoring our meat since man discovered fire.
For the next few weeks I will be posting specific recipes, products and accompaniments for summer grilling. Come back often to see what else I have cooking or how I am going to cook it! Follow me on Twitter… @chefphilosopher and join me on facebook.com/culinaryphilosopher.