Ahh, the hot dog days of summer. It’s hitting 90 degrees by noon and staying there till 9 p.m.; all the kids want to do is swim but the pool’s population is quickly approaching that of Lolo, only with not quite so much open space. All you want to do is plunk down on your lawn chair in the backyard, beer in hand, and enjoy your sunburn hallucinations.
But food, being one of those pesky necessities of life, keeps this from actually happening. You’ve out-grown Happy Meals, sort of, but all the effort required to actually make something for dinner is enough to send a subconscious flinch of your finger to whack the “Pizza” speed-dial button. You’re eyeing the rusty barbecue on the deck, but come on, you had hot dogs for dinner last night.
Imagine, though, a sizzling steak on that grill, some fresh veggies from the Farmer’s Market soaking up fine Italian olive oil on the tin foil beside. Sipping on Ridge Zinfandel and dipping toasted pita into homemade salsa, you wield the spatula with sword-in-the-stone prowess and recount the day’s languorous float down the Blackfoot to your awed guests.
Wait! Before this fantasy goes the way of the new coat of paint for the house, unstick your sweaty legs from the chair and give that poor neglected grill a second chance. It has so much potential, the little one. Hot dogs and hamburgers are great, but with a tad more preparation, that festival of epicurean delight could be reality. And really, everyone knows that hard work makes the reward that much sweeter.
The Basics: Owner, Meet Grill
So what does the average Jack or Jill need to put on a gourmet barbecue of their own? Well, a grill for starters. When buying a grill you want to consider two basic things: charcoal or gas; and, whether you just cannot limit yourself to only 15 of your closest friends, or if you feel you and the hubby are plenty to worry about. The charcoal v. gas dilemma basically boils down to a question of taste v. efficiency. With charcoal the food has a chance and is enhanced by the smoky quality of the coals. On the other hand, evenness of temperature, cleanliness and timing are all helped by having a gas grill.
The question of how many people you plan on serving is where your answers start to determine how much of your cash flow goes into the machinery and how much remains to be spent on quality ingredients. A good, but small (“bachelor”-sized) gas grill goes for about $120, while a sufficiently equipped charcoal grill designed for garden gatherings can cost between $200 and $300. If you do it up nearly every weekend throughout the spring, summer and fall, you may want to spend as much as $900 on a top-top-top-of-the-line grill (though if you’re looking to spend that much on your grill, you’re probably not looking for advice from this article).
Once you’ve got your hardware squared away, you need to actually cook. Now remember you’re going for the gourmet here; do not succumb to the quick and quaint (garden) burger, dog, ‘slaw routine. You’ve got the gear, make good use of it.
The Making of a Grill Boss: It’s All in the Details
So you’ve bought the grill, or resurrected the previously lost soul of your grill, and now everything’s ready for showtime. Except you, because you see, just as there is more to a magician’s show than headless women and bunnies in hats, there is more to mastering the art of barbecuing than food and flames alone. Remember, the whole point of a barbecue (as opposed to the indoor, kitchen variety of cooking) is to show off. Whether it’s the actual food you’re preparing, or just the flair with which you serve it up, the true Grill Boss always has his audience in mind.
One way to evoke the image, and evidence, of a master is to add flavor to your food by laying apple or other fruit tree stems over your coals. What’s on top of the grill will be infused with the subtle scent of fruit. And your guests will be awed by your ingenuity. (Don’t forget to tell them how you drove out last weekend, found a beautiful, lush orchard, and climbed to the tippity-top of the most plentiful tree in order to snip off the divinely untouched stems, and return them in an air-tight container so as not to lose even one droplet of apple-scented moisture.)
Furthermore, impress your guests by actually—now follow me here—planning ahead. When it comes to menu suggestions, the key lies in the preparation. Marinating meats is key to a successful barbecue because all that smoke and heat can dry out steak or chicken and make it tough. For fish, which is naturally moist, a dry rub of herbs is suggested to enhance the flavor. I know, you’re thinking this is far more effort than you’d care to exert, but think of it in these terms: an hour before the guests show up you toss your hunk of meat into some yummy juices, refrigerate, and return to your glass of wine. The guests show, you chat, you laugh, an hour passes and the food is ready to hit the grill.
Quite possibly the most important factor in putting the finishing touches on an excellent barbecue is the beverage you choose to serve. A good dark beer (stay away from the PBR) or vintage wine can bring the varied tastes of your menu together in unexpected and delightful ways. For example, a red Zinfandel offers a deep, rich blackberry flavor that will bring balance to the hot and zesty flavors that one often goes for when barbecuing. If super-duper-burn-your-house-down hot is not your marinade of choice, a Pinot Noir or full-bodied Chardonnay will give a flavorful but light touch to a minimalist herbs-and-oil marinade. Now, you’ve come so far in your pursuit of enlightenment; don’t give up because you lack grape gumption. Just remember, everything will be A.-O.K if you keep in mind that extreme flavor on one end requires commensurate supplement on the other end.
In my own personal quest to reach the bodhisattva state of The Grill Boss, I decided to put what I’d learned to the test. Southwestern flank steak sounded good to me: It would satisfy the red meat fiends, but be interesting enough for the more discerning palate. Grilled red potatoes, plus squash and carrots and asparagus would add some color, not to mention nutrients, and mmm, a sesame pasta salad would be a great starter. Can’t forget pure honey cone for the crusty French bread I’ll make. And there must be something for dessert, ice cream perhaps. Ooh, and then I’ll get some peaches, no, plantains, and grill them up, and for the finishing touch I’ll flambé them to the adoring disbelief of my guests!
But first, I’ve got to find a grill…