Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Grill Seeker

By Meredith Phillips

JULY 20, 1998:  When the boy in the apartment next door moved away, he bequeathed the contents of his balcony -- a stunning jungle of plants in terra cotta pots and a tiny gas grill -- to the guy who moved in after him. When that guy moved away after only a few months, I was next in line for the goods. I inherited the plants, half of which were dead (the other half of which were half-dead) and the grill that had lain fallow for several months. I took it upon myself to swiftly murder the rest of the plants and set the little grill in motion.

Ten years ago, grilling meant mainly beefy comestibles such as hamburgers and hot dogs, maybe some steak, or chicken breasts. But if cookbooks are a yardstick for culinary trends, these few years preceding the millennium may be remembered as the heyday of the grill.

Historically, grilling is one of the only food territories staked out by fathers, husbands, uncles, and boyfriends, but I wanted to try my hand at it. Thumbing through about a dozen of the grilling books published within the last two years, I learned a few important things. First of all, anyone who goes to the trouble of writing a book on grilling is a big fan of smoke, and unless they also moonlight at the propane commission, they're going to recommend charcoal or wood as a cooking medium rather than gas. Second, they will recommend that you grill anything and everything, from pâté and appetizer pizzas before the meal to banana splits or pudding in a foil pack for dessert. If the author is a vegetarian, this may mean a recommendation of grilled salad for dinner. Grilling connoisseurs write of surfaces designed only for vegetables and of special baskets used for grilling fish.

Things like these seem like more trouble than necessary when you read them initially; the point of a salad is that you don't have to cook it, and the point of a grill is to make things easy, right? After all, when it's 109 degrees outside, it stands to reason that you don't want to heat up your kitchen. Or you may be camping and don't have a stove. You don't necessarily want a custom setup for the occasional grilled dinner. Still, ever eager to try a new, non-traditional path to cooking, I began to experiment with the little gas guy that I already had. The only other surface I created was with heavy-duty foil.

But no chicken breasts bathed in bottled Italian dressing were going to come off my grill. I planned to take great strides; I was going to make up marinades, I was going to grill clams, I was looking to serve leg of lamb that I had not only cooked but cooked outside, to the masses. I would cook fish that still had their heads on!

illustration by Jason Stout
My first experiment was pork loin in a pineapple chipotle marinade. I will not bother to include the recipe, because the lesson learned from that experience was, in short, that a sugary marinade yields a chunk of meat blackened beyond recognition. Sugar has a low charring point, so sugary sauces need to be applied well into the cooking process. Also, while pork tenderloin is a thin, desirable cylinder of meat that is quick and easy to grill, the loin is a much tougher cut with a round shape more impervious to heat. Grilling meat becomes much easier once you have a meat thermometer to gauge the internal temperature, especially when you have cultivated a thick coating of soot on what was to be your dinner, and it is now better suited to use as a football. And even in the football state, it may still be raw.

The second grilled dinner -- mussels and clams -- was a much happier story. If I ever marry, I want my reception to be a clambake in a sprawling old house on the Atlantic coast. Until then, I can simulate that party on a small scale whenever I want.

Mussels and clams are perfect on the grill, because they steam right open in their own juices. As opposed to most other grill-oriented meals, this one is truly easy and convenient. With a salad (made in the kitchen beforehand) and a loaf of crusty bread, you can make the rest of the meal on the grill. This recipe has been adapted from a book titled License to Grill (see sidebar).

Grilled Mussels and Clams
Serves two for dinner, four for appetizer

1/2 pound unsalted butter
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper (use fresh serrano or jalapeño if desired); salt and pepper to taste
48 mollusks
chopped parsley or cilantro

Choose hard-shell clams. If a clam or mussel doesn't slam its lips shut when you touch it, it's already dead; throw it away. Just before cooking, clean mollusks by scrubbing with a brush under running water. Debeard each mussel by pulling seaweed from between its lips with your fingers. Use pliers if necessary.

In a baking pan over a medium fire, cook the first eight ingredients until onion is translucent and garlic is soft, about 5 minutes.

Then place clams and mussels in a single layer on the grill. If possible, arrange them so that when they pop open, the liquid within will not leak out. Depending on the heat of the fire, they will take between two and five minutes to open. When they are cooked, transfer them to the pan of sauce. Discard any that do not open on the grill. Sprinkle with chopped parsley or cilantro, sop up juice with bread.

Lamb is generally re-served for important occasions, and lighting your own home on fire is, without question, an event worthy of a special feast.

The burn ban is something to be taken very seriously, as is the ordinance against cooking close to a building. The building I live in has a series of old wooden porches cantilevered precariously off the front of it, and it was on my tiny, dried-out porch that I endeavored to grill a boneless, tender portion of leg of lamb. The recipe, also adapted from License to Grill, called for chops, but chops are more expensive, although probably easier to cook.

The recipe I used called for laying fresh rosemary sprigs brushed with olive oil (read: kindling) on the grill and laying lamb chops over them. Since I was working with a larger hunk of meat, I lay four sprigs over the surface of the grill and placed the meat on top. The grate may be too low on that grill, but it is not adjustable. The fat was mostly trimmed from the lamb, but soon the rosemary was flaming and any time the lid was removed, fire arced through the sky. We turned off the gas, but the rosemary continued to burn and soon the lamb was on fire, too. A friend who had scoffed when I insisted on keeping a fire extinguisher on the porch was running for a pan of water. With no way to cut off oxygen to the contents of the grill, the fire burned on under the lid until we got organized enough to lift the fiery lamb into the air with a fork and scrape the rosemary into the pot of water.

The butcher had predicted that the lamb would take 20 minutes over a medium fire, but even on fire it took about an hour. When the meat reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees, we took it off, let it rest for 10 minutes, and served it with potato salad, green salad, and corn on the cob.

The lamb, though a little darker on the outside than we would have preferred, was a breath-taking experience in more way than one.

Flaming Phillips Leg of Lamb
Serves three

1 1/2 pounds leg of lamb
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
Splash of orange juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
Balsamic vinegar

Using a non-reactive pan, marinate the meat for an hour in the oil, shallot, garlic, zest, mustard, juice, rosemary, and salt and pepper.

Prepare a medium-hot fire. Put the lamb on the grill and cook until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Again, use a meat thermometer. And grill away from your home or any dry grasses. Do not leave your grill unattended unless you leave it off, which I was very tempted to do for the rest of the summer.

Except for simple mol-lusks, I had not yet tapped into any natural prowess when I came to cooking food outside. Moreover, it seemed increasingly to be more trouble than it was worth. The grilling books all warn of the difficulties of grilling a whole fish, the danger being that it will flake into nonexistence before you can eat it, but that threat seemed small in comparison with an actual conflagration. Several days of heavy rain had moistened the porch a bit, and this time I would stay away from the building anyway. It was a last-ditch effort.

I picked out a whole two-pound black drum and came home and wrapped the grill rack in heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Using a recipe from a book called Vegetarian Grill (see sidebar), I made a salad of asparagus grilled in a simple vinaigrette, served over mixed field greens and topped with diced roasted red pepper, shaved parmesan, and more vinaigrette.

At the same time the asparagus went on, I placed Yukon Gold potatoes sliced and sprinkled with butter, salt, and cayenne and black pepper in a foil pack. (A foil pack is simply sturdy foil folded around foods so that moisture does not escape.)

When the asparagus was done, after about eight minutes over medium heat, I brushed the foil with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled the surface of the grill liberally with salt.

The fish's gills and internal organs had been removed and its scales scraped away, but it was not seasoned prior to cooking. The fish alternately basked and sizzled in the salted oil. I ground some pepper over him from time to time and nudged him around every few minutes so he wouldn't stick. After about 10 minutes, I flipped him over. Miraculously, the fish cooperated and grilled perfectly. With the exception of one exploded eyeball, even the presentation passed muster, the fish falling on the bone 20 minutes after we put it on the grill.

On the other part of the grill surface, I had placed a foil pack of mushrooms, olives, onion, garlic, herbs, olive oil, and fresh lemon. The potatoes were tender at about the same time as the fish, as were the contents of the foil pack. Served as a relish, it counterbalanced the delicate flavor of the flesh.

Whole Grilled Drum
Serves two

2 lb black drum
olive oil, salt
1 lb potatoes
4 pats butter
salt, pepper, and cayenne to season

Vegetable relish:
2 fistfuls oyster mushrooms, chopped
1/4 lb olives, pitted and chopped
fresh herbs
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

vinaigrette dressing
1 red bell pepper, roasted and diced
mixed field greens
shaved parmesan

Over the dying fire we plainly roasted some fresh figs, and for dessert, let these swim in a bit of sour cream sweetened with Italian honey. Simple, but delicious.

1 fig per person, skin on
1 Tablespoon sour cream per person
1 teaspoon of honey per person, mixed into sour cream

Simple but delicious would be a good mantra for anyone trying their hand at grilling. These things don't have to be boring, but my best experiences grilling were with foods that only needed to be flame-kissed to be cooked: mollusks and fish. No special attachments needed, no life-threatening tragedies to be had, nothing that even required a marinade.

Taking ingredients and lighting a fire under them just to light the fire doesn't save time and energy; rather, it's wasteful and unnerving. Who really wants a hot salad anyway? And the argument about keeping the kitchen cooler just doesn't make sense. The yard is far less likely to have an air-conditioner than the kitchen. During the summer, it makes more sense to stay indoors and suck down smoothies, although I'm willing to bet that you could find a grilled smoothie recipe if you tried. If there isn't one out there, someone will soon get a book contract based on the idea.

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