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Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
Fast-and-easy puff pastry, known as “rough puff,” is one essential recipe to put in your holiday bag of tricks. Homemade ready-to-bake rough puff pastry in my freezer has saved me many anxious what-to-make moments each December.
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With this one technique, I can make any savory appetizer, including Parmesan-black pepper twists; ham, cheddar and red pepper quiches; blue cheese, pear and walnut mini-tarts; and a host of other buttery, light creations ideal for serving with any holiday libation.
Classic French puff pastry’s laid-back relative, rough puff requires no culinary degree. In fact, it’s what pastry chefs make at home because there are so few steps and big payoffs. And while rough puff is less lofty than the laborious puff pastry, it performs perfectly for every use from palmiers to empanadas.
In this video, French pâtissier and baking book author Michael Roux demonstrates how to make rough puff by hand.
I prefer to use my food processor based on a method I learned from pastry master Nick Malgieri. In this series of photos, I’ll take you step by step through the process for making your own rough puff pastry. This is an unbeatable substitute for any recipe calling for store-bought or homemade puff pastry without the premium cost or the time investment.
Once you have rough puff, the options span a world of appetizers using any cheeses, marinated or cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers, too) you have. In fact, with rough puff on hand, the only other item I need to stock for an impromptu festive gathering of friends is a stash of something bubbly.
Rough Puff Pastry
Makes 1½ pounds of dough
½ stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and roughly cut into small pieces
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and diced into ½-inch pieces
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup cold water
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1. Make sure you divide the 10 ounces of butter necessary for this recipe into two groups. Two ounces should roughly chopped and 8 ounces should be diced into ½-inch pieces.
2. Dissolve the salt in the cold water. This will allow for better distribution in the dough. Keep the saltwater chilled until ready to use. Cold ingredients are the key for easy to handle pastry that comes out flakey.
3. Put the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Add the roughly cut 2 ounces of butter and blend with 4 to 5 pulses until well combined. Add the 8 ounces of diced butter and pulse 2 to 3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is the size of hazelnuts. These larger pieces of butter are what make the dough puff up when baked.
4. Dump the mass of crumbly dough onto a smooth work surface. Use a dough scraper to collect it into a rectangle. Dust a rolling pin and roll into a rectangle about 5 inches wide and 14 inches long. Use your dough knife to keep the edges straight.
5. Use a dough knife or spatula to lift the dough and fold it in thirds, like a business letter. Match the corners and side up as evenly as you can. Turn the dough “letter” 90 degrees so the folds are facing you and roll it out once more into a 5-by-14-inch rectangle. Now, roll up the dough like a scroll and then use the palm of your hand to flatten it into an even, wide log shape.
5. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
6. Dust the work surface and the rolling pin lightly with flour and roll out to ¼-inch thick, turning the dough and dusting underneath with flour to prevent sticking. Brush off any excess flour and use a pizza wheel, biscuit cutter or a knife to cut the dough into any shape you desire. (Gather any scraps of dough and re-roll or chill for future use. They will not be as airy but are perfect for tarts, quiche or pizza.)
7. Place the pastries on an ungreased baking sheets or in tart pans or muffin tins. For immediate use, top or fill the pastries (an egg wash helps ingredients stick and makes the pastries pretty, but is optional) and chill for at least 15 minutes for best results.
Or, for future use, freeze the unfilled pastry shapes on their pans. Once firm, transfer them into labeled freezer bags. Fill them straight from the freezer with the toppings and fillings of your choice and bake right away.
8. To bake the pastries, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until golden brown (frozen pastries will take a few more minutes than chilled) and serve immediately.
Top photo: Parmesan-black pepper twists and mini-tarts with blue cheese, pear and walnuts made with rough puff pastry. Credit: Lynne Curry
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
What does it take for a well-established farm-to-table chef to make a name for himself in a hotbed of gastronomy like Portland, Ore.? If you ask Rick Gencarelli, it’s all about street cred.
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His recognition came by way of the food cart called Lardo that he opened in September 2010. Slinging a porchetta sandwich with a side of hand-cut Parmesan-herb fries and homemade ketchup, Gencarelli instantly won the attention of the food-loving cognoscenti. “Who is this guy?” Portlanders began to ask.
Until then, restaurant developers wouldn’t even return his phone calls.
Gencarelli arrived in Portland from the East Coast with his family in 2009, ready to hit the ground running. He sported a stellar fine dining résumé with the requisite high points: an early start as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and involvement in award-winning restaurants from San Francisco to Boston. Most notably, Gencarelli launched several restaurants for celebrity chef Todd English before leading the kitchen at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a landmark farmstead restaurant in Vermont. He even had a New York Times notable cookbook to his name.
Nonetheless, no one in Portland took notice until Gencarelli created Lardo in a charming blue cottage-style cart. His name value skyrocketed, capped off when Smithsonian magazine declared Lardo one of the top 20 foods trucks in the nation in 2012.
The new fine dining
In switching from four-star fare to street food, Gencarelli trailed Portland’s top chefs, including Tommy Habetz, a Mario Batali protegé who created Bunk Sandwiches, and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurant fame, a 2011 James Beard Best Chef Northwest winner. His food was fitting, too, in a town that excels in raising lowbrow cuisine — including PB&Js and barbecue (locally sourced) — to new heights.
Lardo generated so much buzz, the community of chefs and restaurateurs opened up their arms to Gencarelli. “I give Portland all the credit,” he said. Soon, he was on the receiving end of phone calls, including an invitation from restaurant developer Kurt Huffman of Chefstable to give Lardo a real home.
On the day in June 2012 when Gencarelli locked up his food cart for the last time, he felt both relieved and anxious about the transition. “This was never a way to earn a living,” he acknowledged. Now that he was taking his food cart concept into the big time, he worried, “Will I still be able to make my own porchetta? My own ketchup?”
Food cart followers
Gencarelli did not predict the big welcome his brick-and-mortar Lardo would receive in its new Hawthorne Boulevard neighborhood.
On opening day that summer, 1,000 fans crowded the shop. “It was absolutely crazy,” Gencarelli remembered, “and we didn’t stop for three days.”
He felt relieved when demand rescinded to manageable levels, but the ball was already rolling with food pod fans ready to follow wherever Gencarelli went with his meaty, signature sandwiches.
Lest anyone think Gencarelli the chef was going back to white tablecloth dining, Grassa has no waiters, no stemware, no linens in sight. Just generous $8-$12 bowls of homemade pasta served to a surging niche of diners who seek well-crafted, affordable food without the frills. Created in Portland, this is the next wave of fine dining.
Building the Lardo brand
With three new restaurants in operation within eight months, Gencarelli reflected on his quick ascent. He was happy to report he was still rolling his own porchetta, producing the pastrami, and forming banh mi meatballs by the hundreds of pounds. “The flavors of the cart live on,” he said, noting that the only sacrifice was replacing his homemade ketchup with Heinz.
Strangely enough, a business built on Lardo was never part of Gencarelli’s plan. At the first chance, he believed he’d distance himself from the food cart. “I never thought I’d stick with sandwiches. I’d do the cart for a little while and then do plated food again.” And he’d thought about being on the short list for a James Beard Award. “You have to let your ego go a little bit,” he confessed. Now, with his reputation solidly built on the tagline “bringing the fat back,” this ambitious chef was embracing a different career strategy while making real food for the people.
Might Gencarelli follow Ricker to New York, opening a Lardo in that proving ground where his career began?
“I plan on dying in Portland,” he quickly replied. True enough, the last word was that Gencarelli is planning his third Lardo location for Portland’s thriving Alberta neighborhood. It will open by the end of the year.
Top photo: Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography
The end of summer is prime time for preserving fresh food in jars. With fall fruits coming into market and late summer fruits still on hand, I sought out Deluxe Foods founder Rebecca Staffel to answer my burning questions about pectin, canning methods and the best jam jars.
Rebecca Staffel's favorite preserving books:
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A former cookbook editor at Amazon, literary agent and Microsoft executive, Staffel turned her penchant for preserves into Deluxe Foods in 2010. She sources all her fruit from local farms and uses Old World techniques to boil them into jams, chutneys, jellies and conserves, all in a tiny commercial kitchen in Seattle. In 2001, her gingered rhubarb jam won a Good Food Award and in 2012 her jeweled strawberry preserves were a finalist. Full of humor and generous tips, Staffel describes herself as “jam passionate.” Here are her responses to our questions:
A lot of people are trying canning for the first time, so I want to ask you about the thickening process where fruit becomes jam.
It starts with the fruit, because depending on what fruit you pick that’s going to have its own pectin content. Less ripe fruit has more pectin but less flavor. Riper fruit has more flavor, less pectin. Personally, I don’t mind it dolloping. My bias is for peak-of-the-season fruit, which might make for a slighter looser preserve but it’s going to have maximum flavor.
What about pectin you buy in a package?
I don’t use commercial pectin. We just rely on the pectins in the fruit with lemon juice and sugar. We do a lot of work with maceration. So, we let it [fruit and sugar] sit overnight. The sugar pulls the water out of the fruit, and basically starts candying the fruit while it sits there overnight. That lets us cook the preserve for a shorter period, which I like.
What is commercial pectin and why don’t you use it?
Commercial pectin is completely natural. It’s not evil. Pectin is fruit based, generally citrus. I don’t use it because I don’t care for the gummy texture.
I’m like you, I like a looser jam, but my daughters don’t like it dripping out of their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What do you do to test your set?
I cook to temperature, to 220 F, with a couple of exceptions. Apple butter, pear butter, we cook until a spatula stands up in it [laughs] — so that’s kind of fun. Plum, it’s hard to get Italian prune plums past 218 F. It’s hard to get apricots to go past 218 F without overcooking them, so I just give in and have a soft set with apricot, but with plum you’ll get a firm set.
When I first started canning jam it was blackberry, a good beginner jam, and the woman I was canning with filled the jars, put on the lids and turned them upside down. Other cookbooks do the oven method, while the USDA only approves of the boiling water canning method. What’s the deal?
There is no way you can kill someone with a jar of jam unless you throw it at their head. The botulinum spores do not grow in the high-sugar and high-acid environment of the jam. There are no invisible killers in jam. If you get white or blue fuzz, do not eat that jam. If it’s in the fridge and it starts to crystallize, it’s bad quality. Life is short, don’t eat bad quality jam.
What’s the difference between the rolling water boil method and the oven method?
The rolling water boil method is the USDA-approved method for home canning. You can do oven canning in a commercial kitchen that’s inspected [by the government]. At Deluxe Foods we do oven canning. My feeling is that while my oven may be different than your oven, there are no two ways about boiling water. It is always 212 F. Maybe we mess with elevation, but there is not a 50-degree swing in the rolling water boil. Also, when you start to branch out to pickles or canning fruit, you’re going to have to do the rolling water boil, so you might as well learn how to do it.
Do you have a jam jar you prefer?
Funny you should ask. I have been evolving in my jar choice. I used to use the regular mouth and I liked those crystal jars just because they’re pretty.
Recently, I have switched to wide mouth. I prefer the half pint. Twelve ounces is too much jam.
I have to say two more things about jars. When you have finished jarring up your jam, let it sit for 24 hours. Don’t touch it, don’t move it because that is the time when your set is happening. Once the 24 hours is over, and you’re bored of jam and you can’t believe you even started on this project, you just throw it in the cupboard and forget about it. Don’t do that! Always take the time to label what it is, the date, and, as a bonus, who made it.
Do you have any reflections on the pure labor of love jam-making entails?
I urge people to make small batch because it’s the right amount of labor. You get out of the jam what you put into it. So if you were feeling attentive and loving of the fruit, that’s going to come through in the jam. Not so much that it fills you with wrath because you’re sick of look at rhubarb or sick of looking at apricot. Should you use a processor if this fruit’s been sitting for a week? Of course! It’s more of a sin to waste the fruit. You don’t have to have communion with your food every time. Sometimes you just gotta get it done. It’s OK [laughs], but I like to be with the fruit.
Top photo: Rebecca Staffel. Credit: Hayley Young
I became the family grill master because my husband was happy to leave me to the cooking, even when it involved live flames. I never grilled a steak or burger until the summer we bought a one-quarter share of a locally raised beef steer. When I cooked in restaurants, meats and the grill were strictly men’s domain. The same holds true on back decks across America: Men rule the barbecue.
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Here’s the big secret I want to share with any of my non-grilling sisters: After 12 years of all-season grilling using all manner of grills, I am here to report to that anyone can “man” the grill.
The job comes with loads of perks, like being outdoors while enjoying a refreshing beverage and little kitchen cleanup. Many women I know already do most of the meal preparation before the guy in their lives fires up the grill. Then he gets all the credit for the succulent meal. Sound familiar?
This Fourth of July is the time to own your grill. Or, at least to make friends with it. Start grilling now and you will set yourself up for a summer of cooking fun and ease. Oh, and you will learn a thing or two, like how you already possess most of the skills you need to excel at outdoor cooking.
I once taught a private cooking class to a group of six professional women. All of them entertained regularly and were confident in the kitchen. But, when it came time to grill the lamb chops on my Weber, not one of them was game.
I was shocked, but I also understood. I remembered how inhibited I felt about the whole thing. The process of lighting any type of grill, gas or charcoal, is daunting. Then, there’s the uncertainty of managing those unpredictable flames and knowing when everything — be it pork chop, chicken breast or vegetable kebab — is done.
Five fast steps to grilling success
Even if you didn’t grow up roasting hot dogs over campfires at sleep-away camp, it’s never too late to learn to grill. Backyard barbecuing is not a competitive sport, but a cooking technique like any other.
There is no perfect grill; whatever grill you already own is the best one to use now.
Grilling does not necessarily mean cooking a big piece of meat, but truthfully even that is not hard.
Shooting flames are for show-offs who don’t know how to grill.
So, take a deep breath and leave the high-testosterone grillers to their gigantic tools and their top-secret rubs. It’s time to put on your big girl pants and follow these five steps to get grilling:
1. Learn to light your grill: Igniting the grill is likely the biggest hurdle to girl grilling, so here’s how to take the pressure off. Don’t wait until dinnertime or when your guests are on the deck to light it. Instead, practice. You can ask a supportive spouse or friend for a hands-on tutorial or watch a video. No harm done in burning a little gas or charcoal. Once it’s lit, cover the grill and keep track of how long it takes to heat up. When you hold your hand over the grate and count to less than 5 Mississippi before you have to move it away, it’s hot. If you have a gas grill with a temperature gauge, you’ll wait until it reaches 500 F or higher.
2. Know your tools: Unlike your kitchen full of pots, pans and appliances, the grill brings everything back to basics. All you need to grill is a clean grate, a grill brush for scraping it clean and a pair of sturdy tongs or a spatula. Of these, the grate is the most important. After you’ve lit and preheated your grill, open the lid and scrape that grill hard until every bit of char is gone. You can oil the grate or the food you’ll be grilling to prevent sticking.
3. Start slow and easy: Plan for success by starting your grilling career with simple fare. Hot dogs and sausages cook quickly, and you don’t have to guess when they’re done as you do with a steak. Kebabs are also good beginner fare. Try grilling whole rounds of pita bread and slices of eggplant or portobello mushrooms brushed with olive oil. Be fearless and stay attentive as the foods cook, noting the timing for each. There is no shame in taking a hamburger off the grill, cutting it open to check its doneness and returning it to the grill if it needs more cooking. This is the power of learning.
4. Practice and advance: Once you’re comfortable with lighting, preheating and basic grilling, move up to steaks, salmon and chicken (the most challenging). A good thermometer like the Thermapen will take away all the guesswork. When you get a flare up (flames shooting up through the grate), just grasp the food with your tongs, slide it on the grate away from the flame and close the cover. Flames only scorch food and do not make it taste good.
5. Get adventuresome: Starting out, olive oil and salt and pepper are all the grilling seasonings you need. The magic of grilling is cooking foods to the right doneness, not secret sauces. Still, playing with marinades, rubs, herb sauces and salsas is part of the pleasure. “Weber’s Way to Grill” is one of my favorite books because it covers grilling basics (with photos) plus oodles of seasoning ideas. Another advanced step is to grill an entire meal. The trick is use the grill to its maximum efficiency and to keep yourself completely out of the kitchen.
Once it’s time to plan your first grilling party, get ready to enjoy all the freedom of outdoor cookery and to bask in the glory of it all.
Top photo: Use the whole grill to make a meal: corn, salmon, lemons, polenta and peppers. Credit: Lynne Curry