Dear Sybil, I see on Facebook and your blogs that you are a “Foodie”. You always seem to enjoy cooking, even at the beach…Do you have favorite recipes for entertaining out there, even without a sophisticated Manhattan kitchen? I think it’s so hard to grill things well and not have it turn out like a burnt, dried out mess! Sincerely, Just Goes To The Deli.
Dear Deli, I know exactly what you mean about grilling. The heat, the smoke, the set-up, the break-down, the overcooking/undercooking, the mess, the fire-safety, and the bugs!!........ all for some hot dogs, hamburgers, and some barbecued meat?!?! No wonder cavemen gave up their ways and evolved into the Cordon Bleu!! As far as I was concerned, the only difference between grilling on my deck and a Neanderthal sit-down for 12 was the cave…and some nice drawings of antelope and mastodons dancing together!...And then I had a revelation. I decided that, like so many things in life, challenges we dread are probably the exact path to growth, happiness, and fulfillment. Any moron can pop a frozen TV dinner into a microwave every night of his life and let TV do everything else for him as well! BUT! Actually learning how to boil water, popping some eggs into it, learning the difference between soft-boiled, hard-boiled, poached, coddled, and then going on to create Hollandaise, mousses, soufflés, and all the other amazing things with the incredible-edible egg is where joy is hatched! Why be afraid???
I had always thought that grilling was an inconvenience (at best!) and a chance to fail in front of friends or even catch on fire …or BOTH! (at the worst!). “Time to man-up, Sybil!”, I said to myself!.....(well, “man-ish!”)…. and I hit the books, and the trail for the best barbecue I could find. I spoke with experts, collected cowboy cookbooks, and even watched entire Summer seasons of the Food Network and all the PBS affiliates for tips. ….and to say that one grilling recipe or method is “best” is like saying one Italian grandma’s tomato sauce is “best”! ….the only ”best” is that it’s the “best” way to find yourself gunned down in an alleyway! There are a million different approaches to do the deed in all its variations!…..but I will give away some of my favorites here. First of all, I love barbecued chicken (as well as beef and pork)….. but one absolute rule is cooking time vs. intensity. When you’re working over a fire (as opposed to in a gazillion-dollar Gaggenau oven!) you have to time yourself carefully, and even geographically! It’s not enough to get the coals glowing just right. Piling them all on one side of the grill gives you a specifically “hot” spot for rapid searing and more intense cooking of dark meat in chicken or thicker steaks. And on the coal-free half of the grill, placing a large disposable aluminum roasting pan right against the coals with a few cups of water in it will not only provide a lower-and-slower cooking surface for your grill, but also will provide heated steam to offset the drying out that grilling can cause all-to-quickly. After all the chicken parts have been seared and sealed over the direct coals, the white meat pieces (breasts, etc.) can be moved over the water bath area to cook to a lower interior temperature of 165°F while staying moist, and the dark meat pieces (thighs, drumsticks, etc.) can remain over the coals to cook to a safe 175°F. The operative word here is “pieces”…there seems to be no safe or tasty way to grill an entire chicken intact! All the different parts need to be marinated and grilled according to their own anatomy. And speaking of marinades….dear God, there are so many different choices. Brining has become the great “rediscovered” tactic of everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to Sunday squabs, so it certainly works for meat we’re going to put over an actual flame, n’est-ce pas? Osmosis (oh, that word from 6th grade chemistry class!) is the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a partially permeable membrane into a higher solute concentration where -----have I lost you? I knew that definition would make you wander off!! Suffice it to say that if you “brine” meat, any meat before you expose it to heat, you can flood the tissue and specifically each cell with extra water and even flavorings to enhance the final dish. Brining can take anywhere from an hour or so to half a day depending on what you’re making. A Thanksgiving turkey soak overnight, so can a ham. Chicken pieces for a grill are great if they can sit in a bath of salt, water, and sugar for 4 hours or more….usually the rule is one hour per pound of chicken. Heat a gallon of water to a boil, throw in a cup of kosher salt, a ½ cup of sugar, (or a ½ cup of brown sugar), a ½ cup of white vinegar, and various spices that are freshly crushed up. At his point, you’ll do best by going to your own Food Network favorites, or recipes you’ve stolen from talented friends while their backs were turned! The variations, permutations, and combinations of what can be put into brines numbers in the thousands… it’s easier to win the Mega-Millions than to guess all the different possibilities. I’ve seen tarragon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. Ginger Ale, Orange Crush, Coca Cola, root beer, and Mountain Dew. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme….and wasabi! Look up recipes online and experiment. And then you can make the next great decision: To marinate or not to marinate?!… Some grill-savants combine their brining and marinating beauty-regimens together! Some separate them. One thing I like to do is a basic brine for a couple of hours and then add garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne to the brine and continue for another four hours. This again is a time to explore your own tastes and preferences. Remember whether you’re brining and/or marinating to always cover and refrigerate the meat completely. (And WASH YOUR HANDS!.....that’s a lot of mixing and handling of raw meat, and no time to be coming down with salmonella! ) As to sauces…..go out in your backyard at midnight and look at the night sky! That’s how many recipes there are for barbecue sauces! Again, this is no time for fear….it’s time for fun! You can even do what I’ve done and prepare two or even three different versions of your barbecue chicken for one dinner party! Talk about happy guests!! You’d think I invented the wheel!! Everyone was babbling and bubbling over how the different flavors compared on breasts and thighs!!…and then they actually discussed the chicken! (I KNOW! I couldn’t resist!)…. But the whole dinner party became its own game night , with the game being the “game”! I’ll bet Julia did the same thing at her own seaside soirees. There’s nothing better than feeding folks and entertaining them as well!! Although you could go out and buy a jar of fabulous barbecue sauce that’s been touted far and wide, or even use it as the base for your own additions, why not try different recipes from scratch? A great all-purpose sauce that’ll become your own legacy to your descendants (if any!) could certainly start with ketchup, molasses, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, fresh ground pepper, grated onion, cider vinegar, honey, a little garlic….and some “heat”. That could be paprika, cayenne, ginger, chili powder, red pepper flakes, and even hot sauce. For the non-sober crowd, I’ve seen every kind of booze introduced to both the brine/marinade and the sauce. Again, explore your own tastes…and sobriety! But perhaps let someone else light the coals!....(especially if you’ve been “taste-testing” your recipes…for an hour or more!) The sauce is going to complete the other half of the flavoring process that the brine/marinade started, so be generous with it. After you’ve removed the chicken parts from the brine, dry them and coat them completely with the sauce. Then sear them over the hottest part of the grill. (Try to prevent flare-ups.) Brush on more before you flip them over to get browned and sealed on the other side. Again, move the white meat to finish over the water bath, and the dark meat can stay over the coals. Brush more sauce on every 15 minutes and turn them carefully. This will build up a wonderful golden browned skin that is crunchy and spicy/sweet! The interior temperature of the breasts (without touching the thermometer to a bone!) should be 165°F and the thighs 175°F. Depending on the weather, humidity, your particular grill, and “technique”, it should take around 45 minutes to an hour. One added little trick: put lemon and lime wedges or halves on the grill for just a minute and garnish the serving dish of chicken with them. A squeeze of caramelized citrus as a last flash of freshness on your piping hot poultry will seal your reputation in seashore society as a grilling genius! And we all know how glamorous that can be!! The folks swarming around for invitations will be as thick as mosquitoes! Thicker if you check out last week’s Sybil Sez for chasing bugs!) Bon appétit!! Xoxoxox, Sybil.
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