Summer, it smells like burning

Published August 9, 2011 by livinggraciously

I’m doing something that doesn’t happen very often around here: I’m barbecuing.

When I was a kid, barbecue was a summer staple. Partly because in our unairconditioned houses, it provided hot food without heating up the oven – and believe me, when it’s 110 degrees outside under the eastern Oregon sun, you do not want to heat up the oven.

But a big reason for barbecuing was that it tasted so darned good.  A burger cooked over charcoal isn’t inherently superior to one done on the stovetop – after all, it’s perfectly possible to do a bad job barbecuing – but it has a big head start over a fried burger.

For our first anniversary, my ex bought me a Weber round grill. His mother was horrified over the notion of such an unromantic gift, but I was thrilled. We barbecued on our deck in Alaska both summer and winter – even after a bear mauled our grill in search of the source of the yummy residual scent of smoky meat. When we had an outdoor hot tub, we would invite people over in the dead of winter for soaking and barbecue, our little contribution to maintaining sanity at 20 below zero. (The great image of my ex bundled to his eyeballs and wielding a barbecue fork while the rest of us wandered around in swimsuits is one of those absurdities I will always cherish.)

Alas, I lost the barbecue in the divorce, and after we moved to Ohio the habit fell away. A couple years ago we won a barbecue in a sweepstakes, and have used it a few times since, but there hasn’t been any just-for-us grilling.

Until today. I had a chicken that needed to be cooked, and suddenly cutting it into quarters and putting it on the grill sounded like the best idea ever. After parting it out, I marinated it in a salt and sugar brine with garlic and vinegar, and then started it over a slow grill, away from the coals so it can cook through.

When I was a kid, barbecue also meant potato salad, jello salad with fruit, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, and Mom’s pickled cucumber and onions salad. Out of that list, I am retaining corn on the cob, but the rest of the accompaniments will be grilled asparagus, zucchini, and yellow peppers. I’ve coated them lightly with olive oil and garlic powder, and they will go on the grill when the chicken is almost done.

Stepping outside with a plateful of food, ready to spread it over the open fire of charcoal, was one of those sense memory experiences that takes me back to the hot, dry summers of my childhood: we kids running in and out the back door, carrying plates to set the table, fetching things from Mom for Dad, being yelled at to stop slamming the damned screen door!  I think I developed my taste for rare steak because Dad only cooked over the hottest, most massive possible bed of coals he could muster. He cooked with a spray bottle in hand, putting out the roaring grease fires that threatened to engulf dinner (and did, on occasion–Dad had a tendency to get distracted).

To Ferrett, the charred places on barbecue taste terribly burned. To me they taste like home.

My barbecue is updated, enhanced methods thanks to Cooks Illustrated. But it’s lost a little something of that crazy childhood charm.

The trick with this is to light a medium number of coals all off to one side of the grill. You don’t want a searing hot fire, because it will end you with chicken that’s burned on the outside and raw in the middle. Once the coals are ashy, you can throw some wood chips soaked in water onto them if you like a smoky taste – do this only once, as doing it more can result in an ashy, bitter taste. Then place the chicken piece on the side of the grill away from the coals, skin side up with the thickest part of the meat toward the coals. Cook them for an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, never turning them. I checked them every 15 minutes to make sure nothing was getting charred, but the heat was low enough that it was never a problem. After an hour and a quarter, I checked with a meat thermometer and the breasts were a perfect 165 degrees.

All that space on the other half of the grill shouldn’t go to waste, says I. So after 45 minutes I put asparagus, sliced zucchini, and sliced bell peppers on the other half. Before putting them on the grill I coated them lightly with olive oil and sprinkled with garlic powder. On the slow heat of the grill, they were done when the chicken was done.

Add in corn cooked the regular way, and this was dinner. The chicken was incredibly moist and juicy, with a sweet smokey flavor that I thought was wonderful. Ferrett is not as crazy about smoke flavor, so next time I will try it without the hickory chips. A definite winner!

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