General cooking tips and rumination
I finally managed to cook those pieces of suadero on the barbecue earlier today. My aim was to have something nice and very tender to eat, but it did not turn out as planned. The meat became very though and chewy from the dry cooking, even though it had marinated for 2 days. The main reason is that the meat has a membrane that just tenses up and that was too thick to crisp well. Also the texture of the meat once cooked was not as expected. It looked like something like arrachera, bavette, or flank which has long fibers, but it really does not. I should have inspected it better before marinating it, but since I was too tired at the time it is my lost.
The taste was fantastic as the cut of meat is very tasty and with the added flavoring of the marinate it tasted very good. The meal looked great, and the side dishes were perfect for it. If it was not for the chewiness of the meat it would have been a great meal. Here is a look at the plated dish.
Looking back at it I should have slow cooked it over moist eat or cooked it until it was very crisp. The stringy texture would probably go either way. I will see what I can do if I buy some again. I was tempted by the cheap price, and I got what I paid for. A big contrast with the nice pork we bought cheaply at the same place as it turned out great.
Since my motto is to learn something new each day, then I will not go to bed stupid tonight as I learned how not too cook suadero! Like in science there are no bad experiments in cooking, just some that yield unexpected results. No I have to go take something for the heartburn…
I have been wondering about something since last night, and that makes me reflect a lot on many things, to the point of making me somewhat unproductive today. I know that I am not chronologically young anymore, but I still feel like I am young deep down inside me, even though some morning my body reminds me that I am not still in my teens. I have been wondering all day if experience still counts for something in today’s society…
This thought was triggered by watching some cooking show on TV last night. There was not much of anything decent on TV and I was zapping through the channels trying to find something interesting to watch. I came across a cooking show that I had seen advertised on one of the Latin American cooking channels we get on cable, but never actually watched. It was a restaurant based reality show where some young chef, that showed his lack of experience in the way he was running the place and also the attitude of a spoiled kid, was confronted with running a busy restaurant short on staff. This attitude is not entirely related to age, as I know people much older than me that exhibit the same personality traits. What came next is what really floored me when this kid in his mid 20’s, who could not be out of cooking school that long, came on camera and boasted "When I was a young chef". I could not help commenting to Normita that I probably have socks older than that kid, and how long could he have been cooking professionally to say something like that. If while in his mid 20’s he is considering himself an ‘Old Timer’ what will he consider himself to be in 20-30 years?
This led me to do some serious thinking about what my outlook on life was when I was that age. I clearly remember that, like most people that age, I thought that I knew better than most people my own age, and a lot of older people, but I also remember that I had, and still have a lot of respect for the opinion of people who had done something longer than I had and accumulated a lot of experience. It all comes down to one of my pet peeves of all time, my long-standing lamenting that the old apprentice system of yore is gone, and there is no way for people to learn a trade that takes years to master, as most people want results now without the need to learn it the old fashioned way. I have worked with my hands all of my life, and I know that many skills are beyond what I can do with the time I have to practice them. I also know that if you want to be good at something you have to have some talent, but the most important thing is practice, and practice, and practice, and some more practice.
Back to the cooking world where somebody used to apprentice for years before moving up in the kitchen hierarchy, we now have kids that goes for a few weeks to a few months in a famous kitchen, and move on to another one to improve their resumÃ©, and that they want to be cooking stars a few short years after they get interested in the trade. This lead to what I saw yesterday on TV when a 25 year old ‘Old Timer’ has is own cooking show on TV, plainly shows that he cannot handle the job at hand, that of running a restaurant’s kitchen, and even worse does not even demonstrate good manual skill at the basic prep work for the dishes he demonstrates. The later is a trait that you see often nowadays on cooking show, and I assume that they do not teach basic techniques in cooking school anymore, or worse that they do, but most people do not bother learning and practicing them properly.
I guess that I am ranting again and boring you all, and that what was supposed to be a very short post is turning into a long one, but I firmly believe that experience and basic skills takes time to learn, and that there are no shortcuts to attain them both. I noticed the same trend in my professional life as a programmer, is that there are so many new things to learn that people are more interested in the technology itself, than in making thing actually do something very well, without the need of the latest technology.
A word of advise to anybody passing by here from an ‘Old Timer’ at many things including life, no matter what your goals are in life, no matter what subject you really feel deeply interested in, please take some time developing the basic skills to achieve your goals. It both takes time and a lot of practice, but when you finally grow up and are finally getting a bit of real life experience under your collar, you will learn to appreciate the fact that you actually KNOW a lot more about the subject at hand than a lot of your contemporaries, and one day you will also learn to be proud of that in itself. By the way, this also applies to people my age, as we are never too old to learn anything new, and experience, no matter how old you are to start with, takes a long time to accumulate. As they would say today, knowledge and experience rules!
On the July 27 will be Normita’s birthday and since on the first time we met, when she visited Canada back in 1998, I brought her on a picnic, I decided to make a nice picnic for her and a few of her friends next Saturday. I am somewhat a traditionalist when it comes to picnics. In my book a picnic should be made with some nice cold food, some nice wines, and preferably served by your staff from a huge wicker basket from the back of your Rolls, but since we have neither staff nor a Rolls Royce, we will have to settle for doing it ourselves out of a cooler and a big plastic bin, from the back of our little VW Lupo.
In the past we normally stuck to two types of picnics, the active ones where we either drove somewhere with all the stuff, or cycled somewhere with a more restricted lunch and no wine, or drove somewhere with the ATV with a decent spread. The other type, and some of my favorites, was the lazy ones we did on our pontoon boat on the lake. We only had to bring whatever we wanted from the house down to the boat, and then lazily putter around the lake for hours at the slowest speed the boat could manage, while listening to nice music on the boat’s stereo, and enjoying the view.
On the more active picnics we normally brought a more restricted menu, normally either sandwiches, or cold cuts, some nice fruits and cheeses, with some nice bread. Of course, depending on how we got to the picnic site, we would bring some wine or juices. One of our favorite ways of doing those types of picnics was the cycling picnics. When we were living in the mountains in QuÃ©bec, we used to cycle regularly from late spring to early fall. There is a stunningly beautiful bicycle track that they built on a reclaimed train track. It goes from MontrÃ©al to Mont-Laurier a few hundred kilometers north. During the week we normally drove to the track where it passed near the village we lived, and cycled to the next village and back. On weekends we would drive to St-Jovite and park there, then cycle either towards Mont-Tremblant, or towards St-Faustin. The ride to St-Faustin was our favorite for picnics, as it was uphill all the way, but we stopped before arriving at the village at a nice ‘pisciculture’ where they raised various species of trout. They had a great picnic area with nice tables in the shade under huge pine trees, and after a hearty meal we could race back downhill to the car without having to exert ourselves too much. We normally brought lighter stuff, from a simple sandwich to some sushi from the supermarket, whatever could conveniently fit in our handlebar bags.
The boat picnics were normally more involved and fancy. We would prepare quite a spread with some nice caviar, foie gras, smoked salmon, small cold water shrimps from Matane, some cheeses from a runny Epoisse to a nice piece of Stilton, assorted cold cuts, and whatever else we fancied. Of course we would probably have a nice cold glass of Fino Sherry like my favorite La Ina, then follow up with some champagne or some other variety of sparkling wine, and maybe a robust red or a port for the end of the meal. The usual peasant fare…
Last weekend we went to Xochimilco, the famous floating gardens at the south of the city, and it reminded me a lot of the days living at the lake. The ‘trajineras’, the long flat bottomed boats that evolved from the traditional indigenous wooden canoes used to navigate the canals, are designed with a long table down the middle, and you can bring your food for a picnic, and also buy food from various sellers in other ‘trajineras’. We did not eat there last weekend, but we plan to go back eventually and bring a nice picnic spread with us. Some pictures of our day in Xochimilco are posted at The Sassquatch’s Lair.
I will not go into the exact menu for next weekend’s picnic as I want to keep it somewhat of a surprise (don’t worry I will post the recipes next week), but I will go a bit into the planning of it.
This time I might forego my normal traditionalist ways and make a hot course for the picnic, as Normita gave me a nice little portable gas grill for my birthday last year, and I have not had a chance of really using it.
The first step was to find a place to have the picnic. Although there are some places with picnic areas in various parks throughout the city, and we can also have a picnic anywhere we can put a blanket down, I felt that we should go a bit more toward the periphery of the city, even if it is just to get a bit of fresh air as a relief to the pollution. I looked around a bit and found a few promising places, and we might just go to some national park at the south of the city called ‘El Ajusco’. It is in and around a mountain peak that towers over the valley, and abounds with hiking trails and picnic areas. Hopefully the place will be worth it, and if the pollution level is down, the views should be stunning.
Next on the list is what to bring with us. In Canada we have a nice wicker picnic basket with all the basics we needed for picnics. Of course it is in storage over there with the rest of our things, so it is not of much help to us now. Yesterday, while we were doing our groceries, we had decided to pick up paper plates and plastic cutlery and glasses, but we both never liked eating out of those. We were looking around the store and we came across some nice very cheap plastic dinnerware sets for 4, and cheap cutlery sets. The total cost was not very much more than a few sets of the disposable stuff, so we splurged and invested in a 4 place setting with cutlery and picked up a few plastic glasses and a serving tray. We also picked up a big plastic bin with a locking lid where we can store everything, and we already cleaned and packed it up with our new stuff. Other essentials we will add are some clothe napkins, a roll of paper towels, salt and pepper shakers, some wine glasses wrapped in dish clothes, a tablecloth, a blanket, some serving tools, a carving knife, a paring knife, and let’s not forget the most important a champagne bottle stopper and a corkscrew.
Since I planned the meal to be a little more formal than the typical picnic, I decided to plan it like a regular meal, with some starters including some patÃ© and salad, followed by a cold soup. The main course will be cooked on the spot, but the side dishes will be prepared ahead and reheated to simplify my life. The main goal is to make it as easy to prepare and to eat, with most food already cut into pieces so that you can easily hold your plate in one hand and eat with the other. I also want to bring some dessert, but I have not had any inspiration yet on something that would be nice and easily served at a picnic. I am sure that the week will bring some inspiration.
I have been asked many times about how to plan a dinner party and it is something that can be done easily with a minimum of fuss. A few simple common sense rules can be followed to get perfect results all the time. First the most important thing is to decide what type of party you plan to do. It all depends of your skills in the kitchen and the way you are equipped, in deciding what exactly you can deliver. There is no way you should attempt an 8 course tasting dinner for 15 people, if you can barely boil water without melting the pot.
One of the most common problems is attempting too much with too high expectations. I have been cooking all of my life, and I would not attempt a complex dinner without a properly equipped kitchen. It can be done, but it leads to an enormous amount of work. I remember a few years back making a 6-7 dish Chinese meal for 8 people that needed to be cooked on the spot, in our very small apartment kitchen with only a single small wok to work with. I did managed to pull it off, but it needed some very careful planning and critical scheduling of the actual preparation. It also helped that I prepared recipes that I was very familiar with and that I could prepare with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.
Normally when I plan something very special I try to reduce the audience to 4 to 6 people maximum, and try to keep to easier stuff for larger crowds. Another thing to remember is not to attempt a recipe or technique you are not familiar with in such a setting, as the stress is too much and your guests should not be guinea pigs for you culinary adventures, unless they know what they will be in for. I normally try to stick to tradition when I plan a dinner party at the last minute. I plan some nice hors d’oeuvre and/or snack for when the guests arrive, and make sure that we have a variety of drinks for the occasion.
Once I have chatted with the guests for about an hour or so I normally adjourn to the kitchen to get going on the final preps of the meal. I usually star with a lighter first course, either soup, a fish course, or something unusual if I am in the mood, normally served with some white wine, if it matches the food served. I follow that with the main course which would be heavier like a meat course, normally with a red wine, again matching the food. The tradition in my family is to follow that with a nice salad if people are still hungry, and then to the dessert course, and then a cheese platter, as I am of French descent and I love some nice cheeses with the best bottle of red wine or some port after the meal.
It sounds like a lot, but we normally spend 3-5 hours or more at the table, so it does not feel that bad. The main ingredient is to have interesting guests, and with good food and wine you tend to solve all the problems in the world in the conversation during the course of the meal. By keeping it simple and sticking with favorite recipes it can be made with a minimum of problems. If you plan something more elaborate, plan ahead and practice all of your recipes and techniques ahead of time, and make yourself a schedule of what need to be prepared when, and a list of all the ingredients you need for all the recipes. I normally stick on the refrigerator with magnets, the actual menu I make for the guests to make sure that I do not forget anything, and also a list of ingredients for all of the recipes to make sure that a crucial step or ingredient is not forgotten in the heat of the moment. With proper planning you can easily deliver the fanciest of dinner parties, as long as you organize yourself and stick to your abilities.
Last week I was writing about a recipe that did not turn out as planned, because I had left the shrimps marinate too long, and then the sauce was a bit unbalanced to my taste. Today we left early for some shopping and one thing lead to another and we returned home late in the afternoon totally exhausted. I was planning to make some simple chicken ‘bistecs’, butterflied chicken breasts pounded thinly, with some mashed potatoes. When we were putting away all of the fresh fruits and vegetables we bought at the market, I ended up with much more pineapple than the plastic container I use to refrigerate the slices can hold. I normally buy one large pineapple or two small ones every week when they are in season, and then trim and slice them, then store them in an airtight container if the refrigerator for the week. This week I bought a large one and tried a small one of a new variety that our fruit merchant had received this week.
Since I had more pineapple that I could easily store, Normita suggested that I prepare the chicken a bit like the shrimps I had made last week, as she liked them a lot. In this way I can revisit the recipe, with a small change of ingredients, and see if the new ideas I have for the sauce will be better to my taste. If it is a success I will post the recipe in the coming days.
The other week I posted the simple recipe of a mango mousse that Normita had made when my parents had visited us from Canada. It made for a very tasty but rich dessert. I had mentioned that I had put it to freeze in the refrigerator, but I did not say that I had totally forgotten about it especially in the first few hours in there. I totally forgot to stir it during that time, and it ended up being a solid piece of mango ice, and you need to take it out of the freezer for 30-40 minutes before you can serve it. It is still very good, and I will see if I can think of something to do with the leftovers…
Normita, who thought it was too rich for her, just made a simple mango purÃ©e with some leftover manila mangos we had from last week. She just pureed it in the blender and we will see how it turns out. Maybe this time it will make some nice ‘sorbet’ or ‘granita’ instead of solid ice cubes…
Last weekend I was preparing a series of new recipes in my mind to try on Sunday. When doing our Saturday morning shopping at the Mercado de Jamaica, we found a new fish place that had nice fresh fish and seafood at a very reasonable price. We picked up a bit of shrimp for the meal on Sunday, and since I had some leftover clotted cream at home, I decide to make some nice scalloped potatoes with the shrimps, and a rich thick chile guajillo cream sauce to go with the shrimps.
When Sunday morning arrived, Normita had not slept well and had stomach problems when she got up. She was definitely not in the mood for a rich meal, so I had to change my plans. I decided to forego the chile sauce to spare her stomach, even though the guajillos are very mild. I now have half a pound of them to use on a later date when she feels better. Luckily they are a dried variety and they keep for ages.
To make a lighter meal I decided to briefly marinate the shrimps in some fruit juices. I had some pineapple, mango, and orange juices at hand, and first soaked the shrimps in a bit of reposado tequila to give them a nice tangy flavor. My plan was to simply marinate them for 15 minutes, and then stir-fry them quickly in the wok, flambÃ© them with some tequila, and make a nice quick sauce with the juice marinade, and some extra ingredients.
The main problem was that things did not go as planned, and we ended up doing a lot of things in the afternoon, and instead of marinating for 15 minutes the shrimps marinated for close to 4-5 hours. Of course the shrimps became a bit rubbery from the too long marinade, and when cooked a lot of the accumulate juices came out, to further stiffen them. The juices were also a bit on the sweet side and lacked acidity, which did not help a bit.
Normita liked the meal a lot, judging by the speed by which she emptied her plate. I was left disappointed as the nice shrimps had turned a bit too rubbery for my taste from the too long marinating, and the sauce lacked a bit of acidity to make it interesting for my taste. I guess that we cannot win them all. Since there was nothing wrong with the basic recipe, and only some small adjustments are needed, I will get some more shrimps in one of our future visit to the market, and I will correct and retry the recipe at that time. As long as I do not marinate the shrimps too much, next time should be a great success. When I am satisfied by the results I will post it for all to enjoy. Until then I will go pout in a corner…
Last night ‘somebody who does not want to be named’ (SWDNWTBN), an experienced cook who excels at making fantastic soups, had a fun little adventure in cooking. People always assume that experienced cooks always get perfect results, but I am the first to acknowledge that I make my share of mistakes and blunders in the kitchen like everybody else. Due to inattention or distraction, or just really not being in the mood for cooking, you can easily make messes and ruin dishes. The main difference between an average cook and a great one is that a great one can often salvage the dish or turn it into something else, if it is not too far along the path to oblivion.
This story is about one of those situations that went way too far down the path to oblivion. I was sitting in my office and SWDNWTBN was in the kitchen preparing a big pot of chicken and vegetable soup that would be our lunches for the rest of the week. The chicken would be used in chicken salads or sandwiches, and the soup first by itself, then as a nice purÃ©e with the adjunct of a bit of milk or cream. I started to notice a somewhat unpleasant smell in the air and asked SWDNWTBN what was going on. According to SWDNWTBN nothing out of the ordinary was going on, so I assumed that the smell was one of those strange emanations that the city’s pollution level bring to you at times.
A bit later I visited SWDNWTBN in the kitchen and she was cutting the chicken legs into pieces and putting them into a plastic container for us to use in the coming days. I noticed again the strange smell and commented about it. It seemed to be coming from the chicken, but was not too overpowering at the time. A while later, when the large pot of soup was cooling, I passed by the kitchen again and SWDNWTBN asked me if I could smell the chicken that was now in the refrigerator. I opened the plastic container and I almost lost my supper right there and then. The chicken was after all the source of the bad smell and we were now sitting with a nice container of salmonella-infested chicken and a large pot of special salmonella soup, enough to kill the entire neighborhood and then some.
I asked SWDNWTBN if the chicken smelled strange before cooking, and she replied that she smelled it and it smelled really strange, and she wanted me to check it before cooking, but since she was very tired after a long stressful day at work, as she had to do the job of 2 people who are on holidays on top of hers, she totally forgot and cooked the chicken anyway. She mentioned to me that once cooked she did not feel like tasting the chicken as it smelled really bad. I still wonder why she prepared it all and kept cooking the soup, but let’s put it as one of the hazards of cooking while distracted.
We ended up throwing the chicken and the soup away, as we did not want to take a chance in poisoning ourselves. What lessons can we extract from the adventure? First, if the chicken smells bad before cooking, throw it away first and don’t use it in the soup. You might lose the chicken meals, but at least you will still have a pot of soup to eat. Second, when you are very tired and distracted, be careful in the kitchen and if you are not sure about the quality of an ingredient, ask a second opinion. SWDNWTBN almost lost a fingertip last weekend from a bread cutting accident, so it might be a good idea for her to relax a bit away from the kitchen. As mentioned before, a great cook can salvage badly messed-up dishes at times, but no amount of cooking skills can salvage a pot of salmonella soup, unless you need it to get rid of the entire neighborhood…
Just as we finally got the new car the other week, we started thinking about driving out of town to get some fresh air and have some picnics. The weather did not cooperate since then and turned to the worse. Here, around Mexico City, the picnic season is year long, as long as you do not mind some cold morning in the winter, and some rainy evening during the rain season. Winter was finally over and the weather was becoming unseasonably hot, and the rain season was still a few months away, when last weekend the weather turned to cold with daily rain showers or thunderstorms in the afternoon. It put a stop to our plans for a picnic last weekend and we will see how things turn up for next weekend. As I write this the weather is cloudy and it is raining. I could do without this depression-inducing mess…
Those of you who do not know us, would not know the story of how Normita and I met. We were one of those lucky couples who met in the early days of the Internet. Back around the winter of 1998 we started exchanging emails regularly after Normita sent me a message in some forum. She was in Mexico City and I was spending my time commuting and working between QuÃ©bec and Washington, DC. We started an extended daily email exchange that lasted for 4-5 months until one day her parents were planning a holiday trip to Canada and she decided to take some time off from work and join them. Before she left we agreed to meet in Montreal for a day when her tour was passing through town. We both were nervous about this, even though we had been sharing our thoughts and lives daily for months. Strangely enough we never had spoken to each other and it was strange when she called me the day before we were supposed to meet to confirm.
To make a long story short I planned a nice picnic for our first meeting, and we agreed to meet at her hotel so that I could pick her up. After somewhat of a false start, since they put them in a different hotel across the street and she was calling my cell phone to let me know about this, and she was thinking that I really did not want to see her as I was not answering. What I had forgotten to tell her, was that my cell phone was one of these huge in-car units, as to get any service in the mountains where I lived at the time I needed one of those powerful monsters. I was waiting at the hotel she had told me, and she finally went there to check and it was love at first sight, but that is another story. We left for visiting the city and later to our picnic at the top of the Mont-Royal and we have enjoyed regularly picnicking since the first day we met.
Over the years we have tried many different ways of picnicking in style, and our favorite was always the ones we enjoyed on our pontoon boat on the large lake where we lived in the Laurentian mountains of QuÃ©bec. We could slowly circle the lake listening to nice music on the stereo and enjoy looking at the scenery while slowly eating our nicely prepared picnic. We also regularly did some fun picnics while cycling. Actually not while pedaling the bicycles, but by cycling to interesting destinations and eating there.
The common denominator to what we have always enjoyed was the style of food we always brought. We have a tendency to get on the fancy side of cold picnics with nice shrimps, smoked salmon, foie gras, and stuff like that. I think that it dates back to the days when I was living alone and traveling all over the world all the time, and I used to have little picnic feasts in my hotel room. I’d buy a bottle of nice champagne, some caviar, foie gras, shrimps, and smoked salmon, as well as a nice baguette and have my little celebratory picnic on the hotel bed. I enjoyed it so much that once a month, when I was at home; I did the same in the living room while watching some movie on TV or listening to some nice music.
Since we like to picnic in style we assembled a nice picnic basket with some nice place settings, good quality cutlery, some nice clothe napkins, and some sturdy quality acrylic glasses, though most of the time we were bringing real crystal INAO standard tasting glasses wrapped in some thick dish clothes, as they are very versatile and somewhat more robust than regular stemware. We have not had the opportunity to picnic much in recent years, but we plan to do so again. In the coming weeks I plan to start assembling a new picnic basket so that we can have it ready for whenever we feel like jumping in the car and having a nice picnic in style. Normita bought me a nice little portable gas BBQ grill last summer, and we only found the proper propane bottles for it last week, so we might get even a bit more involved in our picnicking this time around by preparing some cooked dishes on-site.
In the coming week I will post on how we setup our new picnic basket, reviews of equipment including the grill, and some nice recipes that can be enjoyed with minimal fuss. Hopefully the weather will clear up for the weekend and we will be able to enjoy our first outing. If not we might give it a shot and picnic on the bed like I used to in the old days…
…that’s the question as spring is approaching quickly in Europe. But what is the essence of grilling and barbecue? It seems there are many answers, leading to excessive disputes among grilling aficionados.
I was recently reminded of that dilemma when overhearing the discussion on a neighboring table during a nice dinner. Two couples in their late 40ies/early 50ies were celebrating a birthday and during the dinner, on of the guys mentioned that he had recently ordered a high-end Weber gas grill. That’s when the other guy went ballistic and proclaimed that no matter how much one spends on a gas ‘grill’ real grilling would never be possible. The discussion continued for the rest of the evening.
So what is the essence of grilling? Personally I see two criteria and both should apply. One is procedural: meat, fish or whatever is grilled, is heated by applying radiation heat from a very hot surface. The other is more hedonistic and it’s about grilling aroma that partly results from the procedural, partly from other causes as a lot of other factors are contributing to the aroma.
There are many ways to grill, modern and traditional ones – including some that simply are not feasible in our modern world, at least not for even very accomplished grill hobbyists. In our daily lives we typically use a compact grill that can be fired by charcoal or wood, by gas or even by electricity. The later is a matter of dispute as usually you don’t get the intense heat and the heat capacity of the previous methods and, even worse, usually electric grills don’t feature a real grate where fat and juices can drip through, but a wavy surface operating as a contact grill.
That is the same principle used in grilling pans, the meat (or whatever) only rests on minor part of its surface while the heat radiates and convects more or less freely in the wide ‘valleys’ between. I wouldn’t consider it ‘real’ grilling but the results, if done properly, emulate ‘real’ grilling decently. The lack of real ‘grill’ aroma is balanced by a lower health risk from the nasty chemicals that are in the aroma. It’s similar to grilling on a real grill but putting the meat or fish in aluminum pans – healthier, maybe, but way duller – eat your heart out, George Foreman!
In a ‘real’ grill there are three key elements to the procedural criteria. For heat radiation to function properly you need proper distance and high temperature on the heat source’s surface. And you need the capability to either provide high amounts or to store heat energy, as the environment will cool the heat source’s surface. This can be effectuated by the possibility to produce a lot of heat and/or by storing – which is the secret of lava stone grills and the famous Weber Flavorizer™ bars. Charcoal is perfect in this way as it can produce searing heat, especially if ‘encouraged’ by a blow dryer, and it stores a lot of energy on the inside.
The results of the high temperature, the right distance and high heat capacity are simple yet stunning. The surface of the meat or fish will get denaturized very quickly, sealing off juices, moisture and flavors on the inside while making fatty tissue and skin crispy. Any liquids dripping on the heat source will evaporate quickly adding to the aromas. If the meat of fish has been marinated or basted or rubbed, the aromates on the surface will be melted into the crust adding to its taste.
This said, there are several considerations for grilling and some do depend on the type of grill you use. Generally speaking, fatter meat or fish comes out juicier and tastier but it’s a matter of personal preferences and health considerations. If you want or have to stick with leaner cuts or types, you may consider marinating. High heat for short grilling times is also essential so it doesn’t dry out. Thus a charcoal grill may be the better bet here. Also keep in mind that many flavors and spices are not only enhanced by fat, they dissolve and spread in it. Thus for lean cuts the spices and herbs should work well without fat – examples are salt, lime and lemon juice, beer, chiles. Marinating lean cuts with olive oil can be a healthy alternative too.
Another great enhancer, no mater what type of grill you use and no matter whether you prepare lean or fatty, is smoke. Nothing beats the delicious aromas of a wood grilled steak. If you’re firing gas or charcoal, use wood chips to add to the flavor. Depending on heat, duration and amount of chips this can reach from just a touch to hot smoking. I remember one occasion where we ran low on charcoals so we marinated the salmon a bit, put a lot of wood chips in the grill, closed the lid and 30 minutes later we had the most tender, juicy and delicately grilled/smoked salmon ever. In a charcoal grill you can simply throw the chips on the coal. Gas grills sometimes feature smoker compartments. A cheap and easy alternative is a small smoking pouch made of aluminum foil (thanks to grill guru Steve Raichlin for this tip – his books are the best on this matter). Also keep in mind that usually you will soak the chips in water, beer or cider for 20 minutes before using them so they burn and smoke slowly. If you’re doing thinner cuts of meat or fish that only take a short time, using dry chips instead will enhance the aroma.
While dripping fat that flares up (bursts in flames) does provide strong aroma, it’s also very unhealthy. If you grill frequently, you should thus limit flare ups. There are several ways to do it, depending again on your grill. Gas grills usually limit them automatically. On charcoal or wood you can quickly move the meat, spray some water or beer or use an indirect grilling approach where the charcoal is on the sides with a dripping pan in the middle. The meat sits atop the dripping pan and is heated from the sides, fat drips into the dripping pan – this by the way is the only valid use of aluminum containers in real grilling. This works extremely well but isn’t fit for all kinds of dishes and usually takes way longer. Spare ribs are a good example of a perfect fit for indirect grilling. On a gas grill you can use the technique by only heating some of the burners.
Talking health, if you’re grilling over charcoal you need to start the fire. Never use liquid starters as they add a lot of unwanted and unhealthy ‘aromas’. For best results use a grill starting chimney that works fine with newspapers and even better with those little solid starter cubes.
As for sides, many come out wonderfully on the grill, so get them out of the kitchen. Among our favorites are tortillas, oven potatoes (we just wrap them in foil and put them close to the heat), corn on the cob, green onions and sweet bell peppers. Even if you prefer rice, noodles or couscous you can still add some smoke aroma by keeping them close to the barbecue.
A final word on cleaning. Many people love to grill but hate to clean the grill afterwards. This need not be as some simple routines will take care of the cleaning almost by themselves. First of all, when you’re done with pre-heating, use a wire brush to clean the grate. Next rub it well with oil or fat, using your grill thongs. If the grate is hot and well oiled, meat and fish will not stick to it easily. When you are done grilling, let the grate reheat well – on a gas grill turn the burners to high again. After 5 minutes or so most residues will have burned off and you can remove any leftovers with the wire brush.
So are you getting ready for the new grilling season? You bet we are – we already bought a new gas bottle for the big Weber monster on the balcony and a few bags of charcoal for the cheap little one on the roof. We prefer to have some choices, you know, and the best tool for every dish. Most important of all we will have fun and delicious food and often invite friends or family to join in – the more, the merrier. And we will NOT discuss what is grilling and what is not, we’ll just do it.
A few days ago I posted a comment I had made on another blog about cooking for two and how to deal with leftovers. My advices was mainly to know your appetite, cook the required amount, and if you need to cook more plan what you will do with your leftovers ahead of time. This stuck to the back of my mind and I thought about how we normally handle this here as there is only the two of us. Our goldfishes and the colibris we feed outside do not count…
Here in Mexico the main meal of the day is what we would call lunch in Canada or the US and it is taken at 2-3pm instead of noon. The evening meal, which all of my life was the main meal, is either very light or just some fruits or a sweet bread. I have a tendency to skip it entirely unless I have a sudden craving for something or other. In a way I prefer this style of eating, as you never go to bed with a full stomach and lay there wondering why you cannot sleep because you ate so much. It still feel strange for me to go out to a nice restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, so we normally go out to restaurants in the early evening when we do so. If I go out on a business lunch, I can normally count that the business day will be over at the restaurant. Most serious business is done over a meal, so it gives you a good change to develop solid business relationships and eventually long-lasting friendships.
I am going through this long-winded story to explain the simple fact that during the week I mostly prepare lunches for Normita in the morning and will eat an easy-to-prepare meal in the afternoon as I do not have the time to do anything more involved. I always do single portion dishes so we normally do not have leftovers. When I do have leftovers, normally I use them the next day. On Fridays and weekends things are different as Normita normally finishes work early on Fridays and she joins me for lunch, and we normally plan something more involved on Saturday and Sundays. Friday’s lunch I plan a meal for two and I make sure that I do not have leftovers, so I cook accordingly. The weekend’s meals are a bit different, when we have company I deliberately make more than required, as I never like running short of food for the guests. I tend to use the leftovers the next day or freeze them if we cannot use them all. When we are alone, depending on the dishes we planned, I either will cook just enough, or plan the lunches for the beginning of the week around the leftovers.
Some dishes are much better in larger quantities like stews, soups, roasts, and things like that. I always do a larger portion and deal with leftovers according to their volumes. We used to freeze leftover soups, but now we shy away from doing that as we do not have much room in the freezer and also we ended up with unidentified blocks of ice with bit and pieces in them, and some months later we ended up throwing them away. Now I prefer using them right away and preparing lunches for neighbors and acquaintances.