column By: Gordon Hamersley | March, 20
— Francis Mallmann,
Chef and live-fire master
It’s grilling season, and life has slowed. Your backyard is likely filled with friends, and the grill is crackling away cooking steaks and lobsters while plumes of wood smoke swirl. Or maybe you have an open-pit fire burning at your campsite in the woods. The logs you lit 45 minutes ago are finally turning to coals, and that perfect gray ash is forming. Game birds from last fall, nicely seasoned, go on the grill along with the fish you caught in the afternoon. Yes, indeed. Summer cooking is primal, simple and wonderfully easy. We grill masters intuitively know how it’s done.
Yeah? Well, if it’s so damn easy and intuitive, why have I practically burned down buildings and set myself on fire trying to learn how to be a restaurant-grade grill cook? There was that time I put too many steaks on my grill for a large party that so much smoke and fire came out of our chimneys that our kind neighbors called the fire department out of concern for our (and their) safety. Or the time I was cooking a huge, multi-course banquet outside in the mountains of Colorado. I had 10 charcoal grills lined up, 8-feet long each, and six cooks grilling hundreds of quail when a freak cloudburst doused the coals and left my quail soaking wet and only half cooked.
True expertise when working a grill involves a cook’s ability to manipulate the heat. Watch a good chef and you’ll see him/her control the cooking by moving the coals. Increasing or decreasing the heat’s intensity and knowing just when and where to move a piece of meat or fish to a particular spot are the skills gained through experience. Little changes at the grill make for big changes in the way we perceive what we’re eating. Getting a big beef rib just right takes good fire tending. Getting that game bird skin blistered, golden and perfect and the breast succulent and juicy takes much experience. It’s taken me years, but now I’m getting better at knowing how to control the fire.
Grills, like shotguns, come in a variety of styles and sizes. Grilling in its basic form is very elemental. A fire and a grate to put meat on are really all it takes. The fancy grills lined up out in front of Home Depot in the summer like gleaming pickup trucks at a dealership are designed to ignite a certain “cool factor” in our imaginations.
I often use a simple Weber Kettle, inexpensive, versatile and light as a feather for travel. I’ve finally learned how to control the Weber using its various dampers and by positioning coals. It works for me, usually. Flare-ups are my biggest issue, but those aren’t the grill’s fault. Rather when I try to start cooking too soon, before the coals are ready or when fat drips off the grates and onto the coals, that’s when the food seems to instantly burst into flames.
Most of us don’t have access to all the new, cool grills out there so I called on my old friend Steven Raichlen of Primal Grill and Project Smoke TV fame to talk about grills he likes.
He, too, is a fan of the Weber Kettle because it is so versatile. “You can direct grill, indirect grill and smoke on it,” he says. “If you buy the rotisserie attachment, you can do my favorite method for game birds (for all birds, really): spit-roasting with wood smoke.”
Raichlen also really likes the kamado-style grills like the Big Green Egg with a dome shape similar to the Weber’s.
“The silicon seal on the Egg really holds in the moisture, which helps when grilling lean meat like game,” he says.
What makes it unique is the thick ceramic inside wall that creates a very even heat, and the temperatures can be very precisely controlled so that long, slow smoking is easy. Smoked pheasant or grouse is one of the world’s great delicacies.
I recently went in search for a parrilla-type grill (direct heat method) like I saw in restaurants in Buenos Aires. Brendan McCarthy is a fishing guide and also a welder and metal fabricator who makes fabulous Argentine-style grills in Brooklyn, New York. His grills are a beautifully designed take on the simple setups used by regular home cooks in Argentina.
McCarthy says, “Most of what is seen in Argentina are homemade, brick in the backyard, chain around a bar with grill hanging-type.” There is an iron fire basket where logs or charcoal burn down to embers. The basket sits next to the grill grate so the cook simply shovels the ready coals sideways in under the grates and starts cooking. The grates are V-shaped, and the grate can be raised and lowered with the use of a chain attached to a flywheel. McCarthy says one finds similar setups in Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Brazil.
This is my favorite design by far because it solves the three main problems I always seem to have. First, on Argentine-style grills, wood is always burning down to coals and when ready is shoveled under the grate so no flare-ups occur. Next, the unique V-shape grate catches drippings and runs them into a trough so they never hit the hot coals (again, no flare-ups). Finally, the whole grate can be raised and lowered to change the intensity of the heat as quickly as needed.
McCarthy says, “The key is a V-channel grill that is tilted to keep the grease from getting into the fire and creating smoke and flame and an acrid taste to the food.”
Sam Sifton, Food Editor at The New York Times and a fan of the Northfork parrilla, describes it this way. “You’re grilling, but you’re not; you’re doing a kind of open-air barbecue; you’re using smoke as an ingredient. ...”
The parrilla is fabulous for big, thick steaks and whole sides of fish because it allows the cook the most control I’ve ever seen with its unique design.
Sifton goes on, “Chickens, too. In fact, hanging a chicken for an hour over the fire then popping it into a cast iron pot to finish cooking in the coals? That’s about the greatest chicken there is.” I’ll add, game birds, too!
Game bird grilling can be tricky to master, and it’s not always the fault of the grill cook. One factor to consider is the birds are very lean, and that calls for perfect timing. Take birds off the grill before you think they are done because they continue to cook off the heat for a few minutes.
Spatchcocking game birds, thus making them an even thickness, is a great idea for the direct grilling. Or wrapping small birds like quail, woodcock or doves in bacon and letting the indirect method solve the problem of dry birds.
One summer at Barbara and Steven Raichlen’s place on Martha’s Vineyard for lunch I couldn’t help noticing the 25 or 30 grills of various types out on their deck. There were a few Webers of different sizes, a Big Green Egg, a few Japanese hibachis and many others. A beautiful Northfork parrilla with its familiar aqua blue flywheel elegantly held fish, chicken and vegetables that would soon be our lunch. I asked him which one he’d take to a desert island, and he gave me a pained smile. “Gordon, I’m into multiple grill ownership!”