Intoxicating aromas of smoky mesquite and bold hickory filling the warm air herald the arrival of summer, and tweak nostalgic memories of childhood. Those were the wild-and-crazy barbecuing days when the Weber grill was king, meat was burned beyond recognition over reckless flames from charcoal bricks doused with toxic lighter fluid, while arm hair and eyebrows were always in danger of being singed. Despite the many hazards, grilling has survived, and thankfully, evolved into a greener, cleaner high-tech art and science without striping away the basic principles of cooking in the great outdoors with fire. It's primordial and ensconced in our DNA.
Archaeologists recently discovered giant hearths in the Middle East and other parts littered with crude flints and cooking utensils, along with the charred bones of woolly rhinos and mammoths dating back hundreds of thousands of years. It appears that our cave-dwelling ancestors pioneered barbecue cuisine.
Here are some modern-day grilling tips for a sizzling, safe summer.
From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Top chefs are transporting cast iron and stainless steel skillets and sheet pans to the grill to add a smoky essence to hearty hashes, egg scrambles, risottos, paellas, cioppinos, stews, sauces, mussels and clams in beer broth, pizzas, an assortment of root vegetables, stone fruits, along with nuts and grains.
High-Tech Temps: The state-of-the-art Bluetooth grill thermometer allows the barbecue meister to monitor the cooking process and adjust temperatures via a smart phone or other mobile device at remote locations. A pair of probes, one inserted in the food, the other attached to the grill relay real time feedback to the chef for the cooking status. The meat babysitter controls heat distribution for even cooking, prevents burning or searing, and messages when the food has reached the desired doneness. If a skilled veterinarian or marine biologist can revive the meat, fowl or fish, then return it to the hot grill.
Beef, veal and lamb should reach at least 145-degrees F (medium rare), 155-degrees F (medium), or 160-degrees F (medium well); same temperature for pork, but give the latter a short nap before serving; poultry is safe at 165-degrees F, while scaled fish should be cooked internally to 145-degrees F. Finally, bivalves like mussels need to be grilled until their shells open sesame, otherwise discard.
Smokin' in the Boys Room: Smokers, once a cooking tool for the grilling elite are now popular among the grilling masses. This method infuses meats with a deep mesquite flavor, and a fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Technology can now transform ordinary gas grills into smoker boxes, while other grills have built-in paraphernalia from baskets to drawers for a variety of smoking needs. Portable smoker boxes in all shapes and sizes can also be thrown on the Barbie, along with pizza stones, rotisseries, warming racks, side burners for searing and sauce preparations, and copper grill baskets for foods either too fragile or difficult to flip, or that might slip through the grill cracks like shrimp or vegetables.
Chip off the Old Block: Electric wood-pellet grills with assorted aromatic hardwood pellets are sizzling this summer. This eco-friendly grilling method that also multi-tasks to smoke, braise, roast and bake imparts a natural outdoorsy flavor (more so than gas or charcoal), without leaving ash behind.
Come Clean: Now grill clean-up is a snap with new fangled gadgets and eco-friendly fluids. Fred Flintstone-era wire brushes that splinter and contaminate foods are replaced by safer and greener nylon and wooden scrapers, and high-powered steam cleaning ones that remove most of the carcinogenic grill grime. Soy-based cleansers or a natural homemade paste blending baking soda and water are healthier options than chemical ones. And for damage control rub the cut surface of an onion over the grill followed by a non-stick olive oil spray to prevent foods from glomming on.
White is the New Red: For a change up this summer from smoky tomato-based barbecue sauce, try the new creamy pale version out of Alabama for a nice kick without the red. A blend of mayo, acids (lemon juice and cider vinegar), herbs and spices, it lends well to marinades for fish and fowl, or drizzled on burgers, roasted chicken and veggies, or as an all-purpose dipping sauce or salad dressing.
Recipe: Southern White Barbecue Sauce
• Ingredients: 1 cup mayonnaise (olive or avocado oil-based); 3 T lemon juice; 3 T apple cider vinegar; 2 T spicy mustard; 1 teaspoon white horseradish; 1 garlic clove, minced; 1/2-inch piece ginger, minced; 1 T brown sugar or orange blossom honey
• Method: Combine ingredients in a glass bowl and blend well. Refrigerate in an airtight mason jar.
— Catahrine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org