Chef on Call

How One Cook Warmed Up to Her Old Flame

(Len Spoden (703) 598-7427 - Freelance)
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One look at the slightly off-kilter BBQer's Choice gas grill sitting largely neglected on Susan Noble's spacious deck in Arnold says it all. Noble has been suffering from an affliction common to many otherwise confident cooks: grill phobia.

"My husband, Joe, can sometimes grill a good steak, but then he'll put that Montreal stuff [a packaged seasoning rub] all over it and kill it," says Noble, before fessing up to her own shortcomings: "Fajitas and burgers are about all I grill. I have two marinades that I've used forever, and everyone is sick of them."

The time had come for Noble, 41, to face her fear head-on. "I would love to use my gas grill more during the year," she wrote in a plea to Chef on Call. "I dream of grilled fish, perfectly cooked steaks and beautiful summer vegetables. Help!"

It's a myth, of course, that grilling is just a guy thing. In a January survey by the Propane Education and Research Council, 66 percent of women said they use their gas grill at least a couple of times a week during the season, compared with 57 percent of men. Noble was ready to join their ranks, but a reasonable fear stood in her way: The perception that grilling is a cinch can lead to distress when men and women alike discover otherwise.

With a grill, temperatures are difficult to gauge, and the timing can be tricky; the distance between done and burned is short. Success relies as much on intuition as on pure knowledge.

At Georgetown's Mendocino Grille, chef Barry Koslow's menu emphasizes grilled preparations of locally grown produce, naturally raised meats and sustainable fish and seafood, so he was just the chef for the job. He consulted with Noble and designed a four-hour crash course that addressed her concerns: how to multi-task, test for doneness, use proper techniques and diversify her repertoire. By the lesson's end, Noble had learned how to grill asparagus, hearts of palm, fennel, bell peppers, corn, flank steak, whole red snapper and peaches.

Noble quickly realized that grilling, like other forms of quick cooking (think stir-fry), can require a lot of planning and prep time. "This is what we spend all day doing in a restaurant," explained Koslow. "The timing is the hardest part. Even with years of experience, on a busy night you can find yourself missing something." As a mother of two young children, Noble could identify with that.

Especially with a menu as ambitious as Koslow's:

· A salad of grilled asparagus, grilled hearts of palm, baby arugula, caciotta al tartufo (a truffle-infused pecorino cheese) and lemon vinaigrette.

· Grilled orange- and thyme-stuffed baby red snapper with grilled fennel, bell peppers and corn in a chorizo clam broth.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company