By Scott Reitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
For me, one thing announces the arrival of summer, and one thing only. Not Memorial Day, not the summer solstice, not the last day of school. My summer starts the moment my teeth snap through the natural casing of a juicy, fresh-from-the-grill hot dog and my nose fills with the sharpness of mustard and pungent onion.
I love the personality a grill gives all sorts of food, but when the mercury approaches 80, I crave hot dogs lined up over medium heat. A little charred, a little uneven, with a little personality you'll never get from a bath in water or steam. I watch over them ravenously as they weep fat, swell and split, offering flavors of smoke, paprika and beef.
It's no wonder the American Meat Institute predicts Americans will consume 7 billion hot dogs this summer. They're inexpensive, making feeding the masses economical. They're easy to cook, so working the grill at even the largest parties is a breeze. Hot spots that normally drive me crazy become an asset, as some guests prefer their franks blackened and others just heated though. No need for table settings, or even a plate. Self-contained in a bun, they're the perfect thing to eat while barefoot in the yard, a bit of relish on your chin.
But just because they are popular doesn't mean they have to be a mere commodity. In fact, many area chefs have decided it's time they got in on the fun. At PS 7's, chef Peter Smith relishes the three-day process that produces an all-beef haute dog his customers love. Beef chuck and suet are ground, seasoned and ground again, then delicately stuffed into sheep casings. A day in the walk-in removes excess moisture and helps ensure that perfect snap.
He gives the dogs a cold smoke for flavor and a bath in gently simmering salted water to cook them to 165 degrees. The final steps set the emulsion, but only with flawless execution. A little too much fat or a little too much heat, and an entire 10-pound batch turns into swizzle sticks of jerky coated in a paprika-stained oil slick. Handcrafting these from scratch, obviously, is not the province of home cooks.
Nonetheless, I still like to do everything I can to make a hot dog cookout special. While grocery stores fill their shelves with the familiar brands I grew up with, area butchers carry dogs with local personality, and the variety is endless. And with the energy I save by not making the frank, I focus on toppings.
Natural casings, if fresh and treated properly, will split when cooked and give you something to chew on. Dogs whose casings have been removed have a softer mouth feel and swell into behemoths on the grill. Some franks stained pink with nitrite taste addictively of metal and salt. Others lack preservatives and remain pale shades of muted browns and grays.
I think most people settle into one type of hot dog and call it a day. Many of my friends swear by the Zwiegles dog I introduced them to a few years ago. The thick-gauged natural-casing dog produced in Rochester, N.Y., is as snappy as they come. Nathan's, Hebrew National and other store brands have a devout following, cultivating fans at vendor carts and ballparks. But with so much available, I like to play the field, serving several kinds of dogs, a couple of half-smokes and a package of German-style frankfurters to round out the show.
As for buns, Firehook sells a mean one if I've got time to order ahead, but for convenience's sake it's hard to beat a Martins potato roll, a soft yellow bun sold at most grocery stores.
If I end up with five different dogs, it is absolutely necessary to offer at least twice as many toppings. I can buy mustard in many varieties, but when I grab a tin of mustard powder, a few eggs and a whisk, I'm limited only by my creativity. Making your own condiments may seem over-the-top, but when all you have to do the next day is grill a frank, you certainly have the time, and the effort is worth it.
Relishes are just as diverse, incorporating just about any vegetable in a sea of acid, spice and sweet. Store-bought versions are nice, but something with a little extra character can be whipped up in an hour or so, and those are always the ones that disappear more quickly. I know a serving bowl needs replenishing when I hear the spoons start to scrape the bottom.
And why stop with condiments? Chicago is known for a topping-rich dog. Onion's a staple, while lettuce, tomato, pickled chili peppers and sauerkraut are welcome additions. Standing before a table filled with accoutrements, I see that my pedestrian hot dog suddenly has seemingly endless potential. All without a single drop of ketchup.
Scott Reitz is a freelance food writer who lives in Alexandria.