Big Times With a Small Grill

By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In apartments in New York and Washington, I've long wished for a patio or a yard with a grill but have sacrificed domestic convenience for urbanity. On weekends, my friends take pity and invite me to cookouts.

Lately, that hasn't been enough. I wanted easier access to midweek grilling, so I bought a portable. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of setting up in front of my building, and I had never started a charcoal fire in a grill, but I persevered because I wanted that smoky flavor.

My first go-round was an embarrassment. I rolled out my Aussie Walk-A-Bout, waist high and easy to store, then readied the charcoal and lighter fluid. It was a windy day, so I had trouble keeping the coals lit using newspaper and kindling. I added lighter fluid: some, then too much. Smoke billowed. Thank God I hadn't invited company.

Once the coals turned white, I brushed the grill with olive oil and tried to cook salmon directly on the grate. (No pouch, no foil lining.) Not only did it stick, but a hot spot burned the tail end, and the whole thing fell apart, pieces dropping into the fire. The little that was left tasted as if I had marinated it in lighter fluid.

Why go to the trouble? Because summer compels us to gather round the grill, even one whose cooking surface is barely bigger than a ruler, and because there are ways to do it better. "Cooking over a fire is a very primordial thing," says Noah Raizman, 32, an orthopedic surgeon in his third year of residency at George Washington University Medical Center who is also a former line cook at No. 9 Park in Boston. "Since Prometheus stole fire and gave it to mortals, people have been cooking over a fire."

Because the limp economy has encouraged more people to cook at home, grills and smokers are in high demand, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, "Easy, practical, durable and portable" are among the trends that are driving sales, says Deidra Darsa, spokeswoman for the association. "And portable grills . . . come equipped with new features and technologies, like infrared grilling, to make on-the-go outdoor cooking a category of its own."

Portable gas grills have been on the market for the past several years, but charcoal models made by Weber remain the most popular, says Shane Mahaffey, manager at the Home Depot on South Pickett Street in Alexandria. "People like the taste of charcoal better."

At Strosniders hardware in Bethesda, manager Lee Roeder says the best portable charcoal grills are two by Weber: the Go-Anywhere hibachi and the Smokey Joe Tuck-N-Carry. The latter "has a lock lid and is the safest of all of them," he says.

Stefanie Gans, 28, who blogs at EndlessSimmer.com, says she hadn't considered buying a little grill until her brother dragged her to buy a portable after his was stolen at a tailgate party. When it's not in use, hers sits under her TV in the main room of her Columbia Heights apartment. Despite her initial skepticism, she has already put it to work. "I definitely plan on using it a ton this summer," she says.

So far, Gans has used the grill only at RFK Stadium tailgates but says she wouldn't hesitate to pull it out onto the sidewalk if need be. Is sidewalk grilling legal? Gary Palmer, the District's fire marshal, says it is, provided it's done more than 10 feet away from anything combustible. "And of course, no grilling on balconies," he says. Aside from sidewalks, Rock Creek Park allows portable grills, as does East Potomac Park. They are not allowed on the Mall or near memorials.

As I discovered, camping on a sidewalk with lighter fluid and charcoal is less than ideal, which is why for portables, Roeder recommends Kingsford's Match Light briquettes, with lighter fluid already added. Should you have to make do with the traditional method, "don't drench the coals, for God's sake. That's what causes the smoke," he says.

Start blocks aren't a bad idea, either. They eliminate the need for lighter fluid when two or three are positioned throughout the charcoal. The grill is ready when the coals are white, 10 to 15 minutes later. Seasoned grill masters also swear by a chimney starter, a metal cylinder with a handle that gets a grill going with newspaper and charcoal (no lighter fluid) and costs less than $20.

When it comes to portable grilling, aficionados say the key is to keep the menu simple. Raizman is inspired by Chris Schlesinger, owner of Boston's East Side Grill and co-author of "The Thrill of the Grill" (Morrow, 1990), among other books. Schlesinger's favorite grill is Weber's 37.5-inch Ranch Kettle, whose size easily allows for both hot fire and indirect heat on the same grate, a strategy that gives the cook more flexibility.

"It's really hard to build a fire and have zones on a small grill," Schlesinger says. "You can, but it really would reduce the volume of what you can cook. Already you have a small surface area, and zones would just reduce it." Schlesinger recommends small cuts of quick-cooking meat that can be prepped ahead of time, such as lamb chops and skewers. Raizman follows his advice, stacking skewers with andouille, poblano peppers and onions; red pepper, pork and pineapple; shrimp and mango; or "seemingly outlandish combinations with a simple, marinated meat and some fruit or vegetables for flavor," he says.

Raizman also likes corn on the cob, husks on, prepped by soaking in saltwater for an hour. "When you leave the husks on, it helps caramelize the corn a little bit," he says. For sides, Schlesinger advises simple things such as couscous or bean or tomato salads that don't require grilling, since space is at such a premium.

Then there's dessert. Gans is nostalgic for her post-D.C. United tailgate grilled pizza with Nutella and bananas. But it doesn't have to be complicated. Sweet grilled peaches, pineapple, pears or figs caramelized by the fire can be memorable flavors of the season.

With practice, I'm getting the hang of things and am almost ready to grill for company. There are many renters and condo owners like me who don't have easy access to a grill, and pretty soon I'll be able to take pity and invite them to my sidewalk party.

Melissa McCart writes the Counter Intelligence blog at http://melissamccart.wordpress.com.

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