Ahhhhhh, the smell of it. Clouds of exquisitely scented smoke will drift from trend-setting charcoal grills this summer. And sensitive noses in those neighborhoods will lift in the breeze and necks will swivel like radar antennae toward the intoxicating aroma. What is that wonderful smell?
It will be the incense of herbs lavishly tossed on burning coals so that their smoky scents infuse and perfume grilled foods with penetrating and unforgettable tastes.
Last year, the latest thing was mesquite -- charcoal from a trash tree in cowboy country. Before that it was hickory chips. Then Californians learned to toss damp grapevine twigs and fennel stalks on their cooking fires, tricks picked up from the French and Italians.
But this year will be the year of the burning herbs.
Gardeners setting out herb seedlings should start thinking BIG.
They are going to need more space for the herb garden if they move into new dimensions of grilling with herbs. A little itty bitty bunch of herbs won't do it. Instead of measuring by spoonfuls, outdoor chefs are going to need handfuls of herbs -- herbs to burn.
"The smell of roasting meat together with that of burning fruitwood and dried herbs is as voluptuous as incense in a church," wrote H.D. Renner in his out-of-print book "The Origin of Food Habits."
These smoking herbs will reduce any Greeks in your dinner crowd to tears. Italians will burst into song, and your Arab friends may faint in ecstasy. These are the smells from the Mediterranean hillsides that focus the mind on the wonderful feast to come.
The great cooks have done it for years. James Beard liked to make a basting brush from herbs tied into a bunch. Then, when the food was nearly done, he would toss the bunch of herbs into the fire. Alice Waters grows enough herbs to do it for the customers at her famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.
Carolyn Dille, herb expert and cookbook author who worked with Waters before moving here, remembers that at Chez Panisse they used to marinate a crown roast of baby lamb in olive oil, white wine and garlic and then grill the individual chops over damp smoking herbs.
To get plenty of smoke, Dille says, you need to soak fresh herbs in water. "Then the tricky part is knowing your grill so that you put the wet herbs on the fire in the right amount at the right time," she explained. "You don't want to cool down the fire too much and lower the heat."
This doesn't mean mesquite is dead. It may have peaked as a fad, but it is here to stay as an American classic, according to Walter Scheib, executive chef of the Capital Hilton. "I have a garageful of it," he said with a laugh.
The herbs can be mixed and matched with whatever charcoal you prefer. Dried herbs will flare up and burn quickly. Fresh herbs will smolder a while longer and give a more powerful perfume.
Local herb grower Tom DeBaggio of Earthworks Herb Garden in Arlington has been grilling with herbs for years. Instead of putting the herbs directly on the fire, he likes to lay herb branches on the grill where they are in direct contact with the food. Since he has a collection of huge container-grown herbs he can be lavish with 2-foot-long branches of rosemary to spread across his grill.
"There isn't as much smoke, but the flavor is more intense. When the grease drips out of the meat, it goes onto the herbs instead of into the fire." A bonus is that the herbs don't burn up so quickly, and there will be crusty bits of herb clinging to the meat.
DeBaggio even sells the shrubby Mediterranean myrtle that grows wild on Italian hillsides and is used in outdoor pit cooking by the Italians. Waverly Root wrote rapturously of meat steaming in these pits lined with myrtle branches, with more myrtle laid on top of the cooking meat. When cooked, the meat was removed from the fire and placed in a bag with more myrtle branches to continue the steaming infusion of flavor as it cooled down.
DeBaggio says he simply lays wet myrtle branches across his grill.
Outdoor cookery writer Claudia Roden says there is a school of thought that holds the cooking fire should be fueled with the flavor that the animal has grazed on. This would mean using mint on the coals to cook lamb that has grazed on wild mints of the meadow, or the blue flowered thyme for mutton, and even seaweeds and salt grasses for the marsh lambs. But for most of us, that is going too far. We are not going to know on which meadow the lamb has cavorted and would rather not have such a personal interest in our dinner. Besides using herbs on the fire, Roden is not above tossing garlic cloves and citrus peel into the fire to perfume the smoke.
An exception to this school of lush and loose sensual grilling are the Japanese. They are controlled, precise and neat. They like a clean, hot, odorless fire and prefer an oak that burns for eight hours -- a fire that can handle both lunch and dinner. Their concern is more with the visual, and that's all right too. Food should appeal to all the senses.
Here are some tricks to perfume the smoke of summer evenings:
* The most successful herbs for burning are the ones with intense flavors. Pine-scented and pungent rosemary may be tops, but there are plenty of votes for sweet marjoram, thyme, fennel and savory.
* If you don't have an herb garden, think of starting with some of the faster growing herbs for this purpose -- oregano, marjoram, mint and sage. But get started on some hardy rosemary that can be container-grown. Eventually it will produce the shrub-like plants that will supply big branches for the grill.
* Don't throw away those dried fennel stalks when you clean up the garden in the spring. Hang them in a dry place and use them on the fire when you're cooking fish.
* If lemon balm and mint are spreading haphazardly into the lawn, pull up hunks to lay across the grill when cooking chicken or lamb.
* About 20 fresh bay leaves thrown on the grill will do wonders for plain old hamburgers. If you're using dry leaves, soak them for several hours in water to soften.
* To make herbs, mesquite or fruitwood chips last longer, soak them in water at least 30 minutes.
* Grapevine and fruit woods will release a more delicate flavor than mesquite. Try them for fish, poultry and veal.
* Be cautious about using fruit woods. Do not use wood that has been sprayed with herbicides.
* Besides meats, poultry and fish, herb-smoked vegetables are wonderful. Zucchini, eggplant and red onion slices marinated in olive oil and lemon will practically sing if placed on sprigs of rosemary on the grill or in the fire.
* Do not use a chemical fire starter. It will affect the flavor of the smoke. Use an electric fire starter or the Boy Scout trick with crumpled newspaper and twigs. SAGEBRUSH PORK CHOPS WITH MESQUITE (6 servings)
6 center cut or butterflied pork chops, at least 1 inch thick and trimmed of excess fat
Mesquite chips for grill, soaked in water 30 minutes
Handful of fresh wet sage branches, drained
Salt and freshly ground pepper
FOR THE MARINADE:
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a small bowl. Pour over pork chops in shallow baking dish. Marinate, covered, at room temperature up to 4 hours or refrigerate up to 2 days.
Start charcoal briquette fire in grill. You want a fire that will allow the chops to cook slowly. When coals are ready, scatter mesquite chips on fire. Put sage leaves on grill or in grill rack (some may fall through depending on size of your sage plants) and lay chops on sage; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill 7 to 10 minutes per side, turning only once, until pork is thoroughly cooked -- no pink showing. Brush with excess marinade and serve. SWORDFISH OR SHARK STEAKS GRILLED OVER OREGANO (4 servings)
To make the Greek basting brushes, DeBaggio says to cut oregano branches about 10 inches long just as the flowers open in early summer. Tie a half dozen branches together and hang in airy, dark place to dry. "In a week, you'll have the most flavorful basting brush you've ever had."
Make similar brushes from sage, thyme, winter savory, rosemary and any herbs with woody or stiff stems.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh swordfish or shark steaks in 4 portions, about 1 inch thick
Oregano basting brush (see above)
Wet oregano branches
FOR THE MARINADE:
Juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 or more cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Italian or curly parsley
Combine marinade ingredients in shallow baking dish. Add fish steaks, coat thoroughly, cover and refrigerate for several hours, preferably overnight.
Start fire in charcoal grill. When fire is ready, place wet oregano branches on fire or on grill. Place fish steaks in hinged grill basket and grill about 5 minutes on each side, basting frequently, until fish flakes easily and flesh is opaque. LEMON CHICKEN WITH ROSEMARY (8 servings)
A large branch of rosemary makes a fine basting brush to swish the marinade over the chicken while it's grilling.
8 chicken breast halves, about 4 pounds
Wet rosemary branches for the grill
Lemon wedges for garnish
FOR THE MARINADE:
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh rosemary, minced
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Mix together marinade ingredients in a large shallow baking dish. Add chicken pieces and coat well. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Prepare charcoal fire. Place damp rosemary branches on the fire (or on the grill). Grill chicken, basting frequently, about 12 minutes per side or until juices run yellow (not pink) when pricked with a fork. Use a branch of rosemary for a basting brush. Add additional rosemary branches if you want to keep the piney smoke smell going. Serve with lemon wedges.