This might just be the year to break out of the mold. It might be the year that inspires you to move beyond hamburgers, beyond briquettes, even beyond mesquite. It might be the year that you decide to roast oysters on your grill, or eggplant, or a duck, or a goat, or even bananas. It might be the year that you decide to abandon all those expensive little wood chips that come bagged and marketed to the hilt in favor of more local bits and pieces from the backyard oak or apple tree.
Here are some inspirational messages from the field -- one about a man who found all the grills on the market "appalling" and decided to invent his own, another about a woman who decided to learn everything about roasting a goat -- along with a few random notions about how to make your own backyard grilling escapades better this summer. In Search of a Grill
When Charles Eisendrath came back to the states from a tour as bureau chief for Time magazine in Buenos Aires, he went out looking for a new grill. He and his family had lived in France, too, and Eisendrath had traveled extensively in the Middle East, all places where grilling is taken seriously, and is done with real wood, not charcoal.
"The engineering and technology I saw was appalling," Eisendrath exclaims. "You could either smoke everything or smite everything." In others words, the food cooked on the grills he saw all tasted like ham, or like something that had fallen from a burning building.
He had other objections to conventional grills. In most that he saw "you have to raise the fire and keep the frying pan where it is. I found that deeply offensive." In grills where the level is adjustable, it's only by a few inches. And most grills send the cooking juices back down into the fire, where they flame up, "smite black" the food, and dissipate into the air. There were other insults, too, but that's the general idea.
So Eisendrath set about inventing his own grill. It was difficult at first, since he can't draw and had trouble translating his ideas into something a craftsman could actually produce. Eventually Eisendrath, who in his other life is chairman of the graduate journalism program at the University of Michigan, took a couple of hundred dollars in cash out of a savings account and began offering money to anybody who would listen. That produced a fellow who understood, and who eventually came up with two prototype grills.
That was 1981. Last year, the grill got mentions in New York and Food and Wine magazines, and was lavishly praised in a widely syndicated column by James Beard, who wrote, "Not for a long time has something so brilliantly thought-out and well-constructed been offered to the American public." With all the publicity, Eisendrath was getting 150 inquiries a day about his grill. "The whole postal system in East Jordan, Mich., broke down," he says.
The grill, marketed as "The Grillery," is spectacularly expensive -- $525 for the unit itself, $65 for a canvas and vinyl cover -- but so successful that Eisendrath's company, which sold 60 units last year, is this year turning them out as fast as it can. A lady in England just wrote saying "I can't live without it," and a man in Texas just bought his seventh -- this one for his salmon-fishing camp in Reykjavic, Iceland.
So what makes Eisendrath's grill so different? One of the most important differences is that the grill itself -- the surface on which the food is placed -- can be easily raised and lowered by turning a wheel-like handle on the side, and is adjustable so that the food being cooked can be any distance from the flame up to 18 inches.
The extra distance allows food to be cooked slowly without the use of a cover, which traps smoke and tends to make the food taste more smoked than grilled. It also means that with the proverbial flick of the wrist you can lower the cooking surface as the fire burns down.
One of Eisendrath's ambitions was to come up with a design that would make use of all the wonderful juices that escape from grilled food instead of sending them down into the fire where they flame up and then turn to ash. So the cooking surface of his invention is constructed of strips of metal molded into v-shapes to catch the juices. And it is tilted 4 degrees, allowing the juices to run forward, where they are collected in a pan that runs across the front of the grill.
The rotisseries (the unit comes with two) have to be turned by hand, but they can be locked into any position. Most non-electric rotisseries operate by gravity, so that the heavier part of the meat will always end up closest to the fire, where it will naturally char.
Inspired by the cooking the Eisendraths got used to on their travels, he designed this grill to use wood, which Eisendrath promotes also as a way to keep the yard clear of twigs and fallen branches. We in Washington are particularly wealthy in this respect, he says, because of the number of oak, beech and maple trees, all of which make terrific fuel for grilling fires. Fruit trees are also wonderful, but don't use pine.
Wood, notes Eisendrath, doesn't have to burn down before it is used as charcoal briquettes do, so you can begin grilling right away. But if you use wood, it's important to have a cooking surface that can be raised and lowered so that you can keep it high when the flames are lapping, lower it as the fire burns down.
If you have $525 to spend on a grill, inquire from Grillworks, Inc., 1211 Ferdon Rd., Ann Arbor, Mich. 48104. Variety
Charles Eisendrath and his wife Julia cook many foods on their grillery that aren't usually thought of as grilling foods. One is bananas, which are grilled slowly, far from the heat, in their skins. Eventually they become melting and carmelized on the inside.
They also do oysters, which are simply grilled slowly in their shells until they open. Eggplant, potatoes, even carrots, can be sliced thickly, pricked in places, and grilled slowly, using the pan drippings from simultaneously-grilling meats as a basting sauce.
Then there are the ducks. The Eisendraths split them down the middle, then remove excess skin and fat. (The skins are kept and grilled separately to make chitterlings.) In the juice pan go the tart cherries that grow so prolifically in Michigan, plus a splash or two of armagnac. As the cherries heat together with the Armagnac, they turn into a sauce which is brushed on the ducks as they grill.
Whole fish the Eisendraths treat by splitting down the middle. If a thick layer (about an inch) of herbs such as dill or parsley is laid on the grill, the fish laid on top of the grill, lemony butter used as a basting sauce, the fish end up with a grilled flavor but the moistness of a poached fish. To Build a Fire
One of the problems with charcoal grilling is getting the fire started in the first place. Lighter fluids tend to make the flames and the food smell like petrochemicals. A solution to this is in a little device sold under various trade names that is basically a two-chambered metal cylinder with a handle. The two chambers are divided by a perforated disk, above which you put the charcoal, below which you put crumpled papers. You light the papers and in 10 minutes or so you have briquettes that are ready to use. Basting Brushes
Another piece of grilling equipment that is in the why-didn't-I-think-of-that category is the long-handled basting brush with an angled handle. Ordinary basting brushes usually result in singed arm hairs, and even long-handled ones don't keep your hand far enough from a really robust flame. With the angled brush, however, the business end can baste while the hand end is safely over to the side. Compound Butter
Grilled meats are usually pretty plain, and that's part of their beauty. But one type of accompaniment seems to enhance their flavor instead of overwhelm it, and that is compound, or flavored, butter.
The basic technique is the same no matter what flavoring you use, and if you have a food processor it can be accomplished in seconds.
You put the butter and flavorings (such as herbs, anchovies, or citrus juice and zest) in the food processor together and whir a few seconds. Remove the butter to a piece of aluminum foil, then shape it into a log, wrap it closely and refrigerate or freeze for several hours. To serve, place a thick pat of compound butter on every serving of hot meat and serve immediately.
The simplest compound butters are flavored with fresh herbs in a proportion of two to four tablespoons of herbs per quarter pound of butter. You can add lemon or lime juice, finely chopped garlic, or finely chopped shallot that has been rinsed in cold water and rung out well (to get rid of its harsh qualities.) Other possibilities are curry powder with lime juice and zest, or finely grated fresh ginger with garlic.
More complex are the following two compound butters, the creation of chef and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman. They are delicious, but they are also useful as inspiration.
The first is for a hazelnut butter to go with grilled veal. In the container of a food processor, place 1/2 cup unsalted butter, 1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts, 1/3 cup chervil (substitute a mixture of tarragon and parsley if you can't find chervil), 1 to 2 tablespoons chartreuse (a liqueur) and salt and pepper to taste. Process, then shape and chill.
The second inspiration is for a smoked tea butter to go with grilled duck. Tea is in Europe both an old-fashioned flavoring, and a "nouvelle" flavoring. Steep 2 tablespoons lapsang souchong tea in 1/2 cup veal stock (or substitute unsalted chicken stock). In the container of a food processor, place 1/2 cup unsalted butter, 2 tablespoons chopped chives, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the tea including grounds through a cheesecloth, squeezing the grounds to make a dark, thick tea. Add to the processor bowl, and process, then form and chill. Marinades
Marinades serve two purposes, both relevant to grilled meats. The first is to add flavor -- most of the time fairly subtle flavor -- and the second is to tenderize. Since most grilled meats are cooked fairly quickly, often only the tenderest cuts are used. A marinade that includes an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice helps to break down the fibers of tougher cuts, making them a bit more tender. The simplest marinades are a mixture of oil and wine, with vinegar, aromatic vegetables such as onions, carrots and celery, herbs and salt and pepper added for flavor.
Marinating times are flexible, but usually need to be at least an hour to have any effect. Effects are felt faster if the meat can be left at cool room temperature. The marinades can be drained off and used as basting mixtures when the meat is ready to grill, too.
One of the simplest and most delicious marinades for chicken that will be grilled is the simple lemon, olive oil and cracked pepper mixture included in Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook." Proportions are 1/3 cup lemon juice, 1 tablespoon cracked pepper, 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Rub the mixture all over a cut-up frying chicken, and let stand for a couple of hours.
Meat can be rubbed with a dry mixture such as finely chopped garlic combined with chopped fresh rosemary, salt and pepper for lamb or pork, left to stand for several hours, then grilled slowly. There won't be any tenderizing effect, but the flavor will soak in nicely.
Honey, soy sauce and vinegar, in a proportion of about two parts honey to three of soy sauce and one of vinegar, are nice with poultry, too. Substitute prepared mustard for the soy, and you have a basting sauce for ham. Roasting a Goat
Or, you could roast a goat.
Roasting a whole goat requires a bit more forethought than grilling a hamburger, but the requisite 24 hours or so of preparation time are well rewarded with drama (what in the world of outdoor cooking could be more dramatic than the sight of a goat on a spit?), suspense (when will it be done? what will it taste like?) and the final gasps and murmurs of appreciation.
Margaret Malmstedt has been wanting to roast a goat for a while now, and this year she finally achieved it. Her goat-roasting party was of mixed ethnicity, Malmstedt being of Swedish persuasion by way of her late husband, and the goat being Middle Eastern. But the twain met happily in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., where Malmstedt lives and sells real estate. Maypole dancing and aquavit, as it turns out, go just fine with spicy roasted goat.
The young goat, purchased from a local butcher, weighed 28 pounds. At roasting time, it had been marinated and protected from scorching or drying out with a layer of suet.
The outdoor fireplace had been ready for a year, constructed especially for roasting large pieces of meat. It is a three-walled structure of fire brick and field stone (left open on one of the short sides), topped by a nice stone ledge perfect for sitting on when the evening has grown cool but the fire is still warm. The iron spit is situated about two feet from the fire, but can be adjusted upward a couple of inches. It is turned by hand.
Malmstedt says she "let things get out of hand" the day before the roast, so the goat had about half its 24-hour marinating time, but it was very tender and flavorful nevertheless. The marinade recipe was borrowed from an Indian friend, and involved yogurt, ground almonds and onions, chilies, garlic, fresh ginger root, and Indian spices including cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne and garam masala. The layer of suet was applied and secured with a wrap of thin wire after the marinating and before the roasting.
The goat went on the spit -- attached securely with a wrap of heavier wire rather than just skewered -- about 11 a.m., over a fire of hardwood logs. The fire was quite hot at the beginning, Malmstedt said, so the goat got a bit seared on the outside, but that didn't seem to affect its tenderness or flavor. After six hours of occasionally turning the spit and adding logs, the goat was done to a turn -- full of flavor but not at all gamey. Though the meat is very dark, its flavor is similar to that of lamb.
Before the goat could be attacked, however, the maypole -- decked out with mockorange blossoms, multi-colored streamers and an American flag for good measure -- had to be raised and the dance around it performed. That done, one of the guests, who happened to be a surgeon, was called upon to carve the goat. Hesitaters were encouraged but not bullied, and after a taste were convinced. "This is the best goat I've ever eaten," said one guest who had been stationed in Lebanon, "and I once ate goat every day for seven months."
Accompaniments were as multi-ethnic as the maypole and the goat: the Middle Eastern cracked wheat salad called tabbouleh, American potato salad, sundry breads, raw vegetables with a pesto dip, baklava, and, just before the Greek dancing began, aquavit washed down with beer in the Scandinavian manner. MARINADE FOR WHOLE ROAST GOAT
1 1/4 cups slivered, blanched almonds
12 medium onions, peeled and coarsly chopped
2 whole heads garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
1 medium size (whole) branch fresh ginger, peeled and coarsly chopped
16 fresh hot green chilies, coarsely chopped (optional)
10 cups plain yogurt
1/2 cup ground cumin
5 1/3 tablespoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
5 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons garam masala (a spice mixture available in specialty stores)
Put the blanced almonds, onions, garlic, ginger, green chilies, and 3/4 cup of the yogurt into the container of a food processor or blender and blend into a smooth paste.
Put the remaining yogurt into a bowl. Beat lightly with a fork or a wire whisk until it is smooth and creamy. Add the paste from the food processor to the yogurt along with the cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and garam masala. Mix well.
Spread the paste evenly all over the goat. Make deep slashes into the meat and rub the paste in deeply. Be generous with paste. Pour all the remaining spice paste over and around the meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.