First, eons ago, there was the wood fire. Much later came the charcoal briquette, followed by the hickory chip and the mesquite craze. Now, many innovative outdoor cooks are returning to wood -- and grapevine cuttings, and dried fennel and whatever else they find that will add aroma to the fire and the food.
Aromatic woods may come from fruit trees such as cherry and apple or from nut trees such as hickory, hazelnut, pecan and walnut. In fact, charcoaled foods can be flavored with cuttings from trees and shrubs in your own back yard. Alderwood, juniper and poplar are good choices, but small twigs from many plants can be used. If you have a grape arbor, cut away.
Some caveats: the plants must be nonresinous (which leaves out cedars, firs and pines), nonpoisonous (oleander, poison ivy and poison oak would be extremely hazardous) and they should not have been treated with chemicals this year.
While it is possible to use most of these woods as fuel for the cooking fire, as is sometimes done in restaurants, at home it is a lot easier to control a charcoal fire or to use a gas grill and save the aromatics for flavoring.
While mesquite has been the "in" aromatic of the last few years and grapevine cuttings seem to be the trendy cooking flavor this season, dried fennel stalks are a sleeper. Favored for grilling fish in Provence, they are available through Dean and DeLuca, the gourmet grocery in New York's SoHo, which has just started selling fresh, strong-flavored, wild California fennel.
The dried woods, whether hickory, mesquite or grapevines, can be added as soon as the coals are hot, but denser smoke and stronger flavor result when the wood has been soaked in cold water for about 20 minutes, drained and then added to the grill, usually about 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
For a light smoky flavor use an open grill, but for a stronger effect and to keep the flavor from doing little more than going up in smoke, close the cover of the grill or fashion a tent from aluminum foil or with a large disposable-foil baking tray.
Throw the wood directly on the hot coals of a charcoal fire, but consult the manufacturer's directions for gas grills because the woods willleave a residue of ashes. An alternative is to place the wood on a flat metal pan such as a pie tin and put the pan on the coals. Small chips are the best size. Flakes burn up too quickly and large chunks may not burn well at all.
Deciding which aromatic wood to use may turn out to be the cook's hardest task. This could be the year to start an aromatic wood shelf, comparable to the spice shelf, and plan to match the wood to the food, the mood and the particular flavor desired. Start experimenting.
French and Italian cooks have known for centuries that vineyards furnish more than wine. The delicate and sweet flavor that grapevines impart to grilled foods, less smoky and milder than that of mesquite or hickory, perfectly suits fish, shellfish, veal, chicken and vegetables.
Two American companies, the Grapevine Co. and Meramec Vineyards, market grapevines. The former sells Grapesmoke, available by mail order from Narsai's Market, 389 Colusa Avenue, Berkeley, Calif. 94707, (415) 527-3737. Meramec produces Vinettes, a burlap bag filled with enough grapevine twigs for six to eight fires, which can be purchased at Kitchen Bazaar stores in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Before mesquite hit the market in a big way two years ago, only a few fortunate initiates, mostly people from the Southwest where the tree grows wild, appreciated its ability to add a strong, rich taste especially suited to steaks, ribs, roast beef, hamburgers, lamb and poultry but also good with fish, lobster, shrimp and vegetables. Now, with every other restaurant touting its open-fire grill fueled by mesquite and with the chips available in hardware stores, convenience stores, supermarkets, and gourmet and cookware shops, mesquite has entered the realm of the everyday.
Two years ago, Bethesda resident Henry Warren formed a local company, Nova, to take advantage of the coming mesquite craze.Warren felt he could do better by the backyard chef than the common chips (which are so small they fall through the charcoal grill if used as fuel and that burn up too quickly) or mesquite charcoal briquettes (which have less taste and are useless with a gas grill). Another option would be mesquite logs, but they require a good draft, burn at a temperature as high as 1,000 degrees and, because they are so hard, would be difficult to chop up at home making them more suitable to restaurants.
So he sold chunks, which this year have been changed to medium-size nuggets in order to reduce waste from leftover wood in the grill. Also new this season is the Nova Pak, a no-waste, no-mess, self-contained, specially sealed aluminum foil package of tiny mesquite wood shavings. After a few holes are punched in the cover and the "pak" is placed on the grill, it smokes steadily for 30 to 45 minutes, an effect Warren says is the same as using the loose nuggets. A similar result can be achieved by wrapping each chunk of wood individually in aluminum foil and punching holes in the foil.
Nova Paks solve the problems of gas-grill owners by eliminating the ash inevitably left on the bottom of the grill.
If mesquite and grapevines are too hard to locate or too esoteric for your taste, reliable old hickory chips are widely available and no slouch in the flavor department. Hickory's intense, sweet-and-smoky taste makes it a natural for steaks, roast beef, hamburgers, ribs and other robust foods. Hickory comes up like a weed around here, and as long as the tree is free of pesticides, the twigs can be thrown in the fire, according to James Duke, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Another possibility is to purchase a Turkey Hill Farm Smokin' Chips Sampler at a specialty store. It includes not only hickory and mesquite but also corncobs with maple wood, cherry wood and apple wood chips. Apple and cherry wood give off a fruity smoked taste that is wonderful with chicken, turkey, duck, sausages, ham and pork. ROASTED CORN SOUP (8 servings)
Cookbook author Ellen Brown got this recipe from Anne Greer, chef at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas. Brown tried roasting the corn in the oven, but grilling it over mesquite, she says, "turned an excellent dish into an exquisite one. The smoky, aromatic flavor of mesquite is an undertaste with every sip, and it always surprises guests when they take the first."
FOR RED-PEPPER GARNISH:
3 red bell peppers
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 to 2 teaspoons paprika
Dash cayenne pepper
1 egg yolk
1 to 2 tablespoons safflower oil
FOR THE SOUP:
2 poblano chilies or green chilies
10 to 12 ears fresh corn, unshucked
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
4 large cloves garlic, roasted in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, then peeled
1 1/2 tablespoons stone-ground yellow cornmeal
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Roast peppers under a broiler or in a 500-degree oven, turning occasionally, until skins are charred and black. Place them in a tea towel for 15 minutes or until they are cool enough to handle, and then remove skin, seeds and ribs. Pure'e peppers with the tomato paste, paprika, cayenne pepper and egg yolk. Add enough oil to achieve a consistency that can be forced through a squeeze bottle to form a ribbon atop the soup. Adjust seasonings and set aside.
Roast poblano chilies in the samemethod as the peppers and peel. Set aside two strips of poblano or canned chilies per serving for the garnish.
Soak corn in water to cover about 10 minutes. Drain. Pull away some of the husk without removing all of it. Insert 1 tablespoon butter in each ear. Scatter 3 handfuls of soaked mesquite chips over hot coals and roast corn (or roast in a baking pan in a 450-degree oven) 12 to 20 minutes or until tender. Time will vary with the cooking medium. Scrape all kernels from cobs. Set aside 1 cup to finish the soup.
Pure'e corn kernels, chilies, peeled cloves of roasted garlic, cornmeal and chicken stock in a blender or food processor in batches. Combine pure'e with cream and heat to a boil. Add reserved whole corn kernels and salt and pepper. Simmer 2 minutes. The thickness of the soup depends on the starch content of the corn. If it is not thick, add a bit more cornmeal. If it is too thick, thin with a little stock or milk.
To serve, garnish each serving by piping a ribbon of red pepper pure'e across the top and float 2 strips of roasted chilies.
Note: The soup can be made up to 2 days in advance. After being refrigerated, it may have to be thinned with a little additional milk or stock. Reheat slowly, just to the boiling point; do not let it cook or reduce.
From "Cooking With the New American Chefs" (Harper and Row, 1985; $12.95 paper, $22.95 cloth) by Ellen Brown SMOKED WILD BOAR OR PORK LOIN WITH CURRANT SAUCE (8 to 10 servings)
Amy Ferguson, executive chef at Charley's 517 in Houston, makes this dish with wild boar, but Ellen Brown suggests substituting pork loin.
1 saddle of young boar or a 6 to 8 pound pork loin
Salt and pepper
FOR THE CURRANT SAUCE:
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup cassis liqueur
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups veal stock
3 shallots, chopped
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Build a charcoal fire in a grill with a cover (or a smoker). To the hot coals add a handful each of hickory, pecan and grapevine chips, all of which have been soaked in water for 20 minutes. (If necessary, use all hickory chips.) Season meat with salt and pepper and place on grill. Cover grill and smoke for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until meat is cooked through. To make the sauce, soak currants in cassis and wine for 1 hour. Over high heat, reduce the stock by 2/3, and add remaining ingredients. Simmer 5 minutes. Serve with the meat.
From "Cooking With the New American Chefs" GRILLED RABBIT (4 to 6 servings)
Chef Amy Ferguson of Charley's 517 in Houston uses mesquite, pecan, hickory and grapevines to flavor this dish. But Ellen Brown suggests substituting a mixture of mesquite with a fruitwood if all the others are not available.
1 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 sprigs fresh sage
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 rabbit, cut into serving pieces
Combine oil, garlic, shallots, lemon juice, sage, thyme, bay leaf, wine, salt and pepper. Add rabbit and marinate 1 to 2 days, no longer, covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator, turning pieces occasionally. Prepare fire and add several handfuls of soaked aromatic woods. Place rabbit on grill and close cover. Cook about 7 minutes per side for the thicker pieces, about 5 minutes for smaller pieces, or until juices run clear when meat is pierced with a fork.
From "Cooking with the New American Chefs" BARBECUED SPARERIBS (3 servings)
Cookbook author Jeanne Voltz suggests leaving the ribs in large pieces to make them easier to baste and turn. She says, "THe large size can be crucial when cooking on an open brazier and a fire leaps out of control. The chef needs to work fast with tongs and basting brush to turn ribs away from the sooty fire -- while squirting water on the offending flames."
4 pounds spareribs
2 cups (4 sticks) butter
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
5-or 6-ounce jar horseradish
Juice of 6 lemons or limes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Prepare fire and add several handfuls of soaked hickory chips. Place ribs 6 inches above hot coals. Combine butter, vinegar, ketchup, horseradish, lemon or lime juice, salt, worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce and brush ribs lightly with mixture. Brown on one side. Keep a water bottle handy in case flames shoot up. Turn ribs, brush with sauce and brown other side. Continue turning and basting every 10 minutes until ribs are done, about 1 hour. Check by cutting near bone in a center section. If juices run clear or golden, ribs are done. Remove ribs to a platter and cut into 1 to 3 sections with a scissors or sharp knife.
From "Barbecued Ribs and Other Great Feeds" (Knopf, 1985; $10.95 paper) by Jeanne Voltz GRILLED CHICKEN (4 servings)
4 chicken breasts, cut in half
Juice of 4 lemons
4 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon rosemary
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons minced parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut chicken breasts in half and remove skin. Place in a shallow pan. Combine lemon juice, oil, rosemary, garlic, parsley, oregano, paprika, salt and pepper in a jar and shake well. Pour over chicken and marinate in refrigerator at least 4 hours. Prepare fire and add 2 handfuls of soaked Grapevine cuttings. Place chicken on grill and cook, turning, about 30 minutes or until done. GRILLED LOBSTER (2 servings)
2 live 1 1/4-to 1 1/2-pound lobsters
4 tablespoons melted butter plus additional melted butter for serving
Salt and pepper to taste
To clean lobster, lay it on its back on a cutting board. Insert the point of a knife in the place where the body and the tail meet. Split body open but do not cut lobster in half. Spread open. Discard vein and head sack; remove and reserve, if desired, roe and liver. Crack large claws. Brush with butter and sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. Prepare fire and add 2 handfuls of soaked grapevine twigs. Place lobster on grill, meat side up. Grill 8 to 10 minutes or until done. Serve with melted butter.