The patches of hardened snow recently wedged into the folds of my grill cover reminded me of how long it has been since I've been outside grilling or smoking meat.
No wonder my insides itch. Summer is out there, beneath that black vinyl cover - not just the summer of warm weather and long days, but the primal-sense memories of fire and smoke.
A number of ingredients can add the smokiness of the summer grill to food prepared in our winter kitchens: aromatic smoked salt, Spanish pimenton, chipotle peppers and liquid smoke, that controversial shortcut.
None of them, it must be said, replace true barbecue. But if you are a barbecue addict, they might serve as an adequate, temporary fix.
When the steak doesn't go on the grill, let the grill come to the steak. I greased a cast-iron skillet with a few raw slices of applewood-smoked bacon. Turned the heat to high; let the pan smoke until it was blazing hot. Added the steak, allowing it to sizzle until it had become not just charred but a little crusty. Flipped it over and did the same on the other side.
Instead of kosher or sea salt, I used smoked salt to season the meat before, during and after the steak was done. It provided the right hint of summertime. I took a bite while the freezing rain fell and was transported to mid-July, if only for a moment. The accompanying potato salad I made helped channel backyard barbecue as well.
Another touch of summer comes from the deeply flavorful Spanish smoked paprika called pimenton. It differs from other paprikas in that the peppers are smoke-dried over a two-week period using oak wood. The result is an unmistakable, beautiful smoky scent and flavor. So unique is pimenton that it is protected by denominations of origin (Denominacion de Origen Protegida) to assure quality.
The most famous province is La Vera, southwest of Madrid. Once dried, the peppers are ground to a powder. Pimenton comes in three flavors: sweet, bittersweet and hot. Each, though, is smoky. It can be a challenge finding true pimenton. I buy mine online at Tienda.com.
I added some of the hot pimenton to a spice-and-herb mixture that included thyme and rosemary. Applied it to a butter-coated chicken, inside and out. Roasted the bird. Eating it was almost like having a picnic. Next time, I'll spread a blanket on the floor for dinner.
One very cold evening, I made a classic no-beans Texas chili. The version I make is based on a recipe of the late Texas historian, author and journalist Frank X. Tolbert. It has plenty of ancho chili pepper for a rustic, pleasantly musky flavor. On this occasion, I added chipotles: partly to heat it up, but mainly to give it a dose of their characteristic smokiness.
My final experiment was with liquid smoke.
Prior to writing this column, I had never bought a bottle of the stuff. And here is why: To me, barbecue is a metaphor for life.
Life is hard. Challenging. So is barbecue. Or it ought to be.
You start the fire, then you painstakingly tend it, adding just the right amount of just the right type of wood at just the right time, fretting all the while. As you watch the smoke ascend heavenward - often like meat-scented incense - you pray you did everything right.
But . . . liquid smoke? It's not even cheating, because the natural substance is to barbecue what ethics are to certain politicians: something that exists yet is not always employed. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try. On vegetables.
I went to the Colgin liquid smoke site for ideas and found a recipe for sweet potatoes that struck me as not altogether revolting. Sliced some sweet potatoes. Layered them with orange slices in a casserole dish. Drizzled the whole thing with a spicy sauce that contained pecan-flavored liquid smoke, though it turns out the original, hickory-flavored kind works just as well.
When I pulled the dish out of the oven, some of the sweet potatoes were blackened, which, to me, was a good sign. Still not sold on the liquid smoke concept, I hesitantly slid my fork into the pile. Not only was it delicious, it tasted of something resembling smoke.
I wouldn't say the Liquid Smoke Sweet Potatoes tasted of summer. But they helped me see summer from here.
And while we await the sustained mercies of spring, that ain't bad.
Shahin will join the Free Range chat at noon on Feb. 16, 2010.