Friday, July 23, 2010

My Barrel Grill: A Love Story

Posted By on Fri, Jul 23, 2010 at 8:04 AM

My ex
  • My ex
I said goodbye to an old friend today. I thought I was prepared, but it was shocking to see her sitting there among the trash cans. After all that we've been through together it was almost more than I could take. It's comforting to know that my old barrel grill — my dearly beloved barrel grill — will be going to a good home down the street at least. She's lost a little paint here and there but her bottom is still perfect. But no matter how sturdy and dependable she was I had to face certain facts. I don't entertain as often as I once did and this is ... was ... way too much grill for my needs.

So I found a foster home and bought a cheap Brinkman smoker with all the personality of a traffic cone. It was a difficult decision that had to be made because I needed something easier on the charcoal. Still, as made my sweaty way through the garden gathering herbs for my first meal, I felt like a complete traitor.

Friends have often asked what was I thinking when I decided to cater my own wedding. I was thinking that the money I'd save would buy a lot of tapas in Barcelona, a good bit of foie gras in Paris, and plenty of other stuff in Amsterdam. That's what I was thinking. And I was right too. I was also thinking it would be a great excuse to buy a big barrel grill for my brand new 100-year-old house. And it was true love from the first time I saw her sitting there on Cleveland in the parking lot of what was once the White Way drug store. Only $72. I bought one just like it for my dad too.

My barrel grill was literally baptized in fire as I rushed to prepare meals for visiting guests while assembling the wedding feast. I figured I'd break in the new Brinkman smoker with something easy. There was plenty of New Zealand spinach in the garden and the fig tree was weighted down with fruit so I decided to grill some bone-in chicken breasts to serve over a fig and spinach salad with a fig-infused balsamic dressing. This would be nothing compared to the hundreds of satay skewers and spicy guava-glazed drummies I cooked 10-years ago in the wee hours of the morning before the big day. This would be a much more casual “getting to know you” process.

The new grill has two small pans : one for charcoal and the other for water or marinade. Since I was grilling not smoking I built my fire in the top bowl and set my cooking rack an appropriate distance from the fire. I'd never had that kind of control before, and I've got to admit, it was nice. I also dropped in some chunks of wood from my bay tree. Bay has a citrus-like smell and can turn a nice meaty slab salmon into the bacon of the sea. I've never used it on chicken before, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it.

I've always got a lot of bay around and I use it with most fish these days, but I remember using a blend of cherry and hickory wood to smoke a massive slab of salmon for the wedding. I coated the whole thing with a beautiful mint, honey, and toasted pecan pesto. Fearing that wouldn't be enough I made a mountain of blackened shrimp kabobs at the very last minute.

In the years that followed, my barrel cranked out burgers, steaks, ribs and log after log of brilliant barbecue bologna to feed by my wife and our growing twins. It's given birth to beautiful jerk-rubbed holiday turkeys stuffed with oranges, lemons, and limes. Green tea-scented duck has come off the rack crispy and delicious.. I've even been known to grill a nice hand-tossed goat cheese pizza from time to time. Lamb, venison, frog's legs. Didn't matter. My old barrel did it all. But even the smaller jobs required a lot of fuel, and as charcoal prices have risen I've spent less and less time cooking on the porch.

Herbed chicken salad with spinach & figs
  • Herbed chicken salad with spinach & figs

Last month we put new roof on the house. Then we put a new coat of paint on the house, completely changing the color scheme. Change breeds more change. It was time to try something new. I bought the Brinkman on a whim because the price was right ($69), and although the online reviews are mixed, it looked like it would be very efficient and just the right size for my day-to-day needs.

The chicken breasts were a little overcooked when I took them off the grill but still delicious. The bay smoke was mild and blended beautifully with the garden-fresh basil and oregano in the marinade. I served them with whole-grain crackers and plump strawberries on the side. It was a tasty, smoky, fruity, summery meal that didn't heat up the kitchen a bit. Grilling mission accomplished.

I still can't stand to think of my beautiful first barrel spending even one night by the garbage cans, but as I sat in my living room smelling the smokey chicken bones turning into stock in the crock pot I had a feeling that the night might mark the beginning of another long and loving relationship.

After dinner the coals were still glowing brightly, so I tossed on a dozen small eggplants from the garden onto the grill. Tomorrow there will be baba ganoush. Yeah. I'm still a little confused right now but I think everything is going to work out just fine.

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