May is National Barbecue Month, which almost guarantees we’ll hear or read the perennial pontifications about men’s obsession with barbecuing: that it derives from a latent desire to reconnect with our “primitive” selves.
The theory goes something like this: Once upon a prehistoric time, men of a certain age participated in the ritual stalking and slaying of free-range protein. After weeks in the bush, they returned triumphantly to the tribe, parading around with their vanquished mastodon filet or saber-tooth rump roast, which was then grilled over a bonfire and shared with their unwashed kinfolk. During the gluttonous meat orgy, the hunters most likely regaled their clan with tales of bravery and/or idiocy. One such event was memorialized on the walls of a cave in what would later become France.
Fast-forward to the emasculated modern man: Each spring, he rekindles a flickering ember of his primeval masculinity by puncturing a package of shrink-wrapped frankfurters with the pointy edge of a spatula the size of a badminton racquet. Then, he roasts said wieners over a fossil-fueled flame until they resemble withered penises. You can serve this theory with a heaping portion of bitter irony and garnish with liberal embellishments on the male fascination with war, conquest and bloodlust.
“What is it with men and barbecues? It so frustrates me,” wrote celebrity chef and cooking-show douchebag Gordon Ramsay in the June 2006 issue of Olive magazine. “For God’s sake, all you men, leave the barbecue to the ladies and go and sort out the drinks instead. You are pretty much all useless.”
Useless? Oh, to hear the “Hell’s Kitchen” hellion mutter that Scottish tripe near my grill. I’d bury a stainless-steel skewer in his chest and cap it with an organic grape tomato!
Still, I’ll refrain from offering my own presumptuous theories on what draws male Homo sapiens to an open flame like summer moths. Personally, I like to barbecue for two reasons: One, it’s a socially acceptable way to play with fire near the house. And two, it’s about the only way I can make myself useful during dinner preparations.
The gas grill has expanded my culinary repertoire exponentially. Without it — as my wife, Stacy, often reminds me — my dinner-menu offerings would be limited to a handful of “dishes” that have improved only marginally since my college days: black beans and instant rice. Browned hamburger meat mixed with tomato sauce over angel hair pasta. Chicken Parmesan. Cheese omelettes. And my fail-safe standby: Progresso soup from a can.
However, when I fire up the gas-powered, three-burner Weber Genesis Silver, suddenly I’ve got the culinary chops of Bobby Flay and am grilling like the pros: Corn on the cob, still in the husk. Marinated salmon filets. Asparagus spears and broccolini with Italian spices. Ribeye steaks with Montréal dry-rub seasoning.
And my grilling schedule hardly begins with National Barbecue Month, which coincides with National Salad Month, National Egg Month, Better Sleep Month, National Good Car Care Month, Revise Your Work Schedule Month, Date Your Mate Month and — my personal favorite — Fungal Infection Awareness Month. Try coming up with interesting recipes for that last one.
No, at my house, grilling is a four-season activity. During last winter’s record-breaking snowstorms, I could often be found on the back deck, sporting a headlamp and pushing a cone of the white stuff off an ice-encrusted grill hood. The fabric cover retained its frozen-grill shape even after it was removed, like a Jell-O mold, and stood up on its own.
Barbecue purists will no doubt take me to task for referring to my patio practices as “barbecuing” rather than “grilling.” Technically, “barbecue” refers to slow cooking of food over an indirect flame, which is timed with the use of a calendar. “Grilling” is what most of us do — that is, charring food enough so it’s defrosted and can be drenched in condiments.
Said purists will also scoff at my Hank Hill-like preference for propane, but I never bought into the oft-cited belief that charcoal-grilled food tastes better. At a mesquite-smoking steakhouse that keeps its grill piping hot for hours on end? Perhaps. But in a friend’s backyard, it’s more likely that briquette-braised burger will taste like starter fluid. Even if the aroma and flavor of charcoal-grilled foods triggers fond memories of barbecues at grandpa’s house, the effluent coming off those smoldering briquettes contains carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. Besides, I prefer eating my grilled entrée within six hours of doling out the potato salad.
Here’s a helpful grilling tip I learned last summer from chef Jon Turner of the University of Vermont’s Davis Center: Pressing burger patties flat with a spatula as they cook, as amateurs often do, is akin to waving a Polaroid photo to make it develop more quickly. It may be psychologically satisfying, but it’s actually counterproductive, as the flattening squeezes out the juice and results in dry, crumbly meat.
In recent years, I’ve become better and more creative at grilling veggies, which is a good thing, since we get loads of them from a local farm. Last winter, after Stacy bought a root-vegetable share, we had a plethora of parsnips, potatoes and beets.
Grilling potatoes is a no-brainer: Cut them into thin slices, drizzle them with olive oil, salt and rosemary, wrap them in aluminum foil, and cook them on the upper grill for 10 to 15 minutes. Stacy usually nukes them for a few minutes in the microwave beforehand (not in the foil!) to ensure they cook evenly.
Beets should be sliced a bit thicker and either marinated or drizzled with olive oil, then barbecued until they’re slightly soft and grill marked on both sides. Grilled beets retain their sweet taste and somewhat crunchy texture. However, a word of warning to parents who feed them to a child who isn’t potty trained: Don’t be alarmed when, a day or two later, your little one’s diaper resembles a crime scene.
Another handy tip: Slice veggies such as zucchini and eggplant lengthwise rather than in rounds. The latter tend to fall through the slats and become charred sacrifices to the grill gods.
I’d love to provide advice for grilling vegan/vegetarian options such as tofu dogs, black-bean burgers and seitanic offerings, which don’t cook so much as blister on the grill. But the only meat-free protein I’m adept at preparing is the portobello mushroom. This you can only screw up if you drink too many brews and pass out in the chaise lounge. Drizzle the mushrooms with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, heat both sides for a few minutes, and plate — preferably on a serving dish not flooded with steak drippings.
Finally, I must confess that my wife generally makes all the important seasoning decisions, even for the barbecue. But dinner guests often don’t know, or care, who spent hours concocting the marinade or making the coleslaw. All the attention goes to the guy who walks into the house with singed eyebrows and a steaming plate of blackened food and shouts, “Dinner’s ready!”