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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: The Joys Of Winter Grilling

Ralph's charcoal grill
Ralph Gardner, Jr.

I’ve heard and read lots of stories lately about how to pull off Thanksgiving safely in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not sure where or whether this suggestion fits in: why not consider grilling outdoors if turkey isn’t compulsory?

I suspect a twenty-pound Butterball turkey, let alone the pricey heritage breed we’ve been ordering in recent years, doesn’t lend itself to the griller’s art. But don’t let the thermometer dissuade you. For example, I cooked a steak one night this week during the season’s first snowfall.

The snow came as a surprise and was drifting under our spotlights as Wallie, our dog, and I made our way outside to fire up the grill. Ours isn’t one of those appliances the size and price tag of a Tesla with almost as many features. It’s your bottom-of-the-line Weber kettle grill.

Wallie is what’s described as a working dog and chronically underemployed. So as soon as she sees me dig a newspaper out of the recycling pile and retrieve my relatively trusty strike anywhere matches as well as the heavy bag of hardwood lump charcoal she gets frantic with excitement. I don’t use charcoal lighter fluid. Instead, I employ one of those chimney starters.

Wallie’s contribution to the process – no, I haven’t taught her to hold the matches in her mouth – is to pace back and forth trying to flush the poor, beleaguered juncos that nest in our yews.

Outdoor grilling is typically associated with the summer months. In winter it’s an entirely different sport and, in my opinion even more thrilling and beneficial, to the extent that grilling outdoors can be said to provide thrills. Because you’re not only dealing with the food but also the vicissitudes of nature. I typically don’t cook outdoors in a blizzard, though I have been known to relocate the grill to the covered front porch when the snow is several feet deep and nothing else will suffice for the taste of a charcoal grilled burger.

Another advantage of cooking in cold weather is that it’s easier to stoke the chimney when the wind is blowing at gale force than in summertime when there’s hardly a breeze stirring.

It’s been a rough spring, summer and now fall but if anything has proved capable of rescuing us from despair it’s being in nature. Its appeal includes beauty and greater safety from the virus.

However, I’m not sure any of that entered my mind as I ignited the newspaper under the coals in the chimney this week. I experienced a mild euphoria made up equal parts of the falling snow, the sting of cold on my face, the breeze that fanned the flames, and Wallie’s bird-driven excitement. She, too, seems to appreciate that we’d entered a new season with its own peculiar charisma.

I’m not an expert griller which, at the risk of sounding sexist, seems to be, in addition to an efficient and flavorful method of cooking food, an expression of masculinity. I say that because whenever we have guests any male within range gathers around the grill with unsolicited advice and encouragement.

I prefer to grill alone. Just me, Wallie and the elements. I’ve read the recipe pamphlet that comes with the Weber grill and suffer anxiety when the directions call for indirect grilling. Or cooking with the lid on and the vents open, or closed, or half way? I only know how to grill one way – directly, perhaps moving the protein to the sides of the grill if the dripping fat has sparked an inferno.

I also find that having a glass of water to douse the flames comes in handy. Beer, which sometimes happens to be closer at hand, is too costly though it might improve the flavor. The true challenge comes in juggling several assignments, both indoors and out, simultaneously. For example, cooking a nice thick sirloin on the grill while sautéing onions on the stove, making a salad and refreshing whatever beverage or combination of beverages you’ve employed to keep yourself well hydrated.

On more than one occasion I’ve glanced out the window to see how the steak is doing only to spot it engulfed in flames. What I’ve discovered over the years is that timing is everything. If you forget the grill for even a minute you may be sitting down to meat that isn’t just well done but more closely resembles the smoky hardwood used to cook it than recognizable food.

To avoid ordering in at that point requires not just rushing to its rescue but first donning a jacket, hat and, depending on just how frigid and stormy it is, boots and mittens.

I’m sure there are those who wonder whether it’s worth it? Can’t you just bite the bullet for a few months and use the oven? Sure. But one needs occasionally, especially these days, to be reminded that they’re happy to be alive. And nothing quite accomplishes that like sitting down to dinner, perhaps with a roaring fire going – a controlled fire, that is, in the fireplace – after braving the weather.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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