Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rising From The Ashes

You know, I've debated for a couple years now about whether or not to include personal stories on this blog.  Initially, I thought it should be about the food - just informational - because really, do you care about my story?

Lately, I've been listening to the Tobolowsky Files by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. I've been so engaged and enchanted by the stories of his life. I guess the personal stuff is really the difference. So, I've decided that maybe that's all part of it. The personal stuff is what draws us to one another.  With that in mind, I am going to tell you the story of a grilling class gone wrong, very wrong.

I teach series of classes at Chefshop.com - lots of interesting things like Spanish Tapas, Moroccan Tagines, and a grilling class called Grill Like A Pro.

I love to grill.  Vince, my husband, and I used to grill about 4 nights a week when we lived in California.  A little less when we lived in Arizona because who wants to stand in front of a blasting grill, under a blistering sun, on a white hot concrete slab but that's another story. In any case, I'm not a grill virgin.  So, when Eliza, one of the owners of Chefshop, and I talked about a grilling class, I thought cool! I got this!

I chose a few different recipes I liked that featured different grilling methods like brining, indirect grilling, grilling a whole salmon, and fruit on the grill. I really try to be hyper organized.  I have lists. Lists of ingredients I need to buy and prep. Lists of equipment I'll use.  Notes on the margins of my recipes so I remember to highlight certain tips. I practice all the recipes, test them on friends. I even set alarms on my cell phone to keep myself on track and on time. If I'd been a boy, I'd surely been a boyscout.  I just like to be prepared.  I'm not rigid mind you, I just like to have an "outline" to work from.

So, I'd done all this for the Grill Like a Pro class.  I was ready, but as I put everything together early in the day I had an uneasy sense. I usually grill on a gas grill.  When I proposed the class, I anticipated using my own grill but we'd run into some transportation issues so I agreed to use the battered old Weber from the Chefshop warehouse.

I planned to doing an indirect grilling demonstration with a whole butterflied chicken thinking the indirect grilling thing would be more forgiving on charcoal.  In addition, I planned to grill a whole salmon.  Whole salmon is great - okay, maybe a bit intimidating but really manageable in the right circumstance.  The "right" circumstance being the qualifier.  It's ideal to grill a large item like a whole salmon using indirect heat.  That means that the heat source, charcoal or gas, surrounds the item instead of coming up under it.  Anyway, I was planning to demonstrate the process on a griddle-sized Coleman camp grill.  Doable, yes. The "right" circumstance, questionable.

Let's get back to the chicken for a moment. We'd lite the Weber using a chimney and mesquite coals. When we dumped the coals out on the grill base, I felt there weren't enough so we shook on more.  After about 30 minutes of introduction and demonstration, I brought the class over to the grill to show them how to move the coals for indirect grilling.  I threw an aluminum pie pan into the center to collect drippings and got ready to flop the chicken onto the grill.  I should mention that although the coals we very hot, I thought I'd be safe pushing them out to the edges of the grill.

After coating the chicken with rice bran oil, I placed it in the center of the grill, added a couple bricks wrapped in foil, and took the class back to the outdoor kitchen where the demonstration was centered. Moments, perhaps seconds, later I was prompted to address the flames engulfing the chicken behind me. By the time I reached the chicken it was covered in soot.  It had the look of a ravaged, firefighter - flesh smeared with dust and ash.  Of course, as the Pro in the Grill Like a Pro class I had to play it off as though all was good.  All was not good, but this was only the beginning.

I pushed on, explaining that the coals were too hot and that we'd put the chicken back on shortly.  In the meantime, I made an herb sauce, demonstrated a technique for peeling the skin off tomatoes and created a rub for lamb.  I hoped that my rhythm was back on track and returned the chicken to the grill.  Still too hot but I had little choice but to press on to try to stay on time line.

Next I prepared the salmon. I demonstrated how to squeegee it with a knife to remove moisture, seasoned and stuffed it with citrus and herbs, talked about positioning in on the grill and about how long it would take to grill a fish that size.

My Coleman camp grill wasn't ideal but I'd done a whole fish on it before so I felt prepared.  I placed the salmon on the preheated grill and reduced the heat to low. I explained that the salmon would cook faster if  covered but since the camp grill doesn't have a cover, I folded some heavy aluminum foil over it.  Unfortunately, we had a good bit of wind in the parking lot so my foil just wouldn't stay in place.  As I battled the floated foil, I started to question the heat source itself. It, of course, had blown out.

So there I stood in full "Julia Child-Mode" - I swear if blood had been spurting from my thumb, it couldn't have been any worse. I was mortified. Questions? I said. Anyone have questions about grilling.

Well, long story short, everything cooked eventually - even the charred chicken turned out well, a testament to the wonders of brining. I've taught the class a couple times since then to far greater success but I wanted to share my fallibility and resilience with you.  You too can rise from the ashes - especially if you brine first.

Grilled Chicken Under a Brick
This is a traditional Tuscan method known as Pollo al Mattone—bricks weigh down the butterflied chicken, resulting in even, quick cooking and crispy skin (you'll need two bricks for this recipe; wrap them in foil). If you don't have bricks, a cast-iron skillet will do the trick.
Serves 4 to 6

1 whole 3- to 4-pound chicken, trimmed of excess fat, split, backbone removed
3 qts water
1 cup plus 2 tbsp Morton's Kosher Salt
1 1/2 cup sugar
rice bran oil or grape seed oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garlic Herb Sauce, recipe on next page

The day before you plan to grill:
Rinse the chicken and set aside. In a large bowl or nonreactive pot, dissolve the salt and sugar in water. Submerge the chicken in the brine. If the chicken tends to bob above the surface, set a plate on top to weight it down. Refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine, discard the brine, quickly rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Place chicken on a platter in the refrigerator and allow to air-dry overnight.

The day of:
Prepare Garlic Herb Sauce.

Prepare the grill: To grill by the Indirect Method on a charcoal grill, arrange hot coals evenly on either side of the charcoal grate. Place a drip pan in the center of the charcoal grate between the coals. Place the cooking grate over the coals and place the food on the cooking grate, centered over the drip pan or empty space.

To grill by the Indirect Method on a gas grill, preheat the grill with all burners on High. Then adjust the burners on each side of the grill to medium temperature and turn off the burner(s) directly below where the chicken will rest.

Liberally brush chicken with rice bran oil and season lightly with freshly ground pepper. Place chicken, skin side down, on grill. Place foil-wrapped bricks or cast-iron skillet atop chicken (if using bricks, position 1 brick over top half of chicken and 1 brick over bottom half). Cover and grill until skin is crispy and brown, about 15 minutes. Remove bricks or skillet. Using tongs or 2 large spatulas, turn chicken. Replace bricks or skillet and cook, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes longer. Let chicken rest 10 minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature, with Garlic Herb Sauce.

Garlic Herb Sauce
12 garlic cloves, peeled, divided
1 1/2 cups (packed) fresh Italian parsley sprig tops
1/3 cup Katz Late Harvest Viognier Honey Vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup (packed) fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper
1 cup Etruria Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Cook 8 garlic cloves in boiling water 2 minutes. Drain garlic. Place in a food processor and cool. Add remaining 4 garlic cloves and next 6 ingredients. With machine running, gradually add oil, blending until thick sauce forms. Season with salt. (Note: Can be made 2 days ahead.) Transfer to bowl; cover and chill.