Sunday, August 13, 2006

Cowboys ain't easy to love and they're harder to hold

What's more primal than food cooked over fire? Well, food eaten raw, I suppose. But this isn't a post about salad or sushi. This is a post about that ancient desire to master fire, to use our intellect to enrich our bodies.

For our anniversary, Alison and I bought ourselves a Lodge cast iron grill grate. Not that we're unhappy with the steel grate of our Weber grill... only that it can't store heat or make grill marks the way big strips of cast iron promise.

It can only deliver on that promise if it's properly preheated, and that was my first lesson. I probably preheated the grill directly over the coals for 20 minutes or half an hour, and that just wasn't enough. From the last issue of Cook's Illustrated, I had thought 20 minutes was plenty - but on review, they were talking about a gas fire, not charcoal. So, bigger fire, longer time.

The Lodge grill has beautiful long bars, 3/8th of an inch high and 1/4th inch wide. (This design may be retired; I notice the current pictures include frequent crossbars where our grill has none.) This makes it something of a pain to clean. Lodge says to use a "stiff-bristled" brush. I've got brushes too hard (the brass-bristled brush I use on the Weber's steel grate) and too soft (a vegetable cleaning brush), but nothing just right. A nylon scrubby did fine on the top and bottom of the grill, but I had to get in between with paper towels. What a pain that would be with a crossbar every two inches.

There was another variable last night. I finished my bag of Kingsford briquettes and opened up a bag of Cowboy Brand lump hardwood charcoal. If you're wondering to yourself whether the look and sound of real wood on fire is manlier than the silent glow of identical preformed briquettes... yes. Yes it is.

(I am fully aware that women can enjoy fire as much or more than men. I will let a woman say what that feeling is called. Either way, if you're looking for that Tom Hanks in Cast Away "Look what I have created!" moment, lump charcoal is the thing for you. But this was my fire... pronounced "mah fahr"... and the feeling was distinctly manly. As I sat next to it typing on my manly Apple laptop and sipping my manly vodka and lime juice.)

The Cowboy charcoal bag claims that it "cooks better" than briquettes, allowing you to "use less and cook faster." Certainly it lit faster, and its irregular shape means that less lump charcoal fits in a chimney than easy-to-pack briquettes. Unfortunately, "lights faster" is functionally equivalent to "fire dies sooner" - an unfortunate thing if you're trying to roast a chicken with indirect heat, like I was.

My poor 45-minute chicken recipe took almost an hour and a half before we lost daylight and gave up to finish with a few minutes under the broiler. If you've had experience with lump charcoal, I'd love to know if this is a standard problem. Does it call for a bigger fire, or a more frequently fed one, if I really want to barbecue?

(Culinary note: I was following Rick Bayless' recipe for Mexican roadside chicken, except that I accidentally used about 1/3rd cup of orange juice instead of 1/4th. Even that tiny difference in volume seemed to make a huge difference in the concentration of the spices, which suggests a little about why my turkey brine was kind of bland.)

The great thing about a "not quite right" cooking experience is that it does create its own excuse to try again.