It sneaks up on you. It starts out like any other day, it’s going to be a nice weekend for a change, I can feel the trees yawning and stretching, popping those little buds out. The green yardwaste box is full all of a sudden, and the dogs just want to lay on the pillow out back.
I’m standing on the lanai with a coffee, examining a day that doesn’t require a pullover just to go outside. Yes, spring is definitely coming, we’ll be spending a lot of time outside now, expanding into the outdoors for the next 6 months. I’m not going to lie, we may have earthquakes, sudden oak death, coyotes who howl on the ridge at night, but do we have great weather.
Jill reminds me we’ve got friends coming over for dinner, and I notice the grill, squatting patiently under its cover, waiting. Spring. Grill. Dinner. It’s time to clean the grill. It’s Grill Day.
Forget the trumpets, get me the paint scraper
I’m not sure when I became a serious griller, but it may have been when we were living in Yorktown Heights, New York, renting a pretty colonial and running our publishing company out of the second floor bedrooms we’d converted into offices. Our landlord, who lived in North Carolina, was not known for his generosity. Well, let me say this. He once sent me a bill for something like $2.00 for a used light bulb he’d given me.
So when the oven broke down, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, and a trip to the local appliance store didn’t turn up any hope for an old, old appliance that probably should have been retired oh, 15 years ago, I put it to the landlord. No dice. He insisted that, even if it was 30 or 40 years old, we were the tenants and we had to fix it.
I bought a grill instead, and spent the New York winter outside the back door of the kitchen, under the huge canopy of the branches of an imposing copper beech, roasting and grilling dinners in my little Kenmore gas grill.
It was that winter that I had the worst grilling experience of my life, which involved me, a couple of live lobsters, an 8″ chef’s knife, and a mistaken trust in authority. But I digress. I got over the night of the “living dead” and just kept grilling. There was no way I would pay to fix that old stove.
Stepping Up to Turbo
A few years ago the old Kenmore gave out, and I replaced it with a stainless steel unit from Australia, bought at one of the Barbecues Galore mall stores. Lifetime guarantees and all that. Frankly, I was tired of trying to clean the old grills. I’m sure all those TV chefs on the Food Network just throw the grills out after a month and get free ones from their sponsors. You can’t clean them.
But still, last year’s burnt-on grime really isn’t all that appealing. So Grill Day is the day I do whatever it is I’m going to do to clean the bowels of my favorite hotbox.
Pretty soon the New York Times is spread all over the concrete patio, and the pieces of the grill are scattered like big Legos. Over the years I’ve tried many solvents, potions, brushes and dips to clean the grill, and guess what: most of them don’t work. It’s all sizzle and no steak.
No, you can clean your grill, but the most important tool you’ll need is a lowly paint scraper, or a nice putty knife. Yes, I mean you are going to scrape every part of the grill and only after you’ve gotten down to the metal will you start to actually try to clean it.
5 Hour Ribs, Perhaps?
Soon I’m on my knees, patiently going over one of the grill grates. I’m thinking about what to make tonight, after the grill has been restored and reassembled. Initiating a new grilling season should be taken seriously.
The last time Gary was over, one of the friends that will join us tonight, I made 5-hour ribs. Scraping away, just the thought of the ribs sends a pang of hunger deep into my being.
5 hour ribs actually take about 5 and a half hours, but they aren’t cooking all that time. First you take the big slabs of ribs out of their wrappers, down in the bottom of the fridge where you’ve stashed them. Unrolling the heavy paper, feeling the weight of those slabs is part of the preparation, so enjoy it.
Admire the ribs, the way they’re coated with layers of fat. That’s going to be your automatic basting, gently saturating the ribs as they cook with deep pork flavor. Trim off the bits you don’t want, and rub them all over with your special, secret recipe dry rub. You thought I was going to tell you mine? The exact mix of Hungarian paprika, black pepper, coarse salt, cayenne, cumin, and “selected other spices”?
Next, you let them sit on your counter, just absorbing the flavors from the rub. An hour. A few hours at a really low temperature on the grill, and my secret for perfecting the ribs when they come off the grill. But I won’t have time to make them today. It’s lunchtime and barely half the grill is starting to look clean. My arms are coated with flecks of old grease and carbonized animal products.
I’m back at cleaning the inside of the grill casing when I think about a different kind of mixed grill, a fish mixed grill. Last year I grilled shrimp throughout the summer and perfected the recipe I’d been working on the last few years. As I’m scraping I remember the dinner when I’d improvised with some guests, grilling up skewers and skewers of crusty, salty, garlicky giant shrimp. With a mango salsa spicy with serrano chiles, a corn, cherry tomato and red onion salad, it was one of the best meals of the summer. The shrimp were sizzling when I pushed them down off the metal skewers onto the waiting plates, and the riot of colors was only outdone by the range of flavors, textures and temperatures competing for your attention.
It’s early afternoon before I start to fit the pieces of the grill back togther. I’m going to have to trot to get things together before the doorbell rings. The grill is as clean as it’s going to get. The stainless grates glow dully in the afternoon light. I ball up the grimy newspapers, and head off to get ready. The possibilities appear before me, each one alluring.
Lemon chicken, the kind that’s actually tart when you bite into it? Shoulder lamb chops with rosemary, garlic and a side of white beans? Grilled corn and turkey sausages? I’m almost running by the time I get to the car. Let the grilling begin!
Off-Topic is my chance on Saturdays to stray away from the world of books and publishing for a few minutes, and look in a different direction.