Monday, May 18, 2015


I have been reading, as is my wont, a marvelous book called "Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen" by the late Laurie Colwin. It is a marvelous book of essays that reads as more memoir than a cook book, though it has recipes. But more important it is filled with smiles as is illustrated in this essay, titled "How To Avoid Grilling". As the days grow longer and warmer I think it is most apt. Read it in good humor.

Unlike most citizens of these United States of America, I do not grill. There is no hibachi in my garden or anything else like it. When I moved into my garden apartment I was given a fancy barbecue, and as far as I know it is still in the cellar collecting dust and mold spores.

Grilling is like sunbathing. Everyone knows it is bad for you but no one ever stops doing it. Since I do not like the taste of lighter fluid, I do not have to worry that a grilled steak is the equivalent of seven hundred cigarettes.

Of course this implies that I do not like to eat al fresco. No sane person does, I feel. When it is nice enough to eat outside, it is also nice enough for mosquitoes, horse and deer flies, as well as wasps and yellowjackets. I don't much like said in my food and thus while I will endure a beach picnic I never look forward to them.

My idea of bliss is a screened-in porch from which you can watch the sun go down, or come up. You can sit in temperate shade and not fry your brains while you eat. You are protected from flying critters, sandstorms and rain and you can still enjoy a nice cool breeze.

One year my husband and I rented a lake cottage -- a rustic cabin set in a pine grove just a stroll from a weed-choked lake. With this cottage came a war canoe and a screened-in porch. The motto of the owners seemed to have been: "It's broken! Let's take it to the lake!"

The dining room table was on a definite slant and the plates were vintage 1950s Melmac. The stove was lit by one of those gizmos that ignite a spark next to one of the burners and was of great fascination to me. Near the corner cupboards lived an army of mice who left evidence of their existence all over the cups and saucers. Anything left around was carried away --- quite a tidy little ecosystem. One evening we were visited by a dog who howled constantly as the sound of mouse rattling drove him into a frenzy.

Nevertheless, we ate on the screened-in porch all the time and with great success. Friends with beautiful houses came to our broken-down lake cottage to eat on that crummy porch and watch the sun set over the lake. All around us were grills: we could smell them, but we never so much as fingered a charcoal briquette.

Having said this, I admit to loving grilled food --- that is, something that has been exposed to a flame. On a regular old stove this is called broiling. English stoves have a special rack (a salamander) with a separate flame under which you can grill a chop or brown the top of a gratin. There is no better way to cook fish, steak or chops.

I have avoided grilling by broiling, and I have never had to bother myself about getting in a supply of mesquite or apple wood, or old thyme twigs.

For a brief period of my life I thought to use the fireplace as a cooking surface. Years of ingesting gasoline at the barbecues of others led me to wonder if I could do it better. I decided to grill steaks on a rack in my fireplace and by a stroke of fortune was given some apple and cherry to burn. The results were marred by nervousness, a syndrome that goes with the territory of the wood fire: constant cutting to see how far along your steak has come. I did not taste the merest breath of apple or cherry although I have been told that you have not lived until you have tasted swordfish grilled over mesquite. This may be true, but as Abraham Lincoln is said to have said: "For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like."

But what do do on a clear summer evening? The sky is pink. The air is sweet. It is dinnertime and you are surrounded by hungry people who have just spent the day either swimming or gardening, or have just gotten out of a car or train or bus and found themselves in the country listening to the hermit thrushes.

Everywhere in America people are lighting their grills. They begin in spring, on the first balmy evening. I happen to live across the street from a theological seminary who students come from all over. I know it is spring not by the first robin but by the first barbecue across the street on the seminary lawn. That first whiff of lighter fluid and smoke is my herald, and led one of my friends to ask: "What is it about Episcopalians, do you think? Is it in their genes to barbecue?"

It is not in the genes but it is in the American character to grill, a leftover from pioneer days, from Indian days, from the Old West. I have been able to buck this trend with Lebanon bologna sandwiches or mustard chicken.

Lebanon bologna is not from the Middle East but from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County. It is a spicy, slightly tart salami-like cold cut with the limpness of bologna. I have never had the courage to ask what is made of but I sure it cannot be good for anyone. The way to serve it is on whole-wheat bread spread with cream cheese into which you have mashed chives, thyme, tarragon --- whatever you or your friends have in the garden. Spread the cream cheese liberally but use only one (two if sliced very thin) slice of Lebanon bologna. Make an enormous pile of these sandwiches cut in half and serve with potato salad, cole slaw or a big green salad. In the summer a large plate of sliced tomatoes is a salad in itself with nothing added.

If you feel you must make something more grill-like, spare ribs are always nice, especially if you have marinated them for a couple of days.

Some people like a tomato-based barbecue sauce, but I do not. Besides, these ribs are baked in the oven, not barbecued. I like them in what is probably a variation on teriyaki sauce.

For one side of the ribs you need one cup of olive oil, one half cup tamari sauce, about four tablespoons of honey, the juice of one lemon, fresh ground black pepper and lots and lots and lots of garlic peeled and cut in half. Let the ribs sit in this marinade as long as possible --- overnight in the refrigerator is the least, two days is the best. Then put the ribs in a roasting pan (you can either cut them into riblets or leave them in one piece and cut before serving) and put them in a slow oven --- about 300 degrees --- and leave them there, pouring off the fat from time to time, for three to four hours. What is left, as a friend of mine says, has no name. The ribs are both crisp and tender, salty, sweet, oily but not greasy and very garlicky. You gnaw on them and then throw the bones on a platter.

A finger bowl is actually appropriate here, if you want to be fancy, and so is the kind of heated washcloth you get in a Japanese restaurant. Plain old wet paper towels will do as well.

You can cook these ribs in the morning and eat them in the evening. They should not be cold (although a leftover rib for breakfast is considered heavenly by some people) but are fine lukewarm, and can be kept in a warm oven with no ill effects.

And as the sky becomes overcast and the clouds get darker, and the fumes of charcoal starter drift in your direction, you can sit down to your already cooked dinner in a safe place with the satisfaction of not having had to light a single match or get your hands all gritty with those nasty, smeary little charcoal briquettes. Furthermore, you will never in your life have to clean the grill, one of the most loathsome of kitchen chores.

Instead you are indoors while being out of doors. Your dinner is taken care of an you can concentrate on eating, which, after a long summer day, is all anybody really wants.

(Colwin died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 48 in 1992. I think her departure is a loss to all of us.)