Eat: You can have your cake and grill it, too
There are more than a few things that separate humans from animals. Self-awareness may be the most obvious, but cooking is also a distinction: we are the only species that actually cooks food. And according to Richard Wrangham, Harvard biological anthropologist and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, it is this—cooking with fire—that created the integral shift from beast to human. Cooked food, he states, is easier to digest and requires far less energy from the digestive system. Because our guts no longer needed that energy, they grew smaller, and the excess energy was diverted to other areas, such as our brains, which grew larger.
In The Barbecue Bible, author Steven Raihlen states that half a million years ago, the world witnessed a revolution: an ape-like creature destined to become man became the first animal to cook its dinner. He goes on to say that the first cooked foods may have actually resulted from forest fires caused by lightning. Our ancestors discovered the charred carcasses and experienced their first taste of cooked meat.
A recent study suggests that our ancestors used fire for warmth and cooking as far back as a million years ago. That’s impressive, if not a bit mind-boggling, as is the fact that today, something remains so ingrained in us that we still take pleasure and satisfaction in cooking food outdoors over a live fire. It’s instinctive and primal but, mostly, it’s delicious. It’s also simple.
There are two main fire sources for backyard cooking: propane and charcoal. Both are excellent heat sources, but charcoal—though it takes more effort—yields more flavorful food. In his book, The Magic of Fire, William Rubel claims that an ornamental fire is about flames, but a cooking fire is about heat. He goes on to say that managing a cooking fire means developing the heat required for a specific recipe in both the proper form and intensity, and having it ready at the moment you are prepared to cook.
One of the most difficult things about cooking with charcoal is the waiting. While propane provides instant heat, it takes at least forty minutes for charcoal to become the bed of glowing embers that signifies optimal heat.
One of the quickest ways to ruin a grilled meal is to cook directly over a young fire with flames licking up and around the food—you’ll get food that is burnt on the outside and undercooked in the center. You’ll also want to avoid the flare-ups that occur when fat or sauce drips from the food onto the coals, as they can result in undesirable carbon flavor.
When considering which foods to grill, you’re only limited by your imagination; if it can be cooked in your kitchen, then it can be cooked in your backyard. Bread, for example—especially flat breads—are simple, as are pizzas. Rustic stews, cooked in a pot laid directly in smoldering embers, are simple and fun. Certain fruits can be grilled and, yes, so can dessert. While it’s not entirely impossible to bake a cake over a fire, the accompanying recipe calls for a pre-baked cake to be sliced and grilled. It’s attractive, offers a distinctive flavor, and can be a novel topic if guests are present. Try the cake, or one of the other recipes below to channel your inner Neanderthal.
Grilled Watermelon and Feta Salad with Garlic Mint Vinaigrette
1 cup olive oil, plus extra for grilling the watermelon
1/3 cup lemon juice
3 cloves garlic
1 small bunch mint
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 head romaine lettuce, washed and chopped
8 small slices watermelon, rind intact
4 thin slices red onion
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
Combine 1 cup of olive oil with the lemon, garlic, mint, and salt in a blender. Process for 30 seconds, or until smooth and emulsified. Transfer the vinaigrette to a suitable container and set aside. Arrange the lettuce on 4 plates. Lightly brush the watermelon with olive oil and grill briefly on both sides. Arrange the grilled watermelon across the 4 salad plates and top with the onion and feta. Drizzle with mint vinaigrette.
2 pounds leg of lamb, trimmed and diced
1 medium onion, cut into large dice
2 green bell peppers, cut into large dice
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup red wine
1 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons oregano leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
Skewer the lamb, onions, and bell pepper on 4 or 8 wooden or metal skewers and lay them in a shallow pan. Combine the vinegar, wine, oil, garlic, oregano, cumin, slat, and pepper in a small bowl and whisk together. Pour the marinade over the kebobs and refrigerate for at least an hour, turning twice. Remove the kebobs from the marinade (you can discard the marinade) and allow them to drain on absorbent paper for a few minutes. Grill the kebobs over a moderately hot fire for 5–10 minutes, turning frequently.
Grilled Za’atar Bread (Lebanese Herb Bread)
½ pound bread or pizza dough
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons za’atar seasoning
Cut the dough into 2 pieces and roll it thin. Preheat a grill, having one side prepared with indirect heat. Rub the olive oil on both sides of the dough, then spread the za’atar seasoning on just 1 side. Place the dough on the grill (za’atar side down first, and not over the direct flame). Cook for 1 minute and turn over. Cook for a couple minutes longer on the other side.
Grilled Pound Cake with Fresh Blueberry Compote
½ pint blueberries
½ cup sugar
½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 tablespoons melted
4 thick slices pound cake
Ice cream or whipped cream
Combine the blueberries, sugar, white wine, and cornstarch in a small pot or skillet; gently mix to dissolve the cornstarch. Place the skillet over a fire and bring to a simmer; cook the compote for a few minutes, or until slightly thickened then set aside. Brush the pound cake with the butter on both sides, grill briefly, taking care not to burn or scorch. Arrange the grilled cake on 4 plates and garnish with the blueberry compote, and whipped or ice cream.
Joe George blogs at citysimplicity.blogspot.com and writes regularly on food for Spree.