Feel Free to Smoke

By Bridget Weiss

June in Austin is a beautiful, though precarious, time of year—early enough to captivate us with al fresco music festivals and spring-fed pools, but verging on the season when we long for a summerhouse in Maine. But school’s out, the threat of drought is still weeks away, and the sunsets linger for hours.  It’s precisely the time to cook outdoors in a gauzy sundress (though you might prefer khaki shorts) with a cool glass of something delicious in your hand.

As Central Texans, we owe it to ourselves to have at least two comfortable chairs outside, a few pots of fresh herbs and a citronella candle for mosquitoes. Turn off the oven, turn up the music and enjoy the balmy expanse of your backyard or third-story balcony.

Then follow these instructions.

Consider the grill. Grilling imbues the simplest foods with authority, while keeping the kitchen cool. It creates a wonderful excuse to sit and visit while preparing supper. Grilling makes you the envy of your friends, with their sad, pre-roasted, store-bought chickens.

Find the grill. Does it languish in a forgotten corner with an old mop for company? Do you eye it on the shelf as it waits to be purchased from the local hardware store? Are you waiting for a sign from God? Make it easy on yourself. Assemble a chimney or electric starter; a galvanized tin bucket with a lid for briquettes, kindling and wood chunks; a good steel brush (always cook on a clean grill!), a perforated skillet, a dedicated pan for liquid; and a long-handled spatula and set of tongs.

Smoke it. Whether your grill is low to the ground or tall and imposing, it has a higher calling as the smoker it was born to be. Cooking by indirect heat takes a little longer than grilling, but eliminates the possibility of burning or overcooking food, a bitter tragedy we’ve all shared.

Smoke it with a conventional grill. Skip the icky chemicals in starter fluid and Matchlight briquettes in favor of an electric starter or a chimney, a neat-o cylindrical gadget with a perforated shelf on the inside and a handle on the outside. Coals go in the top section and two sheets of newspaper go in the bottom. Lighting the newspaper starts the briquettes—the process is idiot-proof.

The coals should be ready for cooking in about 20 minutes. Deposit them against two sides in the basin of your grill, placing a small pan for marinades between the mounds. Experiment with the marinade liquid—try beer with chicken; red wine or coffee for beef or pork; water with citrus wedges for fish, seafood and vegetables.

Add small chunks of wood to the glowing briquettes, and give them a few minutes to ignite before putting your food on the heated bars of the grill. Pecan, oak and fruit woods provide a subtle taste that doesn’t overpower the flavor of the food. If your immediate world is bereft of suitable wood, all is not lost—most grocery stores carry hickory and mesquite chips. Just be sure to soak them first.

Cook the food in the center of the grill above the liquid pan, with the lid on. Depending upon the size of your grill and the heat of your fire, food will take two to four times longer to cook than if you were simply grilling. Five or 10 minutes before finishing the food is a good time to add branches of rosemary and other fresh herbs, or citrus peelings, or wet tea leaves to the briquettes.

Chicken, beef and pork are best when allowed to sit, covered, for 10 minutes before serving. Fish can be served immediately.

Smoke it with a gas grill. Follow the same steps if you have a gas grill, moving the stones to two sides, and placing your liquids pan between them. Put the smoking fuel in a cast iron skillet on the grill in the farthest corner from the vent pipe, so the smoke is drawn over the food.

Keep it simple. Try boned chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, steaks, fish fillets or vegetables. They cook quickly and don’t require the extensive pampering that larger cuts of meat entail. Buy filleted fish and cook it skin-side down. Austin fishmongers and butchers love to offer cooking advice—tell them what you have in mind and ask for suggestions.

More bright ideas. Cut vegetables and toss them with olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper; grill directly over your added fuels in a perforated skillet. Some favorites are asparagus, soaked corn in the husk, red bell peppers, sliced leeks and fennel bulbs, red onions, mushrooms, squash and carrots.

Smoked whole onions, peppers (hot or mild) and tomatoes can be stored in the freezer for future sumptuous suppers. Be careful not to leave vegetables covered for too long before serving in order to preserve an al dente integrity. For a savory treat—or, for that matter, for a sweet one to serve warm over ice cream—smoke apples, pears or mangoes.

Garnish impressively. Citrus wedges and fresh herb branches should do the trick.

Retire to lounge chair with plate.