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Thursday, September 28

Gapers Block

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Editor's note: This column originally ran on April 20, 2004. One Good Meal returns fresh next week.

When the weather gets warm in Chicago, people head outside in droves. They shed their winter layers, roam the streets looking for outdoor cafes, and venture out back to spend time huddled around the fire god that many know as Smokey Joe. Charcoal is bought, matches are found and a section of the Reader is turned into small balls of kindling.

People head to the store, wandering up and down aisles looking for something to throw on the grill. And that's pretty much what people do; they take meat out of its plastic and styrofoam package and throw it over some hot coals. Then they cook it till it's burnt shoe leather.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Charcoal flavoring adds a nice touch to many things, and the incredibly high temperatures are perfect for creating a crispy exterior and a juicy interior, but it is possible to impress yourself and your guests. Sure, this requires a little forethought and time. But it's so easy and improves the flavor of your food so much that you'll agree it's worth it.

Today's menu is made up of bratwursts simmered in onions and beer then grilled, shrimp brined and then put on skewers, veggie skewers, and pineapple slices soaked in rum and brown sugar and then grilled for dessert.

Beer Simmered Bratwurst
6 bratwurst
1 12 ounce can of beer
1 medium onion sliced thinly
6 whole peppercorns
4 cloves or allspice
6 rolls
Spicy mustard

In a large pot (or a cast iron skillet) combine all the ingredients except for the buns and the mustard and simmer for 30 minutes. (If there are small bubbles coming to the surface, that's a simmer. You don't want to boil, or the brats will be come tough and dry out on the grill.)

Once you've got the brats simmering, you can start lighting your charcoal grill. If you're using propane, wait about 10 minutes before heating it. Once the coals are glowing, remove the brats from the pot and place on the grill. You're going to cook them for about 10 minutes so flip them halfway through. If you sprinkle them with water (or spray them with a squirt bottle) the skins will get crispy. Drain the beer out of the pan, reserving the onions, and add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan. Cook them over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until they start to get golden brown. Plop a brat into a bun, slather with mustard, cover with onions and serve.

Brined shrimp
1 cup of water
1/4 cup of salt
1/4 cup of sugar
2 trays of ice cubes
1 pound of shrimp, unshelled

Bring 1 cup of water in a small sauce pan to a boil. Add the salt and the sugar and stir until the crystals dissolve. Pour this into a plastic bucket or a large zipper bag filled with ice. When the ice has melted, add the shrimp to soak for half an hour for the "21-25" shrimp (this refers to the number of shrimp of this size it takes to make a pound) or 1 hour for the jumbo shrimp. Remove the shrimp from the brine and pat dry.

Take a skewer and insert through both ends of the shrimp. You should be able to get four to six shrimp per skewer. Place the shrimp in the medium-hot range on the grill. Let cook for about two minutes on the first side. Check to make sure the side nearest the heat has turned opaque and pinkish -- if so, flip them and cook for another two minutes. Since grilling temperatures vary, this could take up to four minutes per side.

Veggie Skewers
This is so easy that I feel like I'm insulting you by giving you a recipe. Essentially you're going to take very large chunks of vegetables that you like and spear them, drizzle them with a little olive oil, some salt and pepper, and then grill them on each side for about 1-3 minutes. You'll want to stay away from tomatoes (unless they're cherry or grape tomatoes) and any other veggies that can go mushy and fall into your coals and start a fire. Mushrooms, peppers, chunks of onion, green beans, zucchini, potato, etc. are all good choices. If you want to mix in some veggies with the shrimp above, feel free. If you decide to cook other chunks of meat with your skewers, limit it to one type of meat per skewer.

Rum- and Brown Sugar-Soaked Pineapple
You can purchase a pineapple corer that works pretty well, by the way. It takes out the core and it removes the skin and gives you pretty pineapple rings. Cost is between $6 and $12 at your grocery store or cooking goods store, or $12.99 for three at Amazon. Or you can make lots of long skinny cuts to remove the outer layer, cut it into rounds and then remove the core from each piece. Or, you can purchase a can of pineapple rings (preferrably one in water, not syrup). Take a zipper bag and put your rings, 1/4 cup of rum, and 1/4 cup of brown sugar into the bag. You'll want to put this bag into a bowl and let it soak on a countertop for at least an hour. You don't need super-hot coals for this, and it is so wonderful to eat warm, so it's best to cook after your guests have finished their dinner. Take the rings out of the bag. Using tongs or a long fork, place each ring on the grill. Cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, flipping once. Take off the grill, put directly on a plate, and smile as your guests do the happy food dance.

With just a little forethought and no fancy ingredients, your cookout can go from being "OK" to "when can we do this again?"

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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