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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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Ah, summer. Smells of lighter fluid and searing hamburgers come wafting through my backyard. Delightful whiffs of cumin and Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce and hot sauce and corn come my way as we haul the grill to the little area in our yard where it's far enough away from the vinyl siding to be safe. We decide to join our neighbors in the most looked-forward-to culinary season in Chicago — barbecue season.

The ability to cook outside and not heat up your own apartment is a grand privilege I'm grateful to have. But even if I had to resort to carrying a beat-up Smokey Joe to a park somewhere, I'd be likely to do so. Moreso than in any of the other major cities, Chicagoans break the year into when you can grill comfortably and when you can't.

But what do you put on your grill? Last year I wrote a column about marinades that Brian (Mr. Party Line) told me he refers to frequently. And it got me to thinking about how I've kinda left out some of my veggie friends from this grilling delight. Many vegetarians have to be satisfied with eating the side dishes (often purchased at Jewel or Dominick's on the way to the barbecue-owners house), making do with a bland garden burger with ketchup or mustard, or maybe getting a grilled portabello mushroom cap on a sesame seed bun.

But there is hope. It's difficult to cook tofu steaks on the grill, but it's not impossible to get a healthy and tasty vegetarian dinner. I'll show you how. And for you folks scoffing at me as you go to pick up a steak to marinade, consider this a primer on side dishes.

There was a summer when our stovetop went on the fritz. My mom was too frugal to buy another one, but my step-father was too stubborn to pay somebody else to figure out what was wrong with it. He also didn't have the desire to work on it every night. So for about a month it meant that each dinner was either made in the microwave or on the grill. It was an annoying struggle at first, but eventually we came up with creative ways to cook all kinds of things on the grill.

Our savior was aluminum foil. We thought we were brilliant creating little "dinner pillows," but we were far from original. To create a pillow, or a pocket, tear off a rectangular piece of aluminum foil. Place it on a counter and fold it in half. Leave one edge untouched for now, but fold one of the other edges in toward the fold by about half an inch, then fold it in again by another half-inch. Fold another side in the same way. You now have a pocket. Being careful not to pop open your seams, open the pocket a little and hold it in your non-dominant hand. You're now ready for stuffing it full of good stuff, sealing the opening, and placing it on the grill.

But what should you put in it? Just about anything! Cubes of firm tofu, chunks of vegetables, mushrooms, even cubes of apples. The secret is to only fill up your pocket halfway or slightly more but no more than 3/4 full. This will give room for the steam to move around, cook your food, and spread your flavor.

Since each pocket is self-contained, you can make a variety of just about anything that your guests desire. You can create a "salad bar" like those restaurants where you throw a collection of ingredients into a bowl and watch them grill it on their flat grill-top before handing you a bowl of food that is often far blander than you hoped. And the reason it's bland is because all of your flavorings evaporated.

With a pocket, since it's fully enclosed, everything stays inside and flavor doesn't evaporate. But there are a few rules. Make sure you put in some salt. It not only helps food release its own moisture it also causes other flavors to intensify. Some sort of liquid or oil is necessary to help create steam and cause flavors to move around. Since it is aluminum foil, keep acids to a minimum. Citrus juice and vinegar seem like naturals, but they can cause the foil to react and release metallic flavors into your food. If you want to use citrus juice or other acids, consider buying some parchment. It works on the same principal. But be sure to moisten the outside of your pocket lightly and never place it over direct flames, and watch it carefully if you place it over direct heat. You don't want your dinner going up in flames.

Here are some examples of things to put into a pocket. Or you can create bowls of each of these ingredients and let people make their own. Keep everything bite sized, but not much smaller than that. You don't want people to have to use a knife but you don't want food breaking down so it's hard to stab with a plastic fork. Some foods to begin with:
cubed potatoes
cherry or grape tomatoes
bell peppers
celery carrots
sweet potatoes
(any fresh fruit)
cubes of fish
virtually any other vegetable, quick cooking meat, or meat substitute

Now that you've got the bulk of your food, you're going to need liquid. About 2-3 tablespoons is plenty for a single-serving pouch. Some liquids to consider:
white wine
red wine
olive oil (any type of oil, actually)
fruit juice
soy sauce
teriyaki sauce
hoisin sauce
jerk sauce
hot sauce
barbecue sauce
broth or stock
any flavorful liquid or bottled marinade or sauce

For another layer of flavor, you'll need to add herbs and spices. Look at the spices you have and just guess about which ones might work. If you have any doubt, just make smaller pockets and experiment with a little bit of seasoning in each pocket. The steam will release more flavor from both dried and fresh herbs than you might expect. Dried herbs will be more flavorful than fresh herbs in this situation. If you're using fresh herbs, I would add about 1 tablespoon total. If you're using dried herbs and spices, I think 1 teaspoon will suffice. Flavors you might want to experiment with are:
hot peppers
any fresh herb
any dried herb
any spice

Now that you have an idea of what type of things you can fit into your little pouch, fill it up. Make sure you're 1/2 to 2/3 full. Make sure you have 1-3 tablespoons of liquids in your pouch and then close up the open end by folding it down by 1/2-inch and then folding it over again. If this is your main dish, place it over direct heat and close the lid on the grill for about 15-20 minutes. This will cook almost any combination of ingredients above completely through. If you have a main dish hogging the direct heat space (the heat directly over the hot coals) place your foil packets around the edges of the grill, but not touching each other, and let them cook for about 30 minutes.

The advantages to cooking your side dishes this way is that you don't have any dishes to clean up. You wad up your foil and throw it away (or recycle it, of course). You also don't have to hang out in your kitchen cooking away while your guests hang out around the grill having fun without you. And your kitchen doesn't get any hotter than it already is. Everyone can make their own packet, so each person gets exactly what they want and no one misses out just because someone's allergic to something.

If you create the bowls of fixings and everyone just creates their own foil packet, all you have to do is use a permanent marker to put each person's name or initials on the foil and then each person will get their specially created dinner pillow with no confusion and no fuss.

And in case you want dessert, there's nothing to stop you from chopping up a few apples, throwing in a couple handfuls of granola, a tablespoon or two of butter, a large sprinkle of sugar and a huge dash of cinnamon into a pouch and letting it cook. You can then spoon the cooked mixture over vanilla ice cream or eat it straight from the pouch for a tasty dessert. It's also a great way to use up the still-hot coals while everyone is diving into their paper plates piled high with grilled food.

This "invention" that my family found phenomenally helpful about 18 years ago is old to me now, and I'm sure not original for many of you. But it is a fabulously flexible way to cook for your vegan and vegetarian friends as well as making side dishes for the carnivorous crew who bring their brats and steaks. And since the food is all wrapped in a sanitary sealed pouch, no one has to complain because "your meat is touching my veggies."

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