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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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I'm fortunate to live on a street where most of my neighbors in their two- or three-flats have backyards that they use during the summer. When I sit in my backyard, which I am immensely grateful for, I can hear the neighbor's kids playing outside, I can hear guys washing or working on their cars in the alley, and I can smell when and what my neighbors are grilling.

There is someone who grills beef once in a while that has some spice mixture that instantly makes me ravenously hungry. I haven't yet figured out who it is, but as soon as I do I'll be showing up with a six-pack of beer and a notepad so I can snag their recipe. I have no shame and think "family" recipes should be shared far and wide.

I decided to pop outside to water the seedlings that I'm trying to turn into plants, when I smelled the charcoal and lighter fluid wafting down the alley toward me. I couldn't bear the thought of going inside and making dinner and I knew I had an hour or so before my dinner partner arrived home, which I thought would be just enough time to start the grill and get the prep work for some dinner prepared before he got home.

Which leads me to confess two things. I really can taste the lighter fluid that so many people swear burns off after a few minutes (my internet research says that it takes 45-60 minutes for it to burn off) and I don't always like it. If I'm making hot dogs or brats, it adds a nostalgic flavor that I like. And while I'm not going to turn food down just because lighter fluid was employed to start the fire, I don't mind using some alternate means of getting the coals burning.

My second confession is that I'm not the one who does the grilling in my house. It's something I'm a wee bit embarrassed about and something I've also decided to change this summer. I'm 35 and it's time for me to overcome my intimidation related to starting a fire.

These two things led me to visit my nearby hardware store and purchase an $11 charcoal chimney starter. It resembles a large coffee can with holes in the bottom, a handle, and a shelf for placing the charcoal about a quarter way up the tube.

And while it is possible to start a fire without using fire starter or specially prepared briquettes, I'm not hoping to score a scout merit badge patch in Starting Fires, and I have other things to do with my time than blow on tinder and get it to spark. So with my quick trip to pick up a chimney starter, and my small investment in future summer grilling sitting on my grill, I did what any geek would do. I turned to the internet to find the best way to use one. I knew the basics, I'd seen them used, but I wanted the time-earned tips and tricks.

So I turned to an awesome Weber grill fan-site called the Virtual Weber Bullet. Using their suggestion, I got the grill started without lighter fluid. And while it took a bit of time for the fire to start, and I didn't get the macho fire "whoosh", I was OK with it because it gave me plenty of time to prepare the baby artichokes, sweet potato slices and skate wing for the grill. I figure I've got plenty of time to satisfy my bratwurst and hot dog grilling desires. Why not get the grilling season off to a gourmet start, eh?

I've been reading up on Malaysian recipes at Rasa Malaysia and finding many of them enticing. And even though I haven't made any of them I figured I had read enough to create an inspired dish for the fish. My rudimentary research tells me that Nonya-style cooking is a combination of Chinese and Malaysian cooking styles. And while the recipe that follows is delicious, it isn't traditional in any way. Especially since I'm pairing it with baby artichokes that are grilled till brown and then tossed in a lemon-and-mustard vinagrette. And to add in another cusine, I'm going to baste sweet potato slices in brown sugar and rum and grill them, too. The spicy and sweet-tartness of the skate is matched by the tangy and tart artichoke-hearts and balanced with the caramel-like sweetness of the grilled sweet potato slices.

Jamaica Inspired Grilled Sweet Potato Slices
1 large (1/2 to 3/4 pound) sweet potato
1 tablespoon of packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon of soft butter or margarine
1/2 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon of dark rum
1 tablespoon of melted butter or margarine

Scrub the sweet potato to remove all dirt and cut out any unwanted spots. Slice the potato into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Combine the brown sugar, butter, ginger and rum in a small bowl and set aside. Once you have high heat, push the coals to the center of the grill. Place a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil on a paper towel. Use a pair of tongs to rub it over the rack. Brush the melted butter on the potato slices and set them in a circle outlining the edges of the coals. If your grill is large enough, there is ideally enough room in the center of the grill for the skate. You don't want them directly over the flames or they will burn. Cover the grill and let them cook for 5-7 minutes. Brush more butter on the top, flip them over and let them cook for another 5-7 minutes with the grill covered. They should still be slightly firm. If they're still crisp in the center, let them cook until they can be pierced with a fork but offer resistance when removing it. Brush them lightly with the brown sugar-rum mixture and let them cook uncovered for another 2-3 minutes before removing them to a plate and spooning the remaining brown sugar-rum mixture evenly over the slices.
Serves 2.

French-Inspired Grilled Baby Artichokes
1 quart of ice water
4 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice
6 baby artichokes
1 tablespoon of olive oil
juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the water and vinegar in a bowl large enough to also hold the artichokes. This will keep them from turning brown. To trim the artichokes, begin by cutting off the stem at the base of the choke. Place them in the vinegar water. While trimming, only work on one choke at a time and keep the rest in the water. Pull off several of the outside layers until there is yellow about halfway up the leaf. It will seem like a lot, but you're doing it right. Now cut off the top third of the leaves. Slice them in half and use the tip of a small spoon to scrape out the fuzzy choke. It should come out fairly easily. Once finished, place them in the water with the cut side down. Let these sit until you have a medium-high to high heat on the grill. Remove the chokes from the bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Toss them with your hands to coat evenly, then sprinkle them with salt. Place them in the center of the grill, close the lid and let them cook for about 3-4 minutes. Move them to the outer edges of the grill where they will continue to cook via indirect heat while the skate and sweet potatoes get more direct heat. Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Set it aside until the artichokes are ready to come off the grill. Place them in the bowl and stir to coat evenly. Serve immediately. These taste great warm or cold so you can keep leftovers in the fridge for a couple of days.
Serves 2.

Nonya-Inspired Skate Wing
1 pound skate wing
1 tablespoon of ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon of ground clove
2 tablespoons of garam masala or curry powder
1 tablespoon of worchestershire sauce
1 jalapeño or serrano chile, seeds and pith removed and minced
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of water
1 tablespoon of tamarind paste or pulp
2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of soy sauce

Rinse the skate wing and pat dry. There is a large joint at the top of the wing that can be cut out with kitchen shears or a heavy knife. Cut the wing into four pieces lengthwise to make it easier for flipping on the grill. Combine the coriander, clove, garam masala powder, worchestershire sauce, chile, salt and water in a small bowl. Place the skate wing in a larger bowl or plate with the skin side down. Pour the spice mixture over the skate and spread evenly with your hands or a spoon to coat on both sides. Cover it and set it aside to rest for 30 minutes to an hour. This will let the flavor soak into the meat and let the temperature rise (room temperature meat will cook more evenly than cold meat). While that rests, combine the tamarind paste, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce in a small bowl. Stir until smooth and set aside. Place the fish skin-side down in the center of the grill. Use a basting brush or spoon to evenly coat the pieces with the tamarind sauce. Let it cook for about 3-5 minutes on the first side before flipping over. The skin will likely stick to the grill; just scrape off to get it out of the way. Baste the second side with more tamarind mixture. Cook for 2-4 minutes on the second side. Remove to a plate and serve.
Serves 2.

To clarify the cooking directions to get all three dishes to finish at the same time:

Cook the sweet potatoes for 5-7 minutes in a ring around the center of the covered grill. Flip them over. Place the artichoke hearts in the center of the grill and cover to cook for 5-7 minutes. Move the artichoke hearts to the outer edges of the grill to keep them warm and let them cook gently without browning more. If you are able to pierce the sweet potatoes but it still takes a bit of work to remove the fork, you're ready to place the skate in the center of the grill. Baste it and let it cook for 3-5 minutes while covered. Carefully flip the fish over and baste on the second side. Flip the sweet potatoes over and baste them lightly with the brown sugar-rum mixture. Cook while covered for another 2-4 minutes. Serve as listed above.

I'm pretty happy with how balanced all of these flavors end up being. Sweetness balanced by tartness balanced by heat. It's a great lighter dish to introduce the warmer days we're all looking forward to. And even if you're not into fish, both the rub and the basting liquid will be great on chicken or pork or even tofu or vegetables. So many possibilities for cooking this summer. Leave a comment if there are dishes you are looking forward to cooking this summer.

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Eric / May 14, 2007 10:50 AM

Damn, Cinnamon, that skate wing sounds lovely. I'm going to make that the next time I grill. Nice going on the chimney starter. Dunno if you already do, but using natural lump charcoal (from TJ's or WF's) yields a smokiness that you just can't get from Kingsford briquets.

Grace / May 15, 2007 9:04 AM

sounds question - what is tamarind paste and where can I get it (actually that's 2 questions). And here's another question...could I skip that ingredient...I have everything else.

Eric / May 15, 2007 10:10 AM

Grace, you can find it at the grocers on Devon Av, Argyle St, and at Latin markets, too. Anywhere else is a tossup, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jewel and Dominick's carried it.

Cinnamon / May 16, 2007 12:15 AM

Lump charcoal does add other better taste. It burns hotter, but for a shorter period of time.

And Grace, you could skip the tamarind paste, but it really did a significant amount of flavor. You should be able to find it in fairly small jars or tubes and it will last a very long time.

Steve / May 16, 2007 9:56 AM

Much love for the chimney starter AND the natural lump charcoal, though using them together can be a challenge because the smaller bits of charcoal will fall out of the bottom of the chimney and also straight through the bottom grate of your grill after you pour it. To alleviate the former I usually put fresh charcoal briquettes into my chimney first, then a layer of old gray leftover charcoal from my previous grilling session, then a layer of fresh lump charcoal up top.

This weekend is shaping up for the second pork-loin-smoking afternoon of the young grilling season. Must...soak...the hickory....

marlble / May 17, 2007 12:06 PM

Tamarind is a sweet-spicy flavor that is turned into candy as well as in savory dishes. Or maybe that's just the candy that's spicy - there are these awesmoe mexican lollis with tamarind & chili powder.


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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