Salmon with Lentils and Mustard Herb Butter, or What I Call, Butter Up Your Wife Salmon

Salmon is one of the easiest and most versatile fish to prepare. You can fry it, grill it or smoke it, and it's pretty hard to ruin it. Of course, there's always a danger of overcooking it, but even then, if you use the right technique it's going to come out pretty good.

20150311_211849038_iOSI've been making this salmon recipe from Epicurious about once a month for the last two years. It's "healthy," at least from my perspective since it's fairly low carb and high in protein, and it's been a go-to recipe of ours since we started eating healthier. For a while, I was just frying it on a pan over high heat like the recipe calls for, but then one night, when we were having some friends over, I bought some wood planks and discovered the magic of smoking the salmon on my gas grill.

Charred Wood PlankIt happened completely by accident that I figured out the right way to cook salmon on a wood plank. I did the precursory soaking of the plank for two hours. Then, after heating up the grill on max heat for a good 10 minutes, I put the planks on the grill and let them sit…for a while. Too long, at least at the time I thought it was too long. I was in chatting with our friends when I suddenly it occurred to me, "Shit, the planks!"

I ran outside to the grill and the sides were flamed up. I put out the flames, and flipped the plank over and slapped the salmon down. I reduce the heat to medium but keep the planks on the hot side of the grill. The plank was smoking like crazy but it never flamed up again since it had soaked for a long time.

Plank SalmonThe result was an intensely smoky flavored salmon with a perfect buttery texture. Ever since then, I let the planks catch fire and put them out before placing the salmon on them. After the first bite, Amy and I looked at each other with that Holy Shit Is This Not The Best Fish You've Ever Eaten look.

(legal disclaimer: This site is for entertainment purposes only. If you listen to me, you're an idiot. Do NOT let your wood planks catch on fire.)

Smoked Salmon with Lentils and Mustard Herb Butter (Modified from the Epicurious recipe previously mentioned)

For the Herb Butter (I make double for the next time I make the recipe because this is what takes the longest to do)

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds. It's important to NOT melt the butter. Only soften it to a point where it can be mixed)

2 tablespoons of chopped chives

2 tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon

4 teaspoons of grainy mustard

4 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For the lentils:

1 cup French green lentils

4 cups water

1 leek, white and pale green parts only (the original recipe calls for 2, but I just think 2 is too much)

1 tablespoon of unsalted butter

1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

For the salmon:

4 6oz to 8oz Salmon fillets

Salt and pepper to taste

1 large hickory or cherry plank (most grocery stores have them, but you can order them on Amazon in bulk for a lot cheaper)

Two hours before you start cooking, soak the wood planks. (If I could tell you the number of times I forget this step…)

You can make the mustard herb butter as far ahead as you want. (I sometimes quadruple this because I actually will use it as a replacement for butter in other recipes)

20150311_212928189_iOSStir the ingredients for the herb butter together in a bowl until thoroughly mixed. Spoon onto plastic wrap, then roll into a tube. Twist the ends until you have a nice log of compound butter. Place in the fridge until ready for use.

To cook the lentils. Bring the lentils, water, and 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt to boil in a medium saucepan.  Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, check the lentils. They should have some bite to them but not be chalky. If you cook them past this point, they'll get mushy. I don’t think I've ever cooked them past 22 minutes. This is not lentil soup we're making here after all. Once the lentils are cooked enough, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and then drain the lentils.

20150311_221947591_iOSWhile the lentils are cooking, chop the leeks, rinse them in a colander, and cook in the butter on medium-low heat until tender. About 10 minutes. Keep the lentils warm while you cook the salmon.

Add lentils, reserved cooking liquid, and 3 tablespoons of the compound butter to a large fry pan (I use the cast iron skillet). Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat up the gas grill on high for 10 minutes. While you wait, relax and have a beer. If you have a charcoal grill, good luck my friend. Have a couple beers.

Once the grill is ready, place the SOAKED (can I stress this enough?) wood planks on the grill. Leave the grill on high. Check on the wood planks often. Once the planks start to smolder, flip them over and reduce the heat to medium. Season both sides of the salmon generously with salt and pepper (I'm talking a huge pinch per side of the fillets). Place the salmon on the wood plank(s) and cook 120 degrees in the middle (basically medium), about 10 minutes. (Please use an instant read thermometer because I frankly don’t keep track of the time.) Once done, remove from the planks with a spatula and cover with foil until ready to serve.

To serve, place a salmon fillet on a serving of the lentils and top with a slice of the mustard herb butter.


Autumn Menu: Grilled Tenderloin and Fall Hash

Whoever decided that Labor Day marks the end of the "grilling season" has never stood in front of a warm Weber on a crisp fall afternoon. Between the football and the drop in temperatures, fall is a fantastic time of year to cook outdoors.

The change in seasons also changes what I like to grill. The fish, shrimp and seafood that grill in the summer is replaced by lamb, pork and heartier cuts of meat. Roasted tomatoes and young garlic are replaced by sauteed brussel sprouts, and roasted turnips and potatoes. Despite the fact that my house has central heat, I plan meals like I have to stay warm in a yurt.

Much of this is due to the fact that vegetables like tomatoes are no longer in season, while brussel sprouts are just coming on. But I can get either product all year. No, the real reason is the trigger the weather flips. I no more want shepherd's pie in August as I want ceviche in February. 

That being said, pork tenderloin is my meat of all seasons. It's easy to cook, flavorful as hell and a relatively cheap cut of meat. A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, a lot of pork tenderloin moved through our little Chapel Hill apartment. She was going to grad school and I was working a couple jobs to help make that happen, so a four pound tenderloin that could feed us for several days was a household favorite.

DSCN5692 Now that we're into the fall, I like to pair the tenderloin with a seasonal hash of carrots, apples, onions and potatoes. You could even swap out the potatoes for squash or pumpkin, or just add it to the mix. I also add a bit of bacon to punch up the flavor and because I like bacon. A poached egg works real well, too.

To go with the dish, I like brown ales and dark beers. Honestly though, any fall seasonal would work. We've moved from the light, refreshing pilsners and pale lagers of summer to the darker, richer beers better suited for fall and winter.

In fact, I've been sitting on the bottle of Autumn Maple from The Bruery that I picked up in August. I bought it with this post in mind, but it was also just too damn hot at the time. Who wants a sweet, malty high alcohol (10.5%) beer when it's 96 degrees outside? Screw that and pass the hefeweizen.

To make this Belgian-style dark ale, the Placentia, Ca., brewery uses yams - lots of yams - molasses and spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. The result is deeply rich, spicy ale that's just a bit sour and more than a bit sweet.

DSCN5717 If you can't find a bottle of Autumn Maple or just want to try something else, grab a six pack of Sierra Nevada's Tumbler brown ale. The craft brewing community has gone wild for big, hoppy India Pale Ales during the past few years, but Tumbler shows that the heavy weights of craft beer do other styles of beer just as well (that said, Sierra Nevada's Tornado Extra India Pale Ale is an outstanding hoppy beer).

So grab a coat and get outside, there's grilling to be done.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Fall Hash
(Makes six servings)

DSCN5681 1 4-5 pound pork tenderloin
1 apple, Granny Smith or similarly crisp apple, diced
4 carrots, pealed and diced
6 potatoes, diced
3 cloves of garlic, diced
2 red onions, pealed and diced
3 strips of bacon, fried and diced
1 lemon, halved
1 egg, poached (optional)
Salt and black pepper

Generously season the tenderloin with salt and pepper, and set aside while you prepare the grill. For this recipe, you'll need two zones - one hot, one cool - so you can sear the tenderloin before allowing it to cook slowly for 90 minutes.

When the grill is ready, sear all sides of the meat until brown and then place the tenderloin on the cool side of the grill with the fat cap up and close the lid.

As the pork cooks, prep the rest of the ingredients, making sure the apples, carrots, potatoes and onions are diced the same size so they cook at the same rate. The dice should also be small, so it cooks fairly quickly.

After the pork has been on for an hour, place a pan on the sideburner or on the grill and fry the bacon. Remove the bacon from the pan and add the diced carrots, potatoes, garlic and onions, and season with salt and pepper. Sautee for 20 minutes or until the potato browns and softens (as an alternative, you can sautee the vegetables for 10 minutes and then stick the pan on the grill for 10 minutes). Add the diced bacon and apple, and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove everything from the pan so the apples don't overcook.

DSCN5696 (If you want to add a poached or fried egg - and you do - now is the time to cook the egg.)

After an hour and 20 minutes, the pork should be about ready to come off the grill. Using a meat thermometer, the internal temperature should be 165 degrees. If it's fully cooked, allow the meat to rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Before serving, squeeze a little lemon on the pork.

And if you haven't already, pop open the beer and enjoy.

Grilled Lamb Sandwiches: Upgrading From The Same Old Tailgating Grub

DSCN5640 When it comes to tailgate grilling, what do you think of? Burgers? Dogs? Maybe wings if you're feeling it?

All of these are great options ... that we have all the time.

So every now and then, it's good to change up the menu some. I'm not saying you have to drop the brats from the lineup, just consider a substitution. Consider a hot pressed, grilled lamb sandwich. It's a hell of a thing, and it can take less time to prepare than an Oscar-Mayer frank.

As much as I love grilling, when I'm at a tailgate party, I want to focus on football and beer drinking. Firing up the grill is part of the experience, I just don't want it to be the primary experience. Most of us, I suspect, are of the same mind.

However, there is that group of people out there who like to show up at the stadium parking lot hours before the game and cook elaborate meals. You can do that with this recipe, if you want. Or, you can prepare everything the day, or week, before and do the final steps within minutes. It's your tailgate, do what you want.

DSCN5605 Sadly, I live nowhere near my college team (South Florida) or my pro team (the Bucs). So I spend most weekends planted on my couch. But to demonstrate that this recipe can be done at a tailgate, I broke out my tiny Weber grill - the same grill that I've taken to numerous tailgating events.

Basically, all you're doing is making a sandwich. But man, what a sandwich. I marinated half a butterflied lab leg in rosemary, garlic, oregano and basil overnight. Grilled it along with some onions, and then thin sliced the meat for the sandwich. Along with the lamb and onions, I added brie and blue cheese, arugula (I like some green on my sandwiches) and finished it with roasted garlic mayo.

Once the sandwich is assembled, I wrapped it in foil and pressed it on the grill using a brick. The cheese melts, the bread gets crusty and your tailgate meal gets exponentially better.

If someone handed you this sandwich and a beer at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday, you'd know your day was starting off right.

DSCN5644 This is the point in the grilling post that I normally talk about what beer to pair with the meal. Not this time. When it comes to tailgating, you either drink whatever your buddy brought or you pick up a couple six packs of your favorite beer. Making sure the beer pairs well with the pre-game meal isn't (or shouldn't be) a consideration.

Instead, I'm going to discuss Abita's Save Our Shore, a big, unfiltered weizen pilsner that you'll feel good drinking, and not just because of the 7 percent A.B.V.

As it did after Hurricane Katrina, the brewery from Abita Springs, La., has produced a beer to raise money for a recovery effort. In 2005, Abita released Restoration Ale and for every six pack sold, the brewery donated a dollar to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.

Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf (which has not magically disappeared), Abita produced Save Our Shore. For every one of the 22 ounce bottles sold, Abita will donate 75 cents to SOS, a charitable fund managed by the Northshore Community Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

It's a great cause and a great beer.

DSCN5628Hot-Pressed Grilled Lamb Sandwiches
(Makes 6 generous servings)

Half a lamb leg, butterflied
8 oz. brie, cut into slices
8 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
2 large onions, cut into thick slices
5 whole pieces of fresh rosemary
1 tbs. dried oregano
1 tbs. dried basil
3 heads of garlic, one chopped and two whole (the two whole heads are optional)
olive oil
8 tbs. mayonnaise
Kosher salt and black pepper
Sandwich rolls (ciabatta bread works, as does crusty French bread)
Aluminum foil
2 bricks
Large sealable freezer bag

Like I said, you can do everything up to pressing the sandwiches the day before, or cook everything in the parking lot.

DSCN5601 The day before you grill the lamb, place it in the freezer bag with the rosemary, oregano, basil, chopped garlic and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Seal the bag and rub the oil and spices on the lamb. Make sure all the air is out of the bag and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

If you want roasted garlic mayo for the sandwich (you do), chop the tops off the two remaining heads of garlic, place each in a sheet of aluminum foil, coat with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt. Seal the foil and roast the garlic in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. When the garlic is done, allow the heads to cool, squeeze out the soft garlic cloves, mash and mix with your mayonnaise.

When you're ready to grill the lamb, make sure your grill is set up with a hot zone and a cool zone. Remove the lamb from the bag, discard the rosemary and wipe off the seasoning. Lightly coat the lamb with olive oil or vegetable oil and generously season with salt and pepper. Do the same with the slices of onion.

Place the lamb on the hottest part of the grill, fat-side down. Sear the lamb for 5 to 7 minutes, being careful to watch for flare-ups. Turn the lamb over and move to the cool side of the grill, close the lid and allow to cook for 50 minutes.

Remove the lid, place the onions on the grill, and close the lid. After 5 minutes, flip the onions.

Once the onions are cooked, everything can come off the grill. Allow the lamb to rest for 20 minutes before slicing it.

When slicing the lamb, keep in mind that it's more complicated than steak. The muscle fibers in a lamb leg are not nice and uniform like they are in beef. So, you'll have to cut the lamb into pieces, and then cut thin slices off those pieces, always cutting against the grain. Take your time, and as you slice the lamb, make sure the pieces are thin enough to be bitten through easily.

DSCN5634 Now, assemble the sandwich and wrap in aluminum foil, making sure the whole thing is covered. If you're doing this the day before, you're done for now. If you've cooked everything at the tailgate, it's time to go back to the grill.

Place the wrapped sandwiches on the grill and set your bricks on top. If the sandwiches just came out of a cooler, they'll need about six minutes per side. If they're freshly made, give them about three minutes per side. Flip the sandwiches, put the bricks back on.

You'll know the sandwiches are done when you unwrap the foil and see nothing but melted cheese and crusty bread. Now go grab a beer, it's almost 11 a.m.

Grilled Quail and Beer by Ferran Adria (hint: one is better than the other)

There are a million recipes, but when it comes to weekend grilling, most of us fall back on the familiar: beef, chicken, pork and fish.

Even with the variety of ways to prepare these protean staples, they can get a little redundant. So every now and then it pays to branch out. In this case, I'm getting quail.

Unless you hunt, the only time most of us encounter quail is in white table cloth restaurants. They're a nice alternative to chicken, though due to the fact that they're all dark meat, quail are closer in flavor to duck (not quite as rich). What I especially like about quail, though, is that I don't have to share.

DSCN5522 There's just something about devouring an entire animal (and its friend) in a sitting. Staring down at the pile of bits and bones, whether they be fish or fowl, it's pleasing in a primitive sort of way. If you must, you can eat quail with a knife and fork, but the birds are small enough to necessitate getting your fingers dirty.

That's when you're really in the spirit of things. Pulling the meat from the bone as warm fat, olive oil and lemon season your fingers, it's a moment more backyard than brasserie. And that's why I decided to pick up a few of the small birds from Market Poultry.

The diminutive size of the birds also means you're not going to be spending all afternoon at the grill. But because of the haute connection, it's a dish that impresses.

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time messing with the quail, so I dress them simply with olive oil and grilled lemon. Like I said, the bird is all dark meat, which is rich and flavorful. Why get in the way of that?

Keeping with the Mediterranean theme, I served the quail with warm pita and tabouli salad, both of which I bought. Seriously, I'm keeping it simple.

DSCN5525 To accompany the meal, I picked up a bottle of Inedit, made by the Spanish brewery S.A. Damm for none other than famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. Adrià put molecular gastronomy on the map and his restaurant el Bulli has produced such chefs as Denmark's René Redzepi and our very own José Andrés.

Despite Adrià's culinary success, I was skeptical about the beer. Adrià is known for his skill in the kitchen, his culinary vision and his very exclusive restaurant in Catalonia, Spain. The only thing he exports to the world is talented chefs. The beer seems like something dreamed up by marketers and accountants to take advantage of the popularity of craft beer. It's made by a brewery that's best known for its popular lager, Estrella, and partially owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a corporate behemoth better known for hostile takeovers than quality beer.

Frankly, Adrià's beer seems like a gimmick, but I don't know for what. Is it meant to draw attention to a restaurant none of us will visit or a chef that none of us will meet? If you visit Inedit's Website (yes, it has it's own Website), you can find tasting notes, instructions on how to serve it (thus the white wine glass), and a series of incredibly pretentious videos in multiple languages.

On the other hand, the 750 ml bottle of Inedit was $10 at Whole Foods, so the price alone makes it worth trying.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that the beer wasn't a traditional light lager. The Spanish love beer, but they primarily drink pale lagers. Inedit is more of a witbier, equally refreshing in hot climates like Spain, but more popular in Belgium and the U.S. According to the fancy booklet tied to the bottle, the beer is a lager/wheat blend. The 4.8 percent beer pours a cloudy straw color. It's crisp, a little sweet, with a faint orange peel flavor. For a $10 beer, it's good.

DSCN5515 But that's the thing. It's just good. Why would one of the most respected chefs in the world go out of his way to put his name on a beer that's just ok? If it's a first step toward a few tapas joints in Barcelona, then I'm not sure I'd want such a pedestrian beer to be my flagship. In one of the promotional videos, Adrià says Inedit fills a need for a proper beer to accompany food. That's ridiculous, of course. The variety of traditional Eurpean and American craft beers being made today - including Belgian witte beers - more than fills whatever gap Adrià and S.A. Damm allege.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good beer. But when Ferran Adrià produces a beer, you expect something great. On the other hand, it's $10 a bottle, and that's the important thing. Ignore the self-important black and white photo on the dangling brochure, ignore the pedigree, and just enjoy a good beer at a good price. Because once you start thinking more about it, it only gets worse.

Grilled lemon quail
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5505 8 semi-boneless quail, two per person
1 lemon, halved
4 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. balsamic vinegar
Salt and black pepper to taste
Pita bread
Tabouli salad (optional)

This is a very fast recipe. The birds take 10 minutes to cook, so you'll probably spend more time getting the grill ready.

DSCN5514 As you're heating up your grill, pull the quail out of refrigerator and season both sides of the birds with salt and pepper and two tablespoons of olive oil. Grill the birds directly over the hottest part of grill for five minutes per side with the lid down. Grill the lemon halves for the full 10 minutes slightly off the hot spot.

Remove, dress with the hot lemon juice, remaining olive oil and balsamic, and eat ... with your hands.

Grilled Blue Cheese and Bacon Quesadillas, What a Great Idea

Can you steal an idea if part of it was yours?

If you can, then I've stolen the idea for this post from my friends Sarah and Andy (who you might remember from such posts as Smoking and Freezing). A few weeks ago, Sarah and I were talking about the grilled pizzas she was planning to make for some out-of-town friends. One of her favorite pies is a bacon and apple pizza covered with sharp cheddar cheese.

I told her it sounded fantastic ... and then suggested how to change it. (I do this a lot, which either makes me egotistical, condescending or kind of a dick. Probably all three.) Bacon and apple go great together, but why not pair them with blue cheese instead of cheddar? The tang of a good, creamy blue cheese is the ideal accompaniment to smoky bacon and tart, sweet apples. Cheddar, on the other hand, pairs great with, um, beef.

Giving my advice the consideration it deserves, Sarah went home and whipped up a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza. Her guests loved it.

Still, I'm right. Like basil, tomato and mozzarella, blue cheese, apples and bacon are natural allies. I'm not breaking new ground, mind you. These ingredients have been brought together for years, especially in salads, but also in desserts, sandwiches and main courses.

Although the combination is classic, bringing them together in a quesadilla isn't.

DSCN5428 I've been putting off doing a quesadilla post for a while. As much as I enjoy a warm, crusty quesadilla (it's like a hot taco!), it seemed too easy to bother with. Basically, it's two flour tortillas stuffed with something (including cheese) and heated until the contents melt together and the tortillas become golden brown and firm. Serve it with some guacamole and sour cream and you're good to go.

And then I noticed that Steven Raichlen included quesadilla recipes in a couple of his books. So game on.

Their simplicity is their beauty. You can go traditional and use queso blanco, beans and peppers, or you can play around with the ingredients and use, I don't know, blue cheese, bacon and apple. Instead of sour cream, you could use crème fraiche, which is similar, but has a milder, creamier flavor.

While I'm just talking about cheese, meat and fruit, the blue cheese, bacon and apple have a way of dressing up the quesadilla, or at least breathing some new life into the dish. And crème fraiche just sounds fancy.

More importantly, the ingredients are perfect for a quesadilla. The flour tortillas are unobtrusive and the strong flavors of the ingredients remain distinct even as the blue cheese, warmed by the heat of the grill, envelops the crunchy bacon and crisp pieces of apple.

DSCN5439 To accompany the quesadilla, I picked up Schneider Weisse hefeweizen (Yup, a German wheat beer to go with my Latin quesadilla filled with blue cheese and apples.). Admittedly, the hefeweizen has more to do with the season than the meal, but it works well with the quesadilla. Just as cold winter evenings have me craving dark stouts and wee heavy Scotch ales, the sticky hot days of summer trigger a longing for the smooth, sweet flavors of a good German hefeweizen.

And when it comes to pairing a beer with a dish that has such strong flavors, the hefeweizen is a good match. The mild banana flavors compliment the quesadilla's sweet apple and tart cheese, and the unfiltered beer has enough body to stand up the rich blue cheese and salty bacon.

Besides, it's hot and I want a hefeweizen.

So I don't know if I stole the idea for the quesadilla from Sarah and Andy or a cheese plate I had at some point. Wherever the idea came from, it works. Is it better than a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza? Who can say? (I can, and it is.)

Grilled Quesadilla with Blue Cheese, Bacon and Apple
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5414 8 flour tortillas (two per quesadilla)
4 oz. of blue cheese, crumbled (I like Maytag)
1 package of thick cut bacon, or three strips of bacon per quesadilla, fried and diced into small pieces
1 Granny Smith or similar tart apple, diced into cubes or small pieces (squirt a little lemon juice on the apple pieces to prevent them from browning)
1 small container of crème fraiche
1/2 lb. of queso blanco, shredded

Quesadillas cook very quickly, so you need to have all your ingredients prepared beforehand. And if you're using a gas grill with flavorizor bars, take them off. The tortillas need direct exposure to the flame in order to brown and char properly. If you're using a charcoal grill, you're fine. 

You'll notice I have queso blanco in the ingredient list. It's literally the glue that will hold the quesadilla together. The blue cheese will get nice and gooey, but not enough to bind the tortillas. And because the queso blanco has such a mild flavor, it won't get in the way of the much bolder flavors of the other ingredients.

DSCN5417 When your grill is ready and all your ingredients are assembled next to it, start building the quesadilla by scattering some of the queso blanco on a tortilla, and then add the bacon, apple and blue cheese, and then add a little more queso blanco on top. Carefully slide or place the quesadilla on the grill, directly over the heat, and cover with the other tortilla.

Close the lid and let cook for two minutes. Open the lid and check the bottom tortilla. If it's starting to brown and char a bit, carefully flip the quesadilla. Grill for another two mintues or until the bottom tortilla browns and then remove from the heat.

Halve or quarter the quesadilla (or not, whatever), add a dollop of crème fraiche and enjoy.

Half-Smokes on the Grill and 21A IPA in the Can

DSCN5298 Around here, half-smoke sausages and Ben’s Chili Bowl are as synonymous as Nixon and Watergate. You just can’t think of one without the other.

There’s good reason for that. Ben’s makes a good half-smoke. But Ben’s is more than the dog. It’s historic. It’s famous. And it’s nearly as iconic as 1600 Penn.

But with all due respect, Ben's doesn’t produce the best half-smoke sausage in town. You do. Or at least you can.

A few weeks ago, the DC Foodies brain trust and their families got together at my place for an afternoon barbecue and beers. For the occasion, I ordered a 6-foot lamb sausage from my buddy Carlos at Canalas Quality Meats. (You might recall the 5-foot bratwurst I picked up a couple years ago). I noticed that there were a couple bins of half-smokes (hot and mild), so I picked up a couple mild ones for the kids.

The next day, I tossed all the sausages on the grill. The half-smokes finished first and were cut up into bite-size pieces. When the lamb was finished, I followed everyone into the kitchen to start setting everything out to eat. As I was preparing the plates, I noticed a stray piece of half-smoke and popped it in my mouth.

It was the best thing I ate all day.

Don’t get me wrong, the lamb sausage flavored with rosemary and oregano was great. But the half-smokes were incredible. Even chopped up, the sausage was moist with fat, a little spicy and perfectly smokey.

Like I said, Ben’s makes a good half-smoke, but the fresh ones I grilled were better.

DSCN5295 For this recipe, I also made a grilled tomato and shallot relish that you can use in place of ketchup. If you don’t use ketchup, no worries, these half-smokes certainly don’t need any help. And because I treated the half-smokes as sausages rather than hot dogs, I added a little mayo and stone-ground mustard as well. To each their own.

To go with the half-smokes, I picked up a six pack of 21 Amendment’s Brew Free or Die IPA. IPAs are my favorite style of beer, but their bitter, hoppy flavors make them tough to pair with food. So what do you do? Pair the beer with something spicy and very flavorful, like half-smoke sausages.

Thanks to the craft beer revolution, there are plenty of IPAs to choose from. Locally, we have Flying Dog’s Snake Dog IPA and Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA. I chose an IPA brewed 3,000 miles away in San Francisco because 1) it’s a great beer, and 2) I was brain washed into it.

You see, I listen to two beer-themed pod casts (yup, I sure do): Beer School and The Brewing Network’s Sunday Session. The Sunday Session is co-hosted by Shaun O’Sullivan, co-founder of the 21st Amendment Brewpub and Brewery. He’s also friends with John Foster and Motor, the hosts of Beer School. John and Motor are also friends with Nico Freccia, the other co-founder of the 21st Amendment Brewery (or 21A for those in the know), and a frequent guest on The Sunday Session. As you can imagine, the 21A comes up A LOT on these shows.

DSCN5301When their beers started showing up in the area a few months ago, I had a strange urge to try them. But just to show I’m not too brain washed, their most popular (beloved) beer, Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, isn’t really to my liking. But the 21A IPA is excellent, as is the Monk’s Blood Belgian Dark Ale. I also dig the card-board packaging and the fact that all their beers come in cans.

About that IPA, it comes in at a robust 7% ABV and pours a clear golden wheat color. It’s certainly a fully hopped beer, but not nearly as aggressive as other left coast IPAs like Green Flash’s West Coast IPA and Stone’s Ruination IPA. And thanks to the fact that it’s in a can, it’s less susceptible to skunking and you can take it places that otherwise prohibit bottles, like national parks and church.

Half Smokes and Grilled Tomato Relish
(Makes 4 to 8 servings)

4 to 16 half smokes (two per person) from Canalas Quality Meats
1 to 2 packages of hot dog buns
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
2 shallots, pealed and halved
2 tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. sugar
Kosher Salt and black pepper to taste

For the half smokes, pull them out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before you plan to start grilling so they can warm up some. For the relish, you’ll want to break out the grilling stir-fry basket. Otherwise, skewer the tomatoes and be careful not to let the shallots slip between the grates. Lightly coat the tomatoes and halved shallots with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

DSCN5292 You’ll want to create a hot spot and a cool spot on the grill. When the grill is ready, place the shallots in the basket or directly on the grill, just slightly off the hot spot. Place the half smokes on the hot spot and close the lid. Grill for 5 minutes. Open the lid and check the sausages. If one side is nicely browned and charred turn them over. Also, flip the shallots over and add the tomatoes to the basket or grill. Close the lid and grill for another 5 minutes. (Check the tomatoes at about 3 minutes. If the skin is already charring and starting to split, move them to the cool spot.) Now, open the lid and move the sausages over to the cool spot (if you haven’t already). If the tomatoes have started to burst, they’re ready to come off.

If your cool spot is well away from the coals, you can leave the sausages on the grill to stay warm. (If you’re using a gas grill, just close the lid and turn off the heat.) The easiest way to do the relish is in a food processor. Basically, add the shallots first and pulse until they’re well chopped. And then add the tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Pulse the ingredients and taste. When you’re happy, it’s ready to go.

If you don’t have a food processor, just rough chop the shallots and tomatoes and combine all the ingredients in a bowl.

Now, pull the sausages off the grill and stick them in some buns. Finish with the relish and your condiments of choice. I hear Cosby likes his with mustard and onions.

Grilled Bacon: At Least the Stillwater Ale was a Good Idea

DSCN5173 "Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you."
- The Stranger

Here at the DC Foodies test kitchen (my backyard), I come up with all sorts of good ideas. The problem with good ideas, though, is they don't always produce good results.

My idea to grill bacon is a good idea. It combines fire, pork, fat and salt. What's not to like? Well, like The Stranger told The Dude, sometimes the bear eats you.

Grilled bacon, however, is not bacon. It's ham. It's country ham, actually. That shouldn't be too much of a surprise, as I approached the preparation and grilling the same way I approach large cuts of pork: I seared and then I slow cooked.

The result looks nothing like bacon. It tastes nothing like bacon. It's not crispy. It's smokey pink. It's moist.

In other words, it makes some excellent country ham. Not exactly what I was expecting, but it sure wasn't bad. It just wasn't bacon.

What I set out to do was tackle cooking bacon on the grill and then give you four variations of the traditional BLT. What I actually did was create four variations of the ham sandwich. And if I were honest, only one made the whole endeavor worthwhile.

When I came up with the idea of grilling bacon, the first thing I did was Google it. Sure enough, a whole bunch of folks have taken to the grill with packages of bacon. But the problem with grilling thin strips of bacon, as I see it, is all that delicious pork fat drips off, leaving you with shriveled pieces of smoked pork (which is great if you want to make jerky). When you pan fry bacon, the meat cooks in its own fat, giving it that fatty, delicious flavor we all know and crave.

DSCN5163 Instead of using strips of bacon, I opted for a one and a half pound slab that I picked up from my buddy Carlos at Canales Quality Meats. Slow grilling a slab of bacon bacon allows the rendering fat to baste the meat as it sweats in the heat, keeping everything nice and moist.

In the end, that's exactly what happened. After initially searing the fat cap, I flipped the slab and moved the whole thing to a cooler part of the grill and allowed it to cook for 35 minutes. The result was delicious, delicious ... ham.

So instead of BLTs, I came up with four HLTs. They ain't too bad, so go with it.

DSCN5182 HLT one was a fairly straightforward BLT .. uh, HLT, except I roasted a couple heads of garlic in the oven and mixed them into the mayo. Now, I'm a pulp-in-my-orange juice guy, so I didn't mash up the cloves too much because I liked the idea of biting into the odd chunk of roasted garlic.

Basically, this is a smoked ham sandwich with roasted garlic mayo. It's a good sandwich, but probably not worth the trouble. Just go buy some ham.

DSCN5192 For HLT two, I had high hopes. It's the same sandwich as HLT one, but with the addition of soft French blue cheese. In my mind, the combination of salty, smokey moist pork would go incredibly well with the creamy, tang of the blue cheese. In reality, the sandwich garnered a "meh" from the missus. Hey, you win some, you loose some.

DSCN5198 When HLT three was still BLT three in my head, I was planning on treating the bacon like pork by brushing it with barbecue sauce. In the end, I brushed the grilled ham with some peach barbecue sauce and it worked (note: use regular mayo). It's a little smokey and a little sweet, which worked well with the saltiness of the ham. Like the first sandwich, though, it didn't work well enough to go through the trouble. Stick with pork chops and the sauce and you'll do just fine.

And then there was the final sandwich, HLT four. This was the one that excited me. This was the one that would get my dear wife to roll her eyes. This is the one that I crowned with an beautiful egg, fried sunny side up. I do love me some eggs, and I've been accused by the missus of sticking them on top of everything. She's right, but that doesn't make it wrong. In fact, when it came to this little project, it made everything alright.

DSCN5209 There is something near perfect about the combination of warm egg yolk and moist, hot ham. It's rich, savory, unctuous. And just as those flavors have you thinking you're eating an overly complicated, yet kinda sloppy breakfast sandwich (nothing wrong with that) the roasted garlic mayo keeps the sandwich squarely in the p.m. The sandwich reminded me exactly of the Three Little Piggy sandwich I had at Chicago's Silver Palm Restaurant (a sandwich Tony Bourdain described as "a work of genius, in an evil way."). Throw some of that blue cheese on it and you're there. The HLT with egg justified my day (nearly). And that's enough of a happy ending to go out on.

DSCN5227 To go with my porky project, I picked up a bottle of Stateside Saison from the region's newest brewery, Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Stillwater is still very much a one-man band headed by Brian Strumke, a DJ turned contract beer maker (happens all the time). You can read all about Brian and Stillwater here or listen here. It's an interesting story, but what's important to me is that we have another local brewer producing quality beer.

The Stateside Saison, Brian's initial offering, is a well balanced golden farmhouse ale. I like this style of beer, but all too often it tends to be a bit cloying. The Stillwater ale, however, is just bitter enough, thanks to some dry hopping, to keep the beer from getting insipid. And at 6.8 ABV, you don't have to share the 22 ounce bottle if you don't want to.

Grilled Bacon
(makes four servings)

1 1.5 lb. slab of bacon, whole

Yeah, that's it. The ingredient list is pretty short this time. In defense of buying a pound and a half of bacon just to make ham, it put me back all of $5. So if this idea appeals to you, it's an inexpensive way to experiment with bacon on the grill.

An hour before you're ready to grill, pull the bacon out of the refrigerator and let it warm up. For grilling, you want to set up a hot and a cool zone. This will allow you to sear the fat cap and then slow cook the slab.

When the grill is ready, place the slab of bacon on the hottest part of the grill, close the lid and cook for 10 minutes. Because the fat can cause flare ups, you need to watch the grill very carefully. After 10 minutes, flip the slab of bacon over and move it to your cool spot. Close the grill lid and cook for 35 minutes.

Remove the bacon from the grill and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Trim off all the excess fat cap you don't want and do with the ham what you will.

Spring is In the Air (Finally) and Lamb Burgers are On the Grill (Most Definitely)

DSCN5117 It's wet, it's overcast, and my yard looks like crap. But, you know what? Spring is here, and I'll take the damp weather and yard work over snowdrifts and blizzards any day.

I don't know about y'all, but that was a long damn winter. Having grown up in Florida, snow was always kinda novel. By the end of that third massive storm this season, I was over it and really over shoveling it.

So bring on spring! Let me enjoy grilling outdoors again. Let me closet the coats and break out the shorts. Let me replace my cabin fever with spring fever.

As spring is about all things new, I figured I'd do something new with the old burger recipe. I've also paired the burger with a jug of fresh beer made by D.C.'s newest brewer.

First, the burger. In the two years I've been doing this grilling column, I've never written a straight-forward burger post (my sole burger post includes seaweed salad). Why would I? Everyone does burgers. I mean everyone. At one point last year, Food & Wine, Gourmet Magazine, Food Network, the Washington Post and Chow were all running burger recipes on their Web sites. That's a lot of high-profile instruction for something so ubiquitous. I don't even think hot dogs get that kind of attention, and they've been a stable of the charcoal and Weber set for generations. The thing is, dogs and burgers are two of the easiest things to grill. But they're so near and dear to us, that writers write about them and TV people talk about them.

Including me. It's spring, so I figured area grills will be pulled out of hibernation any day. And something tells me that if you're not tossing on dogs, it's going to be burgers. Rather than heading down the same, tired burger path, though, I figured I'd once again give you the option of doing something different: goat cheese stuffed lamb burgers with avocado and mint mayo.

After all, Lamb is the meat of spring (for both tender and grizzly reasons). When paired with goat cheese and avocado, you have something special on your hands ... and dripping down you chin and arms (the sandwich gets a little messy). However, if lamb isn't your thing, substitute ground beef. Just be sure to use an 80/20 mix and skip the butter I add to the recipe. If you go with a leaner ground beef, keep the butter.

DSCN5114 In the interest of full disclosure, I screwed up my lamb burger. I mixed shallots into the ground lamb before making the patties and stuffing the burgers. All that handling and mixing overworked the meat. I loved the flavor of the shallots in the finished burger, but the texture was too dense. It was more meatball than burger. In the future, I'll skip the shallots and work the meat as little as possible.

The trick to doing these lamb burgers is adding fat. The lamb is very lean, so you have to do something to moisten the burger and give it some flavor. I decided the best way to handle this was to stick a pat of butter in the middle with the goat cheese. That way, when you bite into the burger, the warm, liquefied goat cheese and melted butter spill out ... down your chin and arms (seriously, get a napkin).

I added the avocado for the same reason I added the butter. The avocado is a fatty fruit that does nothing but good things for burgers. And if avocado works well with beef -- it does -- it should work well for lamb -- it does. Avocados also make me think about warm weather, cold beer and boat drinks, all of which I'm jonesing for right now.

DSCN5129 To go with the spring burger, I swung by Franklin's in Hyattsville for a growler of brewery fresh beer. There's a new brewer at Franklin's, Mike Roy, and he's cranking out some quality ales, including a Belgian-style golden ale he's named Golden Opportunity. (I'll fill you in on Mike and his plans for Franklin's later.)

The beer is hazy gold in the glass, with the traditional fruit and clove notes the style is so well known for. At 6.5 percent A.B.V., it's easy to put away a few of them.

Access to a quality brewery is a hell of a treat. There's a lot of focus in the craft beer community these days on aging beer and vertical tastings, but it's just as nice to be able to fill up a growler a few feet from the tank the beer was just brewed in. The only thing is, once you open that growler, you have to drink the beer within the next 24 hours or so to ensure it tastes its best.

That's an observation, not a complaint.

Grilled Stuffed Lamb Burgers with Avocado and Mint Mayo
(Makes four servings)

1.5 lbs. ground lamb
4 oz. goat cheese, preferably with herbs
2 tbs. salted butter
1 avocado, cubed or mashed
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 bunch of fresh mint, roughly chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

DSCN5100 An hour before you're ready to start grilling, prepare the lamb burgers. Take enough of the ground lamb meat to form a thin patty. Season with salt and pepper. Take a bit of the goat cheese and place it in the middle of the patty. Place a tab of butter on top of it. Now, take the same amount of lamb and form it into a second patty. Place it on top of the butter, goat cheese and other patty and pinch the edges of the patties together until the sides are closed and you have a single lamb burger (this burger can get thick, so make sure each lamb patty isn't too big ... unless that's what you're going for). Repeat for the rest of the burgers. You can also do this the night before. Season both sides of all the burgers with salt and pepper to taste.

For the mayo, simply combine the mint and the mayo. You might need to add a little lemon juice, but taste as you go and do what works for you.

DSCN5107 To grill the burgers, set up the grill for off-heat cooking. So make sure you have a hot spot and a cool spot. When the grill is ready, place the burgers on the hottest part of the grill, close the lid, and cook for eight minutes or until a crust forms (Watch out for flare ups). Flip the burgers, close the lid and cook for another five minutes. Move the burgers over to the cool spot on the grill, close the lid and cook for a final three minutes.

Remove from the grill and allow to rest. This should give you enough time to prepare the avocado. As you can see in the photo, I cubed mine. Do that or mash it up. It doesn't matter (my wife would like to point out that mashing the avocado makes the sandwich easier to eat). Just make sure to add the lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Now, build your burger and enjoy.

Bourbon Peach Pork Chops On the Grill: A Meal Fit for Terrapin Beer

DSCN5059 Typically, when I do these posts, I come up with a theme or dish to focus on and then find a beer to pair with whatever I grill. Today, though, I'm doing it the other way around. Today, I'm starting with the beer.

Last year, we were lucky enough to see the arrival of Terrapin beer, in Virginia anyway. As the South's craft beer culture continues to develop, a few bright stars have emerged, including the Athens, Ga., brewery. It may not be as big as Abita, the granddaddy of Southern craft beer, but Terrapin is a brewery to be considered.

(Quick aside; Terrapin is brewed locally by Flying Dog in Frederick, Md., yet you can't buy Terrapin in the state of Maryland. Kinda funny when you consider that the mascot for the state university is a Terrapin. Does this mean that Maryland fears the turtle? I think it does.)

I first came across Terrapin a few years ago while living in North Carolina. At the time, the brewery's flagship beer, Rye Pale Ale, was one of the few rye beers available, at least in Chapel Hill. As a beer, it's fantastic. The malt and hops balance out that signature tart rye bite, resulting in a rather crisp ale.

It's also somewhat remarkable to have a rye ale as your signature beer. The style isn't for everyone. While challenging beers, such as Saisons, barley wines and double IPAs, are increasingly common styles for craft breweries these days, back in 2002, relying on a rye ale to be your bill-payer beer was ballsy. Sam Calagione may be known for making unique beers, but he keeps Dogfish Head's lights on with his easy drinking Shelter Pale Ale and the 60 Minute IPA.

Fortunately, Terrapin's gamble paid off when founders Brian Buckowski and John Cochran picked up a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival just six months after putting their Rye Pale Ale on draft.

Since then, Buckowski and Cochran have rolled out an impressive line of craft beers, including Gamma Ray, a barley wine made with wheat; Hopsecutioner, their big, bitter, hop-stinky IPA; and a coffee oatmeal imperial stout called Wake 'N' Bake (I have no idea what the name refers to, but I feel compelled to point out that the brilliant artwork on Terrapin's labels is done by Richard Biffle, who did cover art for such bands as the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, and Jerry Garcia. Again, I don't know why this is relevant.).

The only bummer here is that if you live in the District or Maryland, you're going to need to head into Virginia to find any of these beers (I bought the ones for this post at Total Wine in Alexandria). I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a Georgia beer can't cross the invisible borders of D.C. and Maryland, while I can get a beer from Denmark (WinterCoat) on draft at Birreria Paradiso in Georgetown. To think otherwise could mean liquor laws are arbitrary, contradictory and antiquated.

DSCN5063 So all this is to say, Terrapin makes some fantastic beer. In honor of that -- and to have an excuse to talk up the brewery -- I decided a tribute to Georgia was in order. And you can't think about Georgia without thinking of peaches and pork. (Well, you probably can. I certainly can. But bear with me.)

Now, it would be fair to point out that we are not in peach season. That's why I'd wait until peach season to try this recipe, or use canned peaches. What you don't want to do, is use the "fresh" peaches from Chile like I did. They're completely flavorless. I should've gone with canned peaches as I initially planned. Like canned tomatoes, canned peaches can be just as flavorful as truly fresh peaches. And because the peaches are roasted and added to barbecue sauce, it doesn't matter that they're skinned.

I also used sweet yellow onions. Ideally, I would've used Vidalia onions (grown in southern Georgia), but we're a couple months away from their short season. In the meantime, sweet yellow onions, or red onions, are a decent substitute.

Basically, this is a post I should do in June, but have done in March. What can I tell you? I lack patience.

Setting aside my poor peach pick (ah, alliteration), the menu of grilled, thick-cut, bone-in pork chops, grilled sweet potato fries and cornbread works really well with Terrapin's Rye Pale Ale (not to mention the India Brown Ale, Big Hoppy Monster imperial red ale, and the Hopsecutioner).

The beer wasn't the only thing I headed into Virginia for. I picked up the chops at Let's Meat on the Avenue. Steve Gatward runs a great little butcher shop in Del Ray. While you can buy bone-in pork chops at any grocery store in the area, Steve will cut them as thick as you want (I chose "very") and french the rib bones so they'll look good when photographed. Good butchers like Steve are too rare a commodity.

Making a run to Virginia for pork chops and beer might seem like a bit much, but a couple pints of rye ale and a two-inch thick chop glazed with peach barbecue sauce will make the excursion seem well worth it.

And who knows, maybe one day Terrapin will make its way into D.C. and Maryland, saving me a little gas and time. With any luck, peaches will actually be in season.

Grilled bone-in pork chops with bourbon peach barbecue sauce
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5041 4 bone-in pork chops, thick cut
3 sweet potatoes
1 large Vidalia onion or sweet yellow onion
2 peaches, in-season fresh or canned without syrup
1 1/2 cups ketchup
1/2 bourbon
2 tbs. dark brown sugar
3 tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. liquid smoke
3 tsp. of garlic powder
1 stick of salted butter
Honey, optional to drizzle on the cornbread
Salt and black pepper to taste
Barbecue seasoning, optional

I made corn bread to go with the pork chops and sweet potatoes (naturally). I always follow the recipe for sweet cornbread on the side of the corn meal package. It has never failed me. The cornbread takes about 20 minutes to prepare and bake, so feel free to take care of it while you're waiting for your grill to come up to temperature.

If you're going to make the barbecue sauce, do so the night before. Halve the peaches, coat them lightly with canola or vegetable oil and roast in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. In the meantime, combine the ketchup, bourbon, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, and garlic powder in a pot and bring to a simmer. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

After 30 minutes in the oven, the peaches should be incredibly soft. Carefully remove from the tray and place in a bowl or, preferably, a food processor. Puree the peaches or crush in the bowl. Add the rest of the barbecue sauce, combine and taste. If the peaches aren't sweet enough, you may have to add a bit more brown sugar. Adjust the seasonings until the barbecue sauce is to your liking. Once you're happy, cover the sauce and stick it in the refrigerator until you need it.

The morning of the barbecue, season the pork chops with a barbecue rub. Steve Raichlen has a great recipe for an all-purpose barbecue rub. If you don't have a rub of your own, I highly recommend his. If you don't want to use a barbecue rub, make sure to season the chops with salt and black pepper before putting them on the grill.

DSCN5036 An hour before you're ready to grill, pull the pork chops out of the refrigerator so they can loose some of the chill. If the rib bones were frenched, wrap them with aluminum foil so they don't blacken. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. This will be for your sweet potatoes. Either quarter the potatoes by cutting them from end to end, or break them down even further by halving the quarters. Place the sweet potato slices on a baking sheet, cover with a little olive oil or canola oil, salt lightly and pop them in the oven for 45 minutes. This will fully cook the potatoes. Their time on the grill will allow them to pick up some additional color and flavor.

DSCN5022 As for the grill, set it up for off-heat cooking. That means you need to have a hot spot, where the coals or burners are concentrated, and a cool spot where you can move the food after it has seared. When the grill is ready, place the pork chop on the hot spot and cook for about 5 minutes, or until grill marks form on the meat. Flip and sear the other side for about five minutes. Move the chops to the cool spot and glaze with the bourbon peach barbecue sauce. Close the lid and allow the chops to cook for about three to five minutes, depending on how thick they are (the thicker the chop, the longer the cook time).

Open the grill, flip the chops and glaze the other side. Now, place the sweet potatoes directly over the heat and close the lid for three minutes. Lift the lid and check the sweet potatoes pieces. When char marks form, turn the pieces. Also, flip the chops and glaze again. Close the lid and cook for another three minutes.

When the sweet potatoes are ready, the pork will be ready. Remove, plate and eat. Just make sure you do so with a Terrapin.

Basket for stir frying? Nope, but a handy pan for grilling oysters and such

DSCN4884Because I'm into cooking and grilling, I get get a lot of gadgets as gifts. I've received digital thermometer grilling forks, a garlic press shaped like a parrot, cutlery sets, a couple juicers (maybe I'm vitamin deficient), etc.

This past Christmas, my brother and his family added to my collection by giving me a grilling basket ostensibly so I can "stir fry" on the grill. As much as I appreciate the gift, and I do, there's no way I'm going to stir fry in that thing.

The fact is, I can't. It's not built for it. Stir frying involves high heat and sauces, and should only be done in a wok. It's actually a rather nuanced form of cooking. The perforated grilling basket can't hold liquid and won't conduct heat as evenly as a wok. It's simply the wrong tool for the job. (That said, I have stuck a wok on the side burner of my gas grill to do a little stir frying. That works pretty well, especially if you have an electric stove in your house. The side burner can get the wok much hotter and the inevitable smoke that comes from stir frying drifts away in the breeze, rather than choking your kitchen.)

But as a tool to cook small and delicate items on the grill, the basket is an excellent tool. Ever since I watched Tony Bourdain visit a restaurant in Spain that uses wire basket pans to cook over hot coals, I've been thinking about applying this technique to my grilling. The grilling basket is a good start.

Admittedly, I got lucky with this gift. So much of the grilling accoutrement out there ranges between useless and complete crap. Top of the pile is the grilling fork. No tool is as ubiquitous or as useless as the grilling fork. If you're thinking about buying one, don't. If you own one, get rid of it, or find another use for it (I use mine to pierce potatoes). There's not a single vegetable or piece of meat that needs to be speared. And yet, everyone wants to stab their damn steak. Stop it. Piercing meat will do nothing more than drain it of its juice (read: flavor). Other useless items include fish-shaped grilling baskets, special basting brushes (cheap pastry brushes often work better), beer-can chicken stands (beer cans work fine), fish turners (use a spatula), and obscene hot dog stands.

As I mentioned in a post a while back, the one tool everyone needs for the grill is a good pair of tongs. Beyond that, a spatula, grill brush (for cleaning), grill cover, skewers and a thermometer are very handy, but you can live without them, depending on what you like to cook.

DSCN4912 You can also live without the stir fry basket, but at least it can be reimagined. The first thing that came to mind was oysters. Unless you cook them in the shell, which I've done, you can't cook oysters on the grill (the little buggers slip right through the grates). But with the basket, I can quickly grill the oysters directly over the heat, imparting a delicate smokey flavor to the bivalves.

The basket will also be useful for grilling certain cuts of delicate fish. Typically, I lay down a perforated sheet of oiled aluminum foil to make sure the filet doesn't stick to the grate or break up and fall though the slender bars. The grill basket can serve as a pan that would allow the fish to grill, while maintaining its structure.

As for vegetables, the basket will grill whole cherry and other small tomatoes quite nicely. In fact, any small piece of fruit of vegetable that you don't want to or can't skewer (pearl onions?) is ideal for the basket.

So as it turns out, the basket was a great gift with a number of uses. It's just that the one use it will never have is stir frying.

DSCN4949 To demonstrate the usefulness of the basket, I made a grilled oyster and tomato salad with shallots. Because I'm grilling oysters, the natural beer to pair with the dish is a stout. And in this case, the king of stouts: Guinness. I love craft beer and generally have nothing but bad things to say about the macro brewers, but Guinness stout is the stout by which all other stouts are (and should be) measured. Yes, it's owned by one of the largest beverage companies in the world (Diageo), but the folks back at the Guinness brewery make a phenomenal beer. The craft brewing community has produced a lot of interesting stout variations (imperial, chicory, chocolate, oatmeal, milk, and even oyster), but when it comes to a straight forward traditional stout, there is none better than Guinness.

And when you're pairing a beer with as delicate an ingredient as oysters, that's what you want. The other stout flavors, and the richness of imperial stouts, would overwhelm the flavor of the grilled oysters and salad. Besides, oysters and stout is one of the oldest food and beer pairings. There's a reason for that: it's good. The creamy, dry, faintly sour flavors of a Guinness stout are a wonderful counter to the sweet, briny (and when grilled), faintly smokey flavors of grilled oysters. It's a match made in Irish heaven.

DSCN4925 Grilled oyster and tomato salad
(makes two servings)

1/2 pint of fresh oysters
2 shallots
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
1 bunch of arugula
1 ounce of fresh lime juice (about a half of a lime)
3 tbs. creole or stone ground mustard
1.5 tbs. of honey
1 tbs. of red wine or cider vinegar
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

DSCN4902Wash and dry the arugula and tomatoes. Trim off the end of the arugula stems (unless it has already been done) and peel the skin off the shallots. In a bowl, coat the shallots and tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together the mustard, honey and vinegar. Taste and adjust as necessary.

For this recipe, you're going to cook directly over the heat. So once the grill is ready, place the basket on the grates over the burners, or coals, and put the shallots in. Grill the shallots for 10 minutes, turning occasionally, then add the tomatoes. Grill for another five minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to burst. Remove from the basket, roughly chop the shallots and set aside.

Take the container of oysters out of the refrigerator and drain off the liquor. Rise the oysters gently, shake dry and place in a bowl. Coat the oysters with olive oil, half the lime juice and a small pinch of salt and pepper.

DSCN4935 Pour the oysters into the basket and stand there. The oysters cook very fast, so this is no time to grab another beer. Close the lid and allow the oysters to cook for about a minute. Open the grill and start turning the oysters. You're looking for them to develop a little color, but not to firm up too much. Close the lid and cook for another minute or so. When the edges of the oysters begin to turn a golden brown start pulling them out of the basket.

To make the salad, add a tablespoon or so of the dressing to the bottom of a bowl. Toss in a handful of arugula and half the tomatoes, shallots and oysters. Add another handful of arugula and the rest of the ingredients. Using your hands, gently mix the ingredients together. Once everything is coated to your liking, plate the salad and enjoy.