To me there is no better way to kick off the summer than to have a national three-day holiday. And to me there is no better way to show that most of us can't cook outdoors than to give us three full days to prove it.
You noticed I said "us."
That's because I was one of those who could not cook outdoors. And couldn't for many years. Now don't get me wrong. I could start a fire and hurl something on it. But it wasn't really what I would now call "cooking." It was more like "cremation." I'm sure I am not the first backyard cook to have been cited by the sheriff for abusing an animal corpse during a cookout.
And do you know what was really sad? I didn't even know I couldn't cook outdoors. I mean, how hard could it be? Just start up a raging fire in the old kettle grill and toss a hunk of raw meat on it. Cook it for a beer or two, then yank it off, hack at it 'til it resembled servings, and pour some barbeque sauce over it. Then call everyone to the table and serve it with the canned baked beans the wife re-heated, the potato salad that Aunt Minnie brought (geez, I hope she kept it in the fridge this year), the chips and dip that John and Julie from next door brought, and of course the two bags of ice that cheapskate Uncle Willy brings every year to keep the beer that everyone else bought cold.
So what's not to like?
Besides the food and Uncle Willy?
Like many of us who cook outdoors, I had no reference point. That is, until I met Eddie and Michael. These two friends are not related, but you will often find them at the same cookouts. Eddie does the fish and other assorted seafood. Michael handles the beef and pork. They both excel at grilling veggies.
The first time I saw them in action and tasted the items that came off the grill I wanted to be them. But when my wife looked over at me from across the picnic table in a near-swoon as she sampled the beef and shrimp hot off Eddie's grill and sighed, "Why can't you grill like Eddie and Michael?" I knew the gauntlet had been thrown down.
So I made it a point to study these two men until I could match their technique and glorious results. It took a couple of years, but here's what I learned:
1. Buy good food. As a rule, I've always bought good cuts of meat and fish whenever I planned on cooking indoors. But outside? What's the point? I'm only going to char it to hell. Why spend $10 a pound on a filet-of-somethin'-somethin' when I could buy a hunk of backyard-somethin'-somethin' for under $3 a pound? It made complete sense until I tasted Eddie's salmon steaks with lemon butter and Michael's filet mignon with a glace to die for.
Now, I have to say this, Michael manages one of the top restaurants in the city so he is able to get the really primo cuts of meat that I could never hope to buy. Eddie? He's a regular guy like me, but he buys his cookout entrees from the butcher and the seafood market, so I had no excuse. Right then I made a vow to never buy my meat and seafood in large opaque packages from the "Must Sell Today by Five-Thirty" bin of my grocery store again. That decision in and of itself made a huge difference.
2. Cook on a clean grill. Many of us pride ourselves on the thick layers of of goo that cling to our grates from past barbeques. I once believed that this accumulation not only added subtle flavor to the food, but the layers of grime and blackened fat drew off all of the impurities in the food I was grilling.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I had a piece of jumbo grilled shrimp fresh off Eddie’s grill and did not detect even a hint of overcooked venison I was sold.
3. If you cook at night, use light. When I watched Eddie and Michael whip up some late night surf and turf I was surprised that they did so with the outdoor spotlights on. I had always thought that the true and most iconic way to grill outdoors was in whatever light the twinkling stars and glowing moon could give you. Either that or a flashlight. The smaller the better so as not to ruin the overall ambiance.
Once again, I was wrong. When I turned on the lights on my deck I was amazed at how much control I had over whatever items I had on the grill. I mean, they were not backlit by the roaring flames in the kettle where everything, regardless of how rare or well done they were, all resembled solid black lumps on the grate.
4. Pay attention. The last important lesson I learned from these two grill men was their penchant for paying attention to whatever they had on the grill. By doing so, they knew when to turn each item, when to move them to cooler parts of the grill, and when to remove them for serving. Sure, it may be much more fun to throw something on the grill and then join everyone else in the limbo dance by the pool, but your steaks, shrimp and chicken breasts will taste much better after a few minutes on the grill rather than the time it takes for everyone to prove to everyone else that now that the limbo pole is a mere 18-inches from the ground they can still make it under, even after six consecutive (unsuccessful) tries.
I hope these tips will revolutionize your outdoor cooking experience as much as they have mine. But why settle for plain old ribs and potato salad? Why not go for the gold and create a backyard meal that will have the neighbors talking for years? Below I'm offering a traditional cookout item with a tropical twist. You may live in Minnesota but you need to give this a shot. Remember, we are cooking outside the lines.
And if your uncle Willy offers to bring the ice again this year, tell him to bring five bags. Cuz in addition to those beers we want to keep cold, we're going to whip up some frozen margaritas and daiquiris…
Caribbean Grilled Ribs (serves 6)
3 pounds St. Louis style ribs
For the dry rub:
1 large onion, finely chopped, (about 1-1/2 cups)
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon thyme
1-1/2 teaspoons allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground hot pepper flakes
1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup soy sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil oil
1-1/2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 1-1/2 to 2 cups)
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons minced ginger
1-1/2 cups dark rum
1-1/2 cups ketchup
3/4 cup molasses
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup pineapple or orange juice
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1. Combine dry rub ingredients and rub over ribs, cover and refrigerate for a few hours or over night.
2. Prepare a fire in the grill for indirect heat or preheat your oven to 350° if it's raining.
3. Grill ribs over indirect heat in covered grill, turning occasionally, until ribs are very tender, about 1- 1/2 hours (or roast ribs on a rack in shallow pan in the oven for 1-1/2 hours until tender.)
4. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté 2 additional minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer until thick.
5. Baste the ribs with the sauce during the final 15 minutes of cooking. Cut ribs into 1- or 2-rib portions and serve with remaining sauce