Girl Meets Grill
I became passionate about grilling about 20 years ago, when I was working as a chef at the Peabody hotel in Memphis. I had been making my way through the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook by my newfound hero Alice Waters and had chosen to prepare a grilled dinner à la Alice to celebrate my birthday. But halfway through cooking the meal, I almost gave up.
I had decided that the menu would include a grilled butterflied leg of lamb with grilled vegetables. When I finished cooking the lamb, crusty and rare, I checked the fire to make sure the coals were at the right temperature to roast the vegetables I had marinated. Ralph, my boyfriend at the time, came over to take a look. Grilling vegetables was a new thing then, and Ralph was mildly intrigued, though suspicious. He was the chef at a restaurant that served Cajun-blackened everything. He loved heavily seasoned dishes, big flavors and dramatic presentations--we had very different attitudes toward food. Though young, he was an experienced cook, hardworking and quite full of himself.
Ralph waved his hand over the grill, looked at my beautiful vegetables and felt sure that I didn't have enough heat left in my coals. "I think it's going to be a failure," he said. (Ralph never hesitated to let you know when you messed up. His kitchen crew was known for their trash-talking.) I was afraid he might be right. Fighting back tears, I threw some sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary directly onto the coals and let the vegetables grill slowly and evenly, as I had planned. In 10 minutes they were perfectly tender, and Ralph apologized, casually, for his initial doubt.
Since then, I've repeatedly come up against the grilling gender gap. For many men, carbonizing meat is the accepted--manly--way to grill. Not in this girl's book. Anyone can char-burn a steak; proper grilling, which can impart a unique, light crispness along with a touch of smokiness, takes skill. I like to cook over a gentle fire, but grilling over moderately low heat takes patience. To do it well, you have to love the whole experience: not just being outdoors, starting fires and getting charcoal on your hands, but also knowing just when the coals are ready for the particular job they have to do and watching the food gradually acquire a lovely burnished hue.
Many men think of grilling not as cooking, but as tending the fire. They cling to the traditional Fourth of July menu of hot dogs and hamburgers because it doesn't occur to them to try anything new and because they're perfectly happy with a meat-heavy meal. The men in my family, for example, are only interested in grilling steak. Women, however, often prefer something lighter and healthier, like seafood and vegetables. Instead of conceding and having a meal we don't want, my sister and I started getting more creative, and we now grill a multicourse menu that still includes steak--and pleases everyone.
For instance, instead of hamburgers, which have so much fat ground in, I'll make scallop burgers topped with a little mayo-based sauce and some lean bacon. In a dish I call Chicks Only (though it appeals to both sexes), I skewer chicken wings and chicken livers and barbecue them separately. The livers, on grilled bread, are more of a snack: I serve them first, before the wings. My friend and fellow griller Heidi Wheeler helped me refine this dish by teaching me how to trim the wings so they're less fatty and cook evenly. And I never dreamed of making paella on a grill until I read a recipe from another of my culinary heroes, Paula Wolfert, whose cookbooks I discovered around the same time as I did Alice Waters'. She explained that this dish was traditionally cooked over a wood fire, and now I won't cook paella any other way than on the grill--it's so much faster and easier.
Male or female, if you love to grill for a crowd, you're a showman. Chefs like to show off, and I'm no different. I see grilling as theater, with me at center stage. But while I crave attention, I also have an intense need to satisfy people. To me, satisfying food makes you feel not just full, but fulfilled. I think I'm starting to sound exactly like Alice.