Bring on the autumn char
Barbecuers need a Declaration of Independence. That famous document, although written in summer, knows no season. And neither should barbecuing.
Fall is my favorite time to grill. Unlike summer's searing temperatures, fall's mild weather makes standing before a hot fire a pleasure. But the practicality of temperate days, fine though it is, is secondary to their poetry. The smoke carries differently on fall's crisp air. The vapors perfume the neighborhood, bracing and seductive, hinting of nostalgia. In brutish summer, smoke practically congeals above the grill in its thick torpor.
It presents a false choice, really. Can't a barbecuer like both? Of course. But if I have to choose, I pick fall as my favorite season for grilling. (If I lived in the Deep South or Texas, as I did for many years, I might well choose winter.)
Except for tomatoes and corn and maybe peaches, a person could even argue that autumn's eating is better: It is the harvest season, for crying out loud.
Before we started trucking and flying everything from everywhere, obliterating seasons, the natural foods of autumn were cabbage, potatoes, onions, beets, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, garlic (yes, garlic), Hatch chilies, potatoes, all sorts of squashes and tomatillos, not to mention apples and pears. They take to a little fire and smoke just as those summer gems do.
We can grill and smoke meat any time of the year. Why limit a low-and-slow pork butt or a quick-grilled rib-eye to one season? I'll grant that burgers and hot dogs are summer icons. Fine. Summer can claim them. But does anybody follow the rule about not wearing white after Labor Day anymore? So, grill burgers and dogs throughout the colorful months.
As for bigger meats, such as pork ribs and briskets, I prefer eating them when it isn't so hot outside. Confession: I actually enjoy eating lighter in the summer. Fall is a better time for more substantial meals, prepping, as it were, for the robust winter dishes to come.
Last autumn I charred apples, one of the iconic fruits of the season, as the base for a salsa to go with pork.
This fall, I borrowed from adventurous Dallas chef Tim Byres, who combines apples and tomatillos to make a slightly tangy, creamy salsa.
Fall is great for acorn squash, too, and I found inspiration in "Where There's Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling" (Sterling Epicure, 2013), by former Washington chef Barton Seaver. His treatment is simple and easy, requiring little more than a few minutes at the fire. It yields nutty, luscious, caramelized wedges.
With the holiday season on the horizon, I also wanted to play around with an elegant dessert to serve at a dinner party. I found it in wood-smoked poached pears. The smoke gives the pears an evocative winter's-night-by-the-fire flavor that pairs beautifully with the poaching syrup of red wine, orange and vanilla.
In the end, though, the recipes are just excuses to get out and grill in the riot of autumn's color. Who decreed, I wonder, that summer should rule our grills? Not the founding fathers, that's for sure. In his diaries, George Washington wrote of hosting "a Barbicue [sic] of my own giving at Accatinick." You know when that was? Not June. Not July. Not August. September.
And that brings me back to the Declaration of Independence. Summer is to barbecue what Great Britain was to the American colonies: an unyielding overlord. We bring out the grills on Memorial Day and drag them back to the garage on Labor Day. In between, we do summer's bidding.
In the course of inhuman events (which is to say, searing summer heat), when the natural order of things is to be sitting in an air-conditioned bar or movie theater, where are we instead? Standing in front of a 500-degree fire.
We are subservient to the Sun King. And so, here, in the fall of the year of 2013, I say that we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all barbecuers are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Smoked and Grilled Foods Whenever They Darned Well Please.
Especially the fall.
Smoky Green Apple Salsa Verde
Makes 3 to 3 1/2 cups
Autumn is apple season. Match the sweet, tart flavor of Granny Smiths with the lemony flavor of tomatillos and you have a bright, seasonal salsa, great with chips as an appetizer or as a sauce on pork.
You'll need to soak 1 cup of apple wood chips in water for an hour.
MAKE AHEAD: The salsa can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Adapted from "Smoke: New Firewood Cooking," by Tim Byres (Rizzoli, 2013).
1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed, then each cut in half
1 Granny Smith apple, cut in half
1/2 yellow onion, cut into thirds
2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed and seeded
5 cloves garlic
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
Prepare a charcoal grill for a medium-hot fire. When the coals are ashen, dump them onto one side for indirect grilling.
If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with all burners on high. When it reaches a temperature of 500 degrees, adjust for indirect grilling. With a two-burner grill, turn off one of the burners; with three or more burners, turn off the center unit.
Grill the tomatillos and apple halves, cut sides down, until they begin to blacken, 2 to 5 minutes. Drain the wood chips and add them to the charcoal. If using gas, place the drained chips in an aluminum foil pouch with a few fork holes on top, or in a smoker box, and place on the grate.
Move the tomatillos and apple halves to the cool side of the grill and close the lid. Smoke them for no more than 5 minutes; you don't want them to get over-smoked, but you do want to impart a lovely smoke flavor. Transfer to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, chop the tomatillos. Peel and core the apple, then cut it into small dice.
Combine the smoked tomatillos, onion, jalapenos, garlic and water in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so the liquid is barely bubbling at the edges; cook for about 10 minutes, so the vegetables become tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables (only) to a mixing bowl.
Increase the heat to high and bring the remaining liquid to a boil; cook until it has reduced to 1/2 cup. Pour over the vegetables in the bowl. Stir in the salt. Transfer the vegetable mixture (and its liquid) to a blender; pulse to form a salsa that's almost smooth. Add the cilantro and pulse 2 or 3 times just to incorporate.
Transfer to a serving bowl; fold in the diced apple. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.
NUTRITION Per 2-tablespoon serving (based on 3 1/2 cups): 10 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
Smoke-Infused Red-Wine-Poached Pears
There is something clean- and fresh-tasting about pears in autumn. The purity of their flavor and their shape make for a dramatic dessert, as anyone who has served poached pears can attest. This recipe also gives the fruit a punch of smoke to evoke an outdoorsy vibe.
Bartlett, Anjou and Bosc pears work well here. You'll need to soak 1 cup of apple wood chips in water for an hour.
Serve on their own or with sweetened cheese, such as mascarpone, or vanilla ice cream. From Jim Shahin.
4 firm, ripe pears (2 1/4 pounds total)
2 cups dry red wine, such as Cotes-du-Rhone or pinot noir
1/2 cup sugar, or more as needed
1 1/2 cups water, or more as needed
Two 1-by-3-inch strips of orange zest (no white pith)
2 whole cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Prepare a charcoal grill for a medium-hot fire. Once the coals are ashen, dump them onto one side for indirect grilling.
If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with all burners on high. When it reaches a temperature of 500 degrees, adjust for indirect grilling. With a two-burner grill, turn off one of the burners; with three or more burners, turn off the center unit. Set the temperature at 450 degrees.
Drain the wood chips and add them to the charcoal. If using gas, place the drained chips in a foil pouch with a few fork holes on top or in a smoker box and place on the grate.
Trim the bottoms of the pears just enough so they'll sit flat. Set the pears on their bottoms on the cool side of the grate. Close the lid and smoke for about 4 minutes; you want to lightly smoke them, not cook them. Transfer the pears to a plate.
Combine the wine, sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low. Add the orange peel strips and cloves. Cook for 20 minutes, adjusting the temperature as needed so the liquid is barely bubbling at the edges.
Meanwhile, peel the smoked pears; cut them in half lengthwise, then core them. Gently drop the halves into the wine syrup, which should just cover the pears; add liquid and sugar as needed. Poach for 10 to 15 minutes, until the pears are just soft.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract; cool the pears in the cooking liquid for at least 20 minutes and up to a few hours before serving. Discard the orange peel and cloves.
Serve with some of the cooking liquid.
NUTRITION Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.
Grilled Acorn Squash Wedges
4 to 6 servings
Few foods conjure the fall season like acorn squash. It's a gourd, for one thing, and we associate gourds with autumn; and its orange-y flesh suggests the season's signature color. The sweet flavor of the squash is brought to the fore by the simplicity of the preparation. Adapted from "Where There's Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling," by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure, 2013).
2 small (3 pounds total) acorn squash, seeded and cut into 1-to-2-inch wedges
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Prepare the grill for indirect heat: If using charcoal, when the coals are ashen, dump them onto one side of the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat the grill with all burners on high. When it reaches a temperature of 500 degrees, adjust for indirect grilling. With a two-burner grill, turn off one of the burners; with three or more burners, turn off the center unit.
You want medium heat. For charcoal, you should be able to hold your hand about five inches above the grate for 5 to 7 seconds. For gas, the temperature should be 400 degrees.
Toss the squash wedges with the oil and season them generously with salt. Working in batches as needed, cook them (uncovered) directly over the fire until deeply charred, 6 to 10 minutes per side.
Move the squash wedges to the cool side of the grill. Close the lid and cook until they are soft, 10 to 20 minutes. Transfer the wedges to a platter for serving.
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 6): 200 calories, 4 g protein, 47 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar