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Thursday, April 24, 2003 02:20 pm

Fiery food

Everything you ever wanted to know about barbecue


There are diehard enthusiasts who won't give up the taste of grilled food, even in the dead of winter. But for most people, only warmer temperatures bring out the backyard barbecue.

Geoff Bland is one of the diehards. He fires up his gas grill three or four times a week, all year long. "I love the flavor of grilled foods," says Bland, owner of the Corkscrew Wine Emporium. "It's wonderful. I grill everything, from simple things like steaks and burgers to a whole leg of lamb. I do a lot of grilled vegetables. . . . Sometimes you have to wear gloves in the winter, but grilling just makes you feel more like it's summer."

Bland's favorite dish is steak. He marinates a flank steak in Italian herbs, olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper; then he cooks it medium rare and slices it across the grain. Before serving, he drizzles the steak with extra virgin olive oil and lemon, a trick he learned while traveling in Tuscany.

He also likes to find the right wine. "Wines from Spain and Italy tend to work better with grilled food," he says. "Grilled food has a lot of flavor and tends to need a wine with lots of flavor." Bland prefers red wines because they work best with red meats. His choices include Barbera from northern Italy and Rioja from Spain. White wines work well with lighter grilled dishes like fish; for those dishes, Bland recommends Basa Blanco from Spain and Inzolia from southern Italy.

The word barbecue probably comes from the Haitian word barbacoa, which means a framework of green sticks. Spaniards picked up both the word and the Haitian method of cooking when they visited the Caribbean. There has also been speculation that the word comes from the French barbe a queue, roughly translated as "from head to tail."

One of the first known grills was found around 5000 B.C. on the Greek island of Crete, and various grilled dishes, or yaki, have been enjoyed in Japan for centuries. But now the barbecue grill is a true part of Americana, right alongside apple pie and the flag.

People are expanding their barbecue menu, trying healthier choices, like fish and seafood. They are also discovering that preparing something besides hot dogs and hamburgers is easier than they thought. An entire meal can be prepared and cooked on the grill--from an appetizer like French bread topped with roasted garlic and red peppers to a dessert of grilled peaches, bananas, and pineapple, later topped with ice cream. Vegetables such as eggplant, asparagus, baby carrots, leeks, sweet peppers, new potatoes, squash, zucchini, and corn on the cob are all easy side dishes to prepare on the grill. To speed up grilling time, partially cook chicken, spare ribs, potatoes, carrots, and other slow-cooking food in the oven or microwave.

Though purists turn up their noses at gas grills, today's versions produce results that can measure up to charcoal cooking. Gas grills can turn on instantly with a push of a button or light of a match. Heat can be regulated like an indoor gas range and most good gas grills allow for the addition of wood chips or other aromatic flavor enhancers. Charcoal is still considered the best bet if you like your barbecue real smoky.

Despite all the pleasurable aspects of grilling, some studies suggest grilled foods may not be healthy. In fact, charring meat at extremely high temperatures produces substances that have been shown to cause cancer in some animals. And when meat is browned with intense heat over a direct flame, and fat drips on the fire and coals, it creates smoke containing carcinogens. Does that mean you should stay away from barbecue? According to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, you can still enjoy a grilled hamburger, but you need to pay more attention to how it's cooked. Preparing food at a lower heat, more quickly and without burning, will keep the grill from flaring up, which is when the food becomes unhealthy. The Barbecue Industry Association recommends using indirect heat for grilling, which means simply placing a drip pan under the meat or food you are grilling, banking the hot coals around the pan.

Of course, after the marinating, grilling, and eating are done, the worst is yet to come--cleaning the grill. But experts say a few steps will make the task easy and effective. First, remove the cooking grates and soak them in warm soapy water. If using a charcoal grill, brush out the inside. If using a gas grill, remove briquettes, lava rocks, or the metal flame shield to expose the burner and then clean out ash and residue from around the burner. Use a stiff wire brush and soapy water to scrub the inside surfaces of the grill and remove any particles before putting the pieces back together. Coat inside surfaces and grates with cooking oil or spray. Place the grates back on the grill, allowing an extra five minutes of heating time the next time you fire up the grill to make sure cleaning residue has burned off. Keeping grill surfaces lightly coated with cooking oil or spray makes future clean up easier. Even though it may sound like a lot of trouble, those who enjoy grilling insist it's still easier than doing dishes.

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