In her latest cookbook, Paula Disbrowe makes the case for weeknight grilling
For most people, the smell of meat cooking over a live fire is a transporting experience. I’m lucky enough to live in Austin, where the aroma of Central Texas barbecue is as pervasive as the piercing caw of grackles. When it’s done right, the deep flavor and melting texture of, say, slow-smoked brisket is a bucket-list meal. Few of us have the time to babysit a piece of meat for twelve to eighteen hours (hence the line around the block at Franklin Barbecue). Given the frenetic pace of modern life, the simple pleasure of grilling tends to be relegated to a Saturday night ribeye.
A couple years ago, my friend Amanda Hesser asked me to write a different kind of grilling book for Food52 (the website she founded with Merrill Stubbs). Some cookbook projects are short term pursuits—I devour the backstory needed to capture the topic accurately, then move on to the next deadline. This one was different.
My charge was to develop recipes accessible enough to prepare on a weeknight, and use a wider spectrum of ingredients than are usually found in barbecue books. The result, Any Night Grilling, gave me the opportunity to take over the backyard cooking mantle (my husband reluctantly held down the fort indoors) and fire up the grill several nights a week.
Like learning any new sport, the more I grilled, the more confident I became— and the more fun it was. What began as a scramble became a regular means for getting dinner on the table. Along the way, I played with enhancing the fire with various forms of hardwood—mostly chips, chunks, and logs. I was amazed at how a whiff of wood smoke added tremendous depth, often in as little as thirty minutes: dishes became sultrier, grains more interesting versions of themselves, and nuts took on the meaty characteristics of bacon.
I wasn’t ready to give up the grill, because there was so much more to add to the conversation. Thank You For Smoking is the result of another year spent over glowing embers. This is not a book devoted to the art of low-and-slow barbecue.
In Thank You For Smoking I use smoke as a seasoning to flavor everything from tofu and lobster tails to cocktails and nuts over a wood-infused fire. The subtle whiff of smoke that you taste right off the grill will gain intensity overnight—one bite of a chicken salad or tortilla soup made with smoked chicken and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The process is surprisingly time efficient as you can build a smoked pantry by “bulk smoking” multiple items at once (say, lentils, pecans, and quinoa). With these ingredients on hand, weeknight staples like soups, sauces, and salads have new intrigue—and they need less flourish because they’re built with foods that are already flavored.
The results are deeply satisfying dishes that are perfect for a party and accessible enough for weeknights. Paired with a peppery salad of watercress and pickled mustard seeds, smoked salmon with wild pepper is an impressive centerpiece for brunch and leads to countless great meals (salmon salad, pasta, sandwiches). Ginger garlic chicken is lacquered with a soy and whiskey glaze—try it with sautéed asian greens and steamed jasmine rice. Hot Luck tri-tip—named after Aaron Franklin’s food festival that I participated in last year—pairs flavorful slices of beef with crisp lettuce, pickled carrots and radishes, and a heap of fresh herbs (pass the sambal oelek).
These books have cemented a lifelong friendship with my trusty PK Grill, and a new sense of pride over “manning” the grill for our family meals. I hope they do the same for you.
CHOOSE YOUR WOOD
The size, shape, and density of smoking woods affects the results. Here’s a lowdown on what to use when.
Soak chips in water for thirty minutes and double-wrap them in aluminum foil, then use a sharp knife to perforate packet and place it directly on top of hot coals. Or, you can scatter the chips around the periphery of the fire—a good approach when you want to generate smoke quickly, for a shorter cook.
Sturdy chunks of hardwood (oak, hickory, and mesquite) are a smoker’s best friend. Place two or three pieces around the fire (close enough
to the coals that they begin to smolder). If they flare up, adjust the air vents in your grill to reduce airflow—this will coax them back down to a smolder.
Seek out dry or “cured” hardwood, and make sure it’s untreated for safe cooking. When you empty your charcoal chimney, place the log in the center of the grill and nestle it against the fire. When the log begins to burn and produce a steady stream of smoke, you’re ready to cook.
Tri-tip is a relatively inexpensive cut with a deep, beefy flavor that can stand up to punchy marinades and bold spices. To keep it moist on the grill, brush it with an extra coating of oil just before grilling and don’t cook it past medium-rare. The spicy meat is delicious served with crisp Bibb lettuce leaves, fresh herbs, and pickled carrots and radishes.
Smoking a whole side of salmon leads to countless great meals. It’s delicious on its own (eaten with your fingers and a squeeze of lemon), served in a salmon salad, or with deviled eggs, pasta, and more. You can season this salmon with any type of peppercorn, but the fragrance of an exotic variety like Akesson’s Voatsiperifery Pepper (available at akessons-organic.com) infuses the fish with an enticing woodsy flavor as well as bright citrus and floral aromas. This salmon is a natural star on a brunch menu—served with a peppery salad of watercress and pickled mustard seeds.
For a marinade that’s whisked together in minutes, this one delivers incredible ginger, garlic, and umami flavor and creates a beautiful lacquered crust. To make prep even easier, ask your butcher to split the chicken for you, and save the backbone for stock. The radiant heat of the grill cooks the chicken halves evenly, crisps the skin, and adds a wonderful charcoaled flavor. For this recipe, it’s important to maintain a moderate temperature of 325 to 350 degrees, so the ginger and garlic paste doesn’t burn. Japanese whisky is delicious, and thematically fun here, but you can use any variety. Serve this chicken with sautéed greens, grilled broccolini, and steamed jasmine rice.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Thank You for Smoking: Fun and Fearless Recipes Cooked with a Whiff of Wood Fire on Your Grill or Smoker by Paula Disbrowe © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Johnny Autry © 2019.
- by Erin Byers Murray