Outdoor Season

I know, I know. I can do the math. It's been over a month since I published the last blog entry. That's not like me (you know that) and if there's an excuse to be sought, it's all good.

There's been plenty of inspiration, believe me. Dinner at SPQR in San Francisco, lessons in charcoal grilling, preparing my first "perfect" meal of the year, discovery of an amazing Kosher wine(!), and discovery of quite possibly the worst wine bar on earth; and yet, April 15th stands as the last entry. (The devastating effects of April 15th being "tax day" is an obvious buzz-kill to creativity.)

Primarily, I blame the weather. California has a climate envied by many (though others have similar or identical climates without the cost of living that goes with it.) That climate is sneaky... I had my heater on a few times near the beginning of April. Even if it sat idle all night long, it was at-the-ready should the temperature dip low enough.

Out of the blue, middle of May, 100-degree weather sets in. We go from Nor Cal "Spring" to June in Nairobi almost overnight. The focus of indoor activities is halted, sometimes midway through the process (like, for example, ironing, and general housekeeping duties for that matter), shorts and sandals are pulled frantically from storage, and any excuse to be outside is pounced upon.

Regardless of activity, we all get hungry - indoors or out - and suddenly sustenance is somewhat at odds with wanting to be outside. The goal becomes eating without having to go back inside. Restaurants with outdoor seating are sporadic, and on the warmest of days, are in the most demand.

If one gets hungry at home, the approach is obvious to any red-blooded American - outdoor grilling. It's our birthright, our national pastime, and a primal instinct for men. Having tamed it quite some time ago, charcoal is coaxed until white ash covers the coals, then tempered by limiting oxygen to maintain that all-important "slow heat".

The combination of solar and charcoal-created heat does induce a thirst. Therefore, one must enjoy a beverage while playing backyard Prometheus. Opinions differ here, and can even change between occasions. Gin and tonic? Mojito? White wine? Certainly a glass of Cabernet just doesn't work with smoke wafting in your face. Maybe a white wine, but only if you're wearing a sun dress, and at no time if you are the one "tending" the fire.

A man must tend to the fire (especially if it's charcoal-fueled) as flame can't be trusted to do its job unsupervised. Some sort of poking device is required, from honed steel rod with a leather handle to a generic "stick", again, to remind the fire who's boss.

I must admit, I am not a master of barbecue. I have a gas grill which is, basically, an oven with HORRIBLE temperature control. It lacks that beautiful, carcinogenic taste and smell created by burned wood, and lacks the romance of "creating fire" when the process consists of turning a knob, and pushing a button. The metallic "clang" after the button is pressed further emphasizes that THIS fire is under control, with or without you. This is a great device for slow-roasting ribs, roasting fish, roasting, roasting roasting. It's an oven.

My charcoal grill is much closer to my genetic heritage. My father, a prominent feature in my food world, was always tinkering with the process. To coax the coals onward, he'd get an extension cord and a blow dryer, and force-feed oxygen into the mix. It worked. Insanely-intense heat in only a few minutes. Here, it's important to understand the physics of fire and the tendency of hot air to rise, but one must also be in-tune with temperatures and cooking times.

The season is just getting started, but this is truly the time of year when I "come alive", food-wise. Time to get my knives sharpened, the counters cleaned (or replaced, eventually), and add carbon to the list of ingredients for dinner.


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