Food & Drink

Cooking with charcoal

Do I have to rake this over the coals again?

Yes, world, I am a charcoal girl. I love the purity of it. I love the simplicity of it. I love the flavor of it.

My family’s history of cooking things over fires goes back  OK, it probably goes back to peat fires in the Old Country. But I know for sure that my grandfather was a charcoaler. During the Depression, he hired himself out to oversee pit barbecues at family reunions.

Dad was definitely a charcoal man. He made our backyard grill himself from a 50-gallon oil drum welded to legs made from plumbing pipes. On any Saturday between 5 and 7 p.m., you could find him standing over it, cooking by instinct, experience and a finely honed sense of heat-control.

So when I had a backyard of my own, what do you suppose I put in it? Get thee behind me, propane.

Now, I realize my charcoal habit will bring criticism in certain quarters. Yes, it is environmentally questionable. I try to even out my ecological footprint by composting as much garbage as I can. I may smoke my food, but I try not to make the county haul much trash on my behalf.

I also know there are questions about carcinogens that can result from charring. Sorry, but if you know how to control your fire, there’s no excuse for burned food.

So what’s the remaining objection from my gas-grilling friends? Ah, yes: Time.

That’s where I really stop understanding the gas grillers. This notion that charcoal is more trouble stems from a simple lack of experience.

Forget lighter fluid, people. Let me introduce you to a charcoal chimney. As a means of creating food, it’s beautiful in its simplicity: Just a round metal can with a grid in the bottom, a heat-proof handle and holes punched around the side.

You start with exactly three half sheets of newspaper. (Only newspaper will do, so you have another reason to keep my profession alive.)

Crumple the paper and stuff it into the bottom of the chimney. Pour in charcoal: Hardwood is nice, although its heat is less predictable. For my money, good ol’ Kingsford is always reliable.

Light the newspaper. Set a timer for 20 minutes.

Yes, it takes 20 minutes. But those are a valuable 20 minutes.

That’s when you get meat out of the refrigerator to take the chill off before you grill it. That’s when you chop up salad ingredients, scrub ears of corn or mix up barbecue sauce.

Twenty minutes. It ticks by before you know it. Pour out your now-lit coals. Use tongs to spread them out for a low fire, or keep them in a pile for a hot fire.

Stand over the grill and start cooking. And when your neighbor leans over the fence to ask what smells so good, you’ll know the truth:

He’s probably cooking with gas.