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Firing Up - What is Grilling?

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
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© Provided by DKBooks

What is Grilling?

We love grilling, because it’s the most direct and straightforward of all cooking methods: You put some food over a fire and leave it there until it’s cooked. So grilling appeals to us on an almost instinctual level—after all, we humans have been doing it pretty much since we climbed down from the trees. But the other thing that draws us to grilling (in addition, of course, to the wonderful flavor it gives to food) is that, despite its simplicity, it is also intriguingly complex. Each live fire you build is a little bit different from any other one that ever existed. This means that you have to pay attention—you have to react with that particular fire and the particular food you are cooking. So the process involves not only the atavistic joy of playing with fire, but also the appeal of a game that’s just slightly different every time you play it. And it’s even more than that.

To fully plumb the nature of this technique, it makes sense to look at it from three points of view, taking the best from each along the way. To most Americans, for example, grilling is not just a way of cooking food, it’s a central part of a near-mythic social ritual known as the backyard cookout. This culinary rite forms an important part of the American self-image, and as such is characterized by what are thought of as prototypically American attributes: casualness, informality, equality, and a kind of genial, low-key camaraderie. To underline the carefree, democratic nature of the occasion, the grilling at cookouts has traditionally been performed by dads, who at other times have tended to treat cooking as a foreign realm of endeavor. From this American model, grillers can take what is perhaps the single most important aspect of the method: It’s just plain fun. But grilling has a long and distinguished history that far predates the US. It is, in fact, a highly respected, bona fide cooking technique with a pedigree supplied by no less than Auguste Escoffier, the 19th-century French master chef who codified culinary techniques as practiced in the West. In his seminal book, Ma Cuisine, Escoffier recognized grilling as “the remote starting point, the very genesis of our art.”

But what should go over the flames? Although this has changed over the last couple of decades, the American idea of grilling food traditionally ran to burgers, steaks, and hot dogs—the type of food that even a novice dad had a fair chance of getting right. Escoffier was more adventuresome, but leaned toward chops, steaks, and fish fillets draped in complex sauces. Fortunately, the cuisines of the hot-weather world contain a massive repertoire of imaginative grilled food. Even today, for a great many home cooks in these regions, cooking over live fire is neither a weekend ritual nor a professional technique—it’s simply the way they cook every day. And they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.

Here, then, grillers can find a whole new world of possibilities. Watching a fisherman grill freshly-caught sardines on a beach in southern Portugal, savoring skewers of grilled lamb in a side street in Istanbul or spicy shrimp in a market in Saigon, munching on a crisp, flame-marked pappadum in Bombay, or sitting down to a Middle Eastern meze with its grilled peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, you realize that the possibilities for grilled food are virtually endless.

And there you have it. By extracting the best points from three distinct approaches, the modern griller becomes multidimensional—relaxed and casual but technically expert and imaginative in menu choices. And, of course, you get to play with fire. So let’s get grilling.

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