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15 May, 2011

Cooookin in the Rain, I'm Cooking in the Rain

Warning, Objects in the grill-dome reflection appear fatter than they are.

Yeah, the title is stolen from a musical, even though I despise musicals in general. I do make an exception for Clockwork Orange, though.

Cooking out holds an almost completely opposite place in my esteem, as long as I am the cooker-man, and the few times I haven't enjoyed it can be blamed on inexplicably bad meat or unavailability of good wood. 

But not rain.

Which is good, living in Olympia, where fair weather grilling is not possible often enough to sate my hunger for smoky goodness. If I held off every time clouds threatened rain, or drizzle dropped, or outright downpours dampened the day, I'd be a sad shell of a man. If the Oxygen to H2O ratio is high enough to let flames get a hold of the wood, then I'm good to go.

Yeah, wood. I am not a modern American griller, weekend warrior with a thousand dollar gas grill or a humbler briquet bucket. I do not have a "Kiss the Cook" apron or feel the need to dress up in silly summery outfits. I have no fancy gear, and my grill was foraged on Large Trash Pick-up Day (prior to which, I had a little hobo set-up consisting of a few cinderblocks). But I am pretty particular about what I'll cook on.

Gas is an idiotic expense: somewhere far away somebody fracks the earth, refines the stuff, compresses and ships it, and charges me enough to make it grate on my homesteader soul, but not enough to really pay for the environmental damage. Besides: no flavor. 

And briquettes? Long ago when I used them, the lighter-fluid infusion bothered me to begin with, and the occasional appearance of nails and other foreign objects reminded me that yes, I was cooking something I would eat on a lozenge of ground up who-knows-what. I imagined the maker, a "legitimate businessman" (sarcasm implied, whether you want to take that as the mafia euphemism or just an indictment of capitalist worship of cheap raw materials) dumping old lumber covered in lead paint, bits of railroad ties, and all manner of toxic crap into the hopper.

A couple of times, I bought actual charcoal, the slow-burned nuggets of wood, crow-shiny chunks with fire enough left in them to cook. But again, my cheapskate DIY self just cannot abide the expense, even if I had the cash to spare. 

So I scavenge wood. In Hawai`i, I had a secret spot on Puowaina where kiawe (mesquite, more or less, to you gringos and chicanos) was there for the taking, and supplemented it sometimes with mango from the tree I'd trimmed. In Virginia, it was hickory from the back yard thinning. Here, it's alder, again from the back yard. I am on year three of the wood from a single big alder I took down, and now I know why the Indians would use the half-rotten, age-softened wood to smoke fish. The smoke is abundant and flavorful without being too acrid or overpowering. Saying so may mean that I cannot return to the south, but: it's better than hickory.

So out I go to find some windfall twigs and maybe some cedar splints to get the fireball rolling, adding on progressively larger pieces until the real chunks are going. All the while: running out front to pull some garlic and get it clean and diced, back to check the fire, in to flavor the fish and burgers, back out to check the fire and fiddle with it's air supply, in again to grab another beer, back out to spread the coals how I want them. Then bring on the food, and set to grilling. Often as not, I'll be talking with my sister, already fed and 3000 miles away, as the process unfolds. Nice long conversation, and the coals are ready. This is how I measure time; watches are for chumps.

The black dome not only lets me pull this off in the rain, but is an important tool in any weather. Opening and closing the vents below the fire bowl and atop the lid to regulate the air stream, sliding it askew or removing it entirely to let the oxygen river rage. The dome lets me be miserly with the heat, especially important when cooking something big, toward the end of the cycle as the coals are ashing out to nothing, and the food coasts in to done-ness. Beneath the grate, holding it off bottom-dom, are a half-dozen carefully chosen volcanic rocks that have soaked up heat during the conflagration, and radiate it back now. Thanks dad for teaching me the physics, and mahalo Hawaiians for teaching me how to choose rocks that won't explode.

Over the past couple weeks, we've had sunny days that demanded cooking out. Both times, rain has appeared, but was kind enough to let me get the blaze going before cutting loose. Dome on, I watched as the drops hit the black and vaporized instantly with a sizzle I could feel (if not really hear anymore), the lid never appearing wet, as in the photo above (see the little steamer?). As the fire stopped sticking out its tongues, as coals glowed softer, rain made shrinking circles of wet; I suppose I could calibrate evaporation time with temperature, but an intuitive sense is enough. By the time the dome has cooled enough that droplets have time to collect and rivulet down the sides, the food is done. Imprecise and variable according to conditions, but again, that's how I regard time: I want it to speed up and slow down, stripped the standardization that puts it in charge.

Because years from now I may forget, here is the menu as of late:
Burgers from local, organic, pastured beef (first ground beef in years, and it's retty good)
Steaks of local grass fed beef tenderloin (some people claim the leaner meat is harder to cook, and corn-fed fatty stuff is better, but people are lazy and stupid)
Burgers of mushroom, beans, garlic, and probably something else (wich I'd written it down, because the taste, texture, color and mouthfeel are better than any veggie burger I've ever eaten)
Sturgeon on a foil boat laden with olive oil, garlic scallions, and sea salt
New potatoes from the farmers market, same prep as the sturgeon

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