Fire up the grill
As I cleaned my grill in preparation for regular summer use, I started thinking about the history of backyard grills and grilling in general.
Believe it or not, some Chicago back yards are the epicenter for the creation of backyard barbecue grills; not Texas, or Georgia or even North Carolina. Two of the grills most of us use today were invented in Chicago’s suburbs.
The 1950s were a hotbed for grilling. In 1952, George Stephen invented what we now know as the Weber kettle grill by taking half of a marine buoy, welding three legs on the bottom, opening up vents underneath and pounded-out a vented, domed cover (at that time, Stephen was a welder for the Weber Company Metal Works). The story goes that his neighbors called it a "sputnik" after Russia's first space ship.
Stephen's neighbors may have laughed at him then, but not long after he bought the company for which he worked so Stephen's charcoal grilling "sputniks" could be cranked out by the thousands. One of them sits on my deck today.
The first gas grill was also invented in the early 1950s, again, in the Chicago area. Today's ubiquitous propane tank, which had originally been used exclusively by plumbers to fuel blow torches, was soon parked under grill carts to get lava rocks glowing.
In the subsequent decades we became a nation of outdoor cooks. Today, slightly more than two-thirds of all grillers use gas; the remainder use charcoal. Surprisingly, one in five owns both, as I did for a while.
Sure, a gas grill boasts easy startup, but a gas grill doesn't impart the flavor profile I find the most appealing. To get the flavor I want I choose hardwood charcoal. Pieces of charred oak burn cleaner and hotter than briquettes. After grease from my gas grill's reservoir spilled onto my wood deck; leaving a big grease mark, I converted to charcoal exclusively.
I also don't start charcoal with lighter fluid. I used to use an electric starter, but found, over time, that a chimney starter works best; getting a large charcoal load up to temperature in a fairly short time using just a few newspaper sheets.
I love grilling for its flavor-boosting and fat-cutting properties. Grilling burgers always produces lower fat, better tasting results than stovetop pan-searing. Over the years I've learned to leave the shells on shrimp and the skin on turkey and chicken to ensure moist results.
I've also learned that a griller's most important safety tool is a fire extinguisher. They're reasonably priced, easy to use and if you ever need one, you'll be grateful you have it.
My other must-have tool is a long-handled digital thermometer. No more serving hockey-puck-like burgers or rare chicken when you have one of these on hand.
Try this recipe: Once I have my charcoal grill fired up, I always cook more meat than I immediately need. Recently, I added leftover grilled chicken sausage to a cheesy pasta dish. Grilled chicken or pork also would be dandy, too.
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Grilled Sausage Mac with Three Cheeses
9 ounces macaroni or other tubular pasta (ditalini or cavatappi work well, too)
2 teaspoons salt
12 ounces all-natural, smoked chicken sausage (I like garlic), grilled and chilled
1 cup skim milk
1 tablespoon all-purpose, unbleached wheat flour
8 slices (3/4 ounce each) American pasteurized process cheese product (Trader Joe's or Whole Foods organic preferred)
2 ounces grated, reduced-fat cheddar cheese
1/2 cup fat-free cottage cheese
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
Fresh ground black pepper
Place a large saucepan two-thirds filled with cold water over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir in salt, add macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain but do not rinse.
While the macaroni cooks, slice grilled sausage links crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds. Set aside.
Whisk the flour into the milk. Place the now empty saucepan back over medium heat and add the milk mixture. Add cheese slices, grated cheddar and cottage cheese to the milk mixture and stir together until the cheese begins to melt and steam begins to rise off the mixture. Stir in drained macaroni, sausage and peas; continue stirring frequently until the sauce is smooth and coats the macaroni and the peas are hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Serves six.
Cook's note: This is higher in sodium than I like due to the cheese and sausage. Mindful monitoring of other meals through the day will help keep your sodium in check.
Nutrition values per serving: 406 calories (33 percent from fat), 14.9 g fat (6.4 g saturated), 41.6 g carbohydrates, 1.6 g fiber, 25 g protein, 61 mg cholesterol, 807 mg sodium.
Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at firstname.lastname@example.org.