Every week, Express-News Taste writer Paul Stephen cooks several recipes for his job — often creating his own in the process. Cooking with Paul chronicles what he learned each week from that process. Enjoy!
I like to fire up the grill as much as the next person, and with Memorial Day fast approaching I did just that for this week’s Taste centerpiece featuring veggie-centric meals cooked over hot coals.
While I know my way around an open fire, I rarely find myself cooking that way for the Taste section. I mean, with my colleague and expert barbecutioner Chuck Blount manning the pits for his regular Chuck’s Food Shack column, someone has to keep the indoor kitchen running.
So on the few occasions where I do get to cook outside while on the clock, I like to learn new tricks along the way. I picked up two that will be part of my repertoire moving forward.
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The first involves spearing meat on sticks — perhaps the oldest form of open-fire cookery. Prehistoric evidence dating to the Lower Paleolithic Age shows meat was cooked on skewers at a 300,000-year-old site in present-day Germany.
I’m not generally a kebab guy, and prefer a slab of beef or pork over bite-size chunks most of the time. But I thought I’d give bamboo skewers a try for my Tex-Mex take on ratatouille with pieces of chicken thrown in for good measure. The first step in that recipe: soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes beforehand.
There’s a lot of conflicting information about why to do this. The general argument is that it prevents the skewers from burning, but that’s only marginally true. I still wound up with more than a few charred ends.
But one clear benefit came before the food hit the flame. Wet skewers are simply easier to work with. They hold their shape better, don’t splinter or split, and the extra moisture helps dense ingredients slide into place easier. Bonus tip: If you grill a lot of kebabs, you can soak the whole bag of skewers in advance and place them in a sealable bag in the freezer for later use as desired.
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My second takeaway came in the form of foil-wrapped parcels of sausage and potatoes. Often relegated to campfire cookery, this method of containing single servings in a tight bundle is perfect for making the most of your grill’s surface.
I do most of my outdoor cooking on a charcoal-fired Weber kettle grill. The design of the kettle means I’ll always have an outer perimeter on the grate that isn’t over a direct flame. It’s plenty hot, but it won’t sear as nicely. As someone who likes to let the fire kiss his steaks and burgers, that’s wasted space for the most part. Or was, anyway.
I was able to fit eight foil pouches in a circle around the outer edge, and they didn’t come even close to interfering with the chunky T-bone steaks I seared in the middle of the grate. When it comes to efficient use of fuel, those foil pouches let me prepare more food in less time with the same amount of coals.
Happy Memorial Day!
Paul Stephen is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Paul, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen