Ramping Up

I love my grill. I have a sick, devotional attachment to this particular piece of cooking equipment. If it’s not raining or snowing, I’m grilling, and truth be told, the rain doesn’t bother me all that much. Whether its delicate scallops on skewers or 6-hour slow cooked smoked pork butt, that grill has helped me produce some of the best food I’ve ever cooked. So, when one of my co-workers suggested I get a grilling lesson from a professional food writer, you can imagine how geeked up I was.

The public radio station that I work for is doing a week-long editorial series on local food and as part of this series, our midday show Word of Mouth thought it would be fun to get grilling. Our host Virginia Prescott just happens to know Kathy Gunst, famous cookbook writer, foodie extraordinaire and resident of S. Berwick, Maine, which is only about 45 minutes away. She just co-authored a new cookbook on grilling for Stonewall Kitchen and she was happy to accommodate our request. When we spoke on the phone, I knew this was going to be a great experience. She promised to pick up some locally raised pork and said she’d see if she could find some ramps. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with ramps, they are a member of the onion family and sort of resemble baby leeks or bulbous scallions. They have a very strong oniony aroma with garlicky undertones and their greens are thin and broad. They are very difficult to find, but Kathy being Kathy, she assured me she had a source.

Over the weekend, I prepped. I cleaned my grill with great care, making sure to scrape off all the crud from the tops and bottoms of the grates. I took out the charcoal bin and scooped all the greasy goop out of the bottom. That grill was clean and happy and ready to rock. And I was excited about learning some new techniques and picking up some new grilling tips from my new foodie friend.

Kathy cleans the ramps

Kathy arrived right on time and smelling the fire, went straight to the deck where I’d already started the coals. I opened the back door and there she was, ready for our lesson, goodie bag in hand. We exchanged some pleasantries and started our food prep. Kathy had four pork chops that she’d been brining, her brine augmented by cinnamon stick and bay leaf. She had the ramps, which she’d picked herself and warned me that if she told me where she’d gotten them, she’d have to kill me. And she had some rhubarb, which grows like a weed in these parts. Her plan was simple and elegant, pork chops with grilled ramps and grilled rhubarb. Grilling rhubarb was an experiment for Kathy, but her knowledgeable pallet and excellent culinary sensibility assured me that this experiment would work brilliantly.

Our Word of Mouth producer Avishay Artsy joined us on the deck with his recording equipment, I dumped the coals out of the chimney and as we waited for the grill to heat up, I conducted a brief interview with Kathy. I asked her to talk about the classic question of charcoal versus gas. Before beginning this new cookbook, she was a charcoal purist like me. But writing this book meant she’d need to test many recipes using both gas and charcoal. She discovered that the convenience and ease of the gas grill meant she could be cooking in a matter of minutes. Charcoal, while imparting more flavor and smokiness to the food, takes planning and time. According to Kathy, both methods should have a solid place in our cooking repertoire.

I also picked up some wonderful tips from Kathy. She recommends keeping a spray bottle of water near the grill to extinguish any fatty flare-ups that occur during the cooking process. She kept her preparation very simple, olive oil, salt and pepper, preferring to allow the flavor of the foods take center stage. She talked about throwing all kinds of stuff on the grill, like strawberries and even cheese. As she talked, my mind began to open to the possibilities.

Kathy and Avishay, making radio

Then we stepped up to the plate. She started with the pork chops and placed them on the hottest part of the grill. She cautioned to just leave them alone and not move them for at least 7 minutes, allowing them to cook on one side before disturbing them. When she turned them, they were beautifully browned and had the distinct marks of perfectly grilled meat. Next came the ramps, which she placed in the grill basket and dabbed with olive oil, salt and pepper. After a few minutes, she checked the internal temperature of the chops and we talked about how to tell when meat is done. When you cut into or pierce a piece of cooking meat, the juices are lost and the meat immediately begins to dry out. The small, thin thermometer she used is the perfect solution, making sure the internal temperature is right without breaking the muscle structure of the meat. She moved the chops off the flame and moved the ramps closer so they could char. When fully grilled, their flavor was bold and earthy and their greens were crispy and delicate. If a food item could be described as spectacular, these ramps fit the bill.

Next, Kathy turned her attention to the rhubarb, which she’d been marinating in sugar. Rhubarb is very tart and fibrous, but it practically melts when it’s cooked. She placed rather large chunks of rhubarb in the grill basket and set it over the coals. In about 10 minutes, it was soft and she placed it on the plate alongside the chops. The flavor combination was superb, the tartness of the rhubarb cutting through the fatty pork. And the pork was juicy and rich with a lovely scent of cinnamon from the brine. All in all, it was completely delicious and we relaxed on the deck while enjoying Kathy’s fine work, savoring the cool breeze of a mild spring afternoon.

Grilling is more than a cooking method, more than just throwing food on an open flame. Grilling is a primal activity. It’s a state of mind. The allure of the grill is not only the building of flavors and the chemistry of the food as it reacts to smoke and fire. Grilling brings us closer to nature, it gets us out of the kitchen and into the fresh air and gives us a different perspective on food and eating. Check out Kathy’s book “Stonewall Kitchen Grilling” for some excellent recipes, techniques and tips.

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