Propane woes? Dry burgers? Andrew Coppolino releases his summer cooking hacks
As warmer summer weather heads into Waterloo region, it's time for some cooler outdoor cookery and the festivities that go along with it when the kitchen moves to the backyard.
The transition to gas grill, charcoal or open flame cooking is cooler than firing up the oven indoors, but it can be a little less convenient. With a few outdoor cooking hacks you can keep things simple, delicious and probably a lot more fun.
First off, if you're using propane, make sure the tank is full.
A standard tank burns for between 15 to 20 hours, but how do you tell how full it is if there is no tank gauge?
Plan ahead and fill the tank if you can. If you can't, disconnect the tank from the barbecue and pour some warm water down the side of the tank. Where the tank is cold to the touch, there's propane.
Take advantage of the fact that a standard gas barbecue, and even a charcoal barbecue, can be a multi-function, multi-technique cooking instrument — all it takes is mastering direct and indirect heat.
Get the barbecue as hot as you can, then turn off one side. You can put a pot of food on the cool side, adjust the temperature to low, close the lid and you now have a slow cooker.
Next, get a small aluminum tray (or make a foil pouch), fill it with wood chips soaked in water for 30 minutes, cover with tin foil and punch some holes. Add a second tray of water and you have a make-shift smoker to cook indirectly and with low-and-slow moist heat.
Finally, adding a course or two of bricks in an inverted "U" shape on your barbecue grill, along with using a super-hot pizza stone, creates a mock-convection oven for pizza — or another meal. Adding a pizza steel can help maintain hot temperatures too.
Note that if you are using charcoal briquettes, you may be able to save partially ashed ones for another time: source out a small steel garbage can with a securable lid to store the coals.You need a fire-resistant receptacle, though. A plastic bucket and hot embers will combine for a nasty release of volatile organic compounds.
In the absence of newspaper to start your charcoal barbecue, use torn up egg cartons in the chimney starter.
When it comes to what to cook, you can go simple or complex: there's a hack for that.
Elevate the humble hot dog
Take the humble "tube steak" hot dog and give it a street-vendor stylizing.
Insert a skewer through the length of the hot dog and cut it on an angle while simultaneously rolling the dog (alternatively, you can cut the hot dog many times along its length).
Remove the skewer and you've got a wild wiener when it hits the hot grill.
Not only is it funky and aesthetically pleasing, but the increased surface area means quicker cooking and more crispy goodness on the outside.
Avoiding dry burgers
Burgers can get dry if you want to cook them to medium.
Studding your hand-made burger with butter or mayonnaise will help keep them moist and add a lot of rich flavour.
A little trickier to cook — but delicious when done properly — is a pork tenderloin. The cut doesn't have a lot of fat, and it has a funny shape with thinner ends that dry out before the rest is cooked.
One solution is to brine or marinate the tenderloin, but consider this hack: cut it into small chunks, marinate it in your choice of ingredients and then skewer it to cook on the barbecue. Remember to leave some space between the chunks to speed up cooking and add, again, increased golden-brown tastiness.
A more complex one-pot meal that is absolutely tremendous cooked on a wood-fire is paella, the classic rice dish of Valencia on Spain's southeast coast. You can use the gas barbecue and the above wet-wood chips to duplicate the smokiness.
Layer a shallow roasting pan with seared chicken thighs, onion, garlic, red peppers, paprika and tomato paste. Add a few cups of Arborio rice and smooth it out, before pouring in a few cups of chicken broth.
Tuck in some shrimp, clams, chorizo sausage and saffron. Cover and let it simmer for 20 minutes, add some frozen green peas and continue to cook 20 minutes. Don't stir the paella too much: you'll want that crust — the crispy "socarrat" — to form on the bottom. It's an outdoor hack that will surely win you friends and influence neighbours.