Mastering The Art Of Urban Grilling
by John Ore
New York City has a 24-hour-subway system, gay marriage and David Chang. What we don’t have are rolling suburban lawns on which to accommodate Charbroil Offset Smokers when we want to char the hell out of some animal flesh. With Labor Day fast approaching, 4th floor walkups and a lust for a perfectly grilled ribeye will soon collide, and an urban grillmaster will have to adapt. Here’s how (with bonus Beer Can Chicken recipe)!
Grilling in New York City requires access to serviceable outdoor space. I don’t care if it’s a roof deck on the UWS, a fire escape on the LES, a patch of grass in Prospect Park or a sidewalk in Canarsie. If it’s not combustible or patrolled by cops, use it. If you don’t have access to outdoor space, start sleeping with someone who does. If you have a fire escape, get comfortable with carrying loads of food through your bedroom. Brooklyn may be considered twee by some, but at least we can grill outdoors in our Olmsted-designed park. And what’s more New York than an extended family celebrating a Quinceañera, playing dominoes and grilling al fresco near the bandshell?
OK, you’ve secured a venue. With a few modest tools, you too can be a Patio Daddy-O and still catch Massive Attack at Terminal 5 in the same day.
You’re going to need:
A charcoal grill. This isn’t one of those boring philosophical arguments that guys get into about the “purity” of grilling or whether gas provides a more even heat or anything like that: it’s a given that gas grilling is lame. This is about convenience. Gas grills are huge and unwieldy, and propane is hard to get in NYC. Also, it’s illegal: “Standard ‘backyard-type’ propane barbecues (using 20 pound LPG containers) are not allowed on balconies, roof decks, rear yards and courtyards of apartment buildings and other multiple dwellings.”
2. Hardwood charcoal. Sure, if you hate yourself, go ahead and use self-starting charcoal, soaked in so many chemicals that it burns faster than a spliff at Lollapalooza. Lighter fluid? Just give up and order Domino’s or something. Natural lump hardwood charcoal like Wicked Good Charcoal’s emasculatingly named Weekend Warrior blend burns hotter, cleaner and longer. As a bonus, you can reuse it: just snuff your fire out when you’re done grilling by closing all of the vents on your grill. Deprived of abundant oxygen, hardwood charcoal will just go out and you can reuse it later. Who knew that belching smoke into the sky could be so green?
3. A chimney, the New York Times and a grill brush. With no fancy accelerants to get the charcoal going (and make your food taste like Raid), you’ll need a chimney and some newspaper. Just add a Bic lighter. When the coals start to glow, you’re in business. Super easy.
Oh, and do everyone a favor and have ready access to a spigot or hose or fire extinguisher. Be an adult.
A common misconception is that grilling is the sole province of carnivores/Paleo Dieters. Not true! Granted, for me, meat is as essential to grilling as fire (Meat-Loving Exhibit A). But if you’re a vegetarian (which, why?), there are plenty of awesome things to grill.
There’s nothing like grilling sweet corn in its husk, or sugar peas and shallots with some olive oil, salt and pepper in a grill tray. Make some polenta and finish it on the grill with robiola; throw Japanese eggplant on with red onions; char some scallions that you then toss with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Asparagus! Haricots verts! Red and yellow peppers! New potatoes! Portobello mushrooms! Meat is incomplete without these simple grilled accompaniments.
Grilling is like adding butter: it makes just about anything taste better. However, you need to start with good ingredients. Don’t bother inviting people over to hang out on your rooftop if you’re going to slap frozen Costco beef pucks on the grill and call them burgers. You live in New York! You’ve got Staubitz Market and Fairway and Union Market and Whole Foods and the Food Co-op and greenmarkets as well as the occasional bodega with D’Artagnan products. Use them!
Once you decide what you’re throwing on the grill, let’s talk about how long they should stay on there. What are you preparing, and how long do you have? A few bone-in ribeye steaks? A couple of minutes over direct heat. Two racks of baby backs? Maybe an hour and a half on indirect heat. Plan accordingly so that you don’t have to struggle to adjust the fire or reallocate finite space on the grill. Asparagus is only gonna take 5 minutes over direct heat, so save it for the end when the tagliata of bone-in ribeye is resting. You do know how to rest meat, don’t you? The greatest sin — Garden of Eden expulsion-worthy — is overcooking meat on the grill. So remember to cook just shy of your desired temperature, remove it from heat and let it rest, tented under tin foil, for at least ten minutes. The internal heat will finish the cooking, and you’ll retain more of the flavorful juices. You can always throw something that’s a little too red in the center for your tastes back on the fire. But like the old joke about light bulbs and pregnant ladies, you can’t unscrew an overdone flank steak.
Direct v. indirect heat also has implications beyond how you prefer to prepare the food. Direct grilling throws off a lot of smoke, unlike indirect grilling. So, if you have a neighbor who has an itchy trigger finger for dialing FDNY, you might opt for indirect (and more discreet) grilling. Because there’s nothing more depressing than dousing a Weber Kettle with the champagne bucket on a W 70th St. rooftop with the FDNY looking on. Trust me.
RECIPE: BEER CAN CHICKEN
A simple recipe for those of you looking to take the training wheels off. Now, normally, I feel like grilling chicken is like kissing your sister, or scoring an empty net goal. But Beer Can Chicken combines simplicity and beer, and the result is pretty hard to beat. Off we go!
Procure yourself a nice-sized Murray’s Chicken. Rinse the bird, get rid of the gnarly stuff in the cavity and rub it down with olive oil. Select your favorite dry rub (this stuff is my favorite, because I’m juvenile and immature), and liberally season your fowl inside and out.
Got a can of beer? Of course you do, hipster. Open a 12 oz. can of beer, and drink about ¼ of it. STOP! Jeez, OK, go get another beer, and this time stop after you drink a few sips. Pour a couple tablespoons of your rub into the beer can, reminding yourself that this is the only acceptable reason to ruin a perfectly good beer. Ask the chicken to lie back and think of England, and gently shove the seasoned beer can up the cavity, balancing the bird on the upright can. Feel free to have the chicken do a little jig with its legs at this point.
Get a hot fire going in your grill, reserving a space in the center of your coals for a foil pan with some water in it. You can also throw some aromatics in that pan, from sliced apples to sprigs of rosemary. Balance the chicken on your grill, using the base of the protruding beer can and the chicken’s legs to create a macabre tripod. Cover and cook for at least 45 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced. If the skin starts charring too much, adjust your vents and tent the chicken with some tin foil. The steaming beer in the can will help cook the chicken from the inside as well as keep it moist and juicy.
Serve that beast with some grilled veggies or roasted potatoes. Tear apart and devour with your hands. Be sure to remove the can first.
John Ore knows that fire is good, yes. Fire is our friend, yes.