As the weather starts to warm up and the last vestiges of Houston’s bitter winter dissipate, many of us have thoughts that drift to the fun of our outdoor grills, what to cook on them and, maybe most importantly, what to drink with the ensuing fruits of our heated labor. Everyone has their favorite backyard drinking and grilling combinations, and what follows are some of mine.
First, I’d like to offer a few basic grilling tips. The main thing that differentiates grilling from other genres of heat application is grill marks. It is the grill marks that give grilled foods their flavor, look and texture and lets your guests know that dinner wasn’t poached. The way to insure good, bold grill marks is to have a very hot, clean grill and to have the food very dry with a thin coating of oil. Preheat your grill and rub it with a wire brush. Then, rub the clean, hot grates with a lightly oiled towel and pat the food dry with paper towels. Lightly brush the food with oil and place it on the grill. Leave it there until you have nice, chestnut brown marks. Obviously, there is room for refinement, but that really is the gist of successful grilling.
Shellfish is always a treat, and a nice light one at that. Shrimp can be peeled, skewered, grilled and served with Mango Chutney, or just a good bottled BBQ sauce. Pilsner Urquell is a great beer with seafood. Although it has a healthy malt fullness, its distinguishing attributes of floweriness and dry finish come from its hops. It’s been said that Pilsner Urquell is to many so-called “pilsners” what a real Chablis (from Burgundy, in France) is to jug chablis. A fun summertime wine for seafood is a good Italian Pinot Grigio. Although a lot of these wines will remind you of chilled tap water, one that is very nice is Villa Frattina Pinot Grigio, 2000 ($12). It is clean and minerally on the nose, with just a little lanolin. On the palate, the minerals continue, are joined with some pleasant, barely ripe yellow plum flavors, and are then neatly wrapped up with a refreshing, acid finish. This wine is also great with Steamed Crab Fingers and Tarragon-Mustard Mayonnaise (just add some Fallot Tarragon Dijon Mustard to Mayonnaise). Although this isn’t grilled, it makes for a welcomed contrast, is easy, and a real crowd pleaser.
Plain grilled chicken is one of the all time great summertime comfort foods. Salt the chicken pieces liberally with Kosher Salt, use a slightly lower grill temperature so that the chicken cooks through before the outside burns. Serve with Potato Salad, Cole Slaw and Corn on the Cob, and realize that meals just don’t really get any better. The Jean-Marc Burgaud Morgon, 2000 ($15) is the perfect Grilled Chicken wine. A Morgon is one of the biggest Beaujolais. Although it is made from the Gamay grape like Beaujolais Nouveau, a Morgon will have more color, body, flavor and tannins than a Nouveau. The Burgaud Morgon has black cherries on the nose, with enough unripe red fruit and mild tannins on the palate to contrast with the richness of the chicken, but still bring out its sweetness. It’s best served a little chilled.
A wine that works beautifully to bring out the earthy, charred richness of grilled beef, be it ground chuck or Porterhouse, is Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva, 1997 ($16). I especially like Riojas in casual, outdoor, summertime situations because, although they are interesting, concentrated and food-friendly, they’re light enough to never get oppressively weighty or significant. In drinking a Rioja at a BBQ, you’ll never make the same kind of mistake as listening to Brahms while watching Beach Blanket Bingo. The Marques De Riscal has ripe, fresh, red fruit with a light dose of cedar on the nose, then plenty of concentrated fruit balanced with crisp acidity and no sign of flab. A good friend of mine serves this wine, along with several others, with her Paella. Although not grilling per se, she cooks, over an open charcoal fire in a Paella pan, beef, pork, mussels, shrimp and fish, then proceeds to make (still over an open charcoal fire!) perfect Risotto. It’s a real culinary tour de force, and an awful lot of fun to watch and eat.
If you prefer drinking beer with your grilled beef instead of wine, try Saint Arnold Brown Ale. Its full, round, malty and toasty, with a clean, pleasantly bitter finish. It brings out all the great charred flavors in the food, mitigates any excessive heat from overly aggressive sauces, and cleans your palate in anticipation of the next bite. All that, plus it’s brewed locally.
When, for whatever reason, wine or beer is not sufficient, try serving the world’s best Margaritas. They go with everything. I use one part fresh squeezed lime juice, two parts Cointreau, and three parts silver or reposado Tequila. Depending on your budget, Patron Silver or Sauza Hornitos works great. Mix the ingredients (it’s easy to make it by the pitcher full), then taste for balance and adjust. Too flabby? Add a little lime juice. Not sweet enough? Add Cointreau. Tart and sweet enough, but no character? Add Tequila. When you’re happy with the flavor, pour over ice into a glass with a salted rim (use good salt). Be careful, they’re very potent.