By: John Motoviloff
The backyard cookout is, without a doubt, one of America's pleasures. And any Sconnie worth his seasoned salt truly appreciates a warm summer evening spent outside with buddies and brew. Now, there's nothing wrong with the typical 1950s menu that this brings to mind: burgers and brats on the grill, a big Coleman cooler full of Old Style, baked beans on the side, all served up on a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. But, thanks to cooking shows catering to every palette and reams of recipes available at the click of a mouse, you can "kick it up a notch" and turn your Badger state barbeque into a South American churrascaría with very little effort
Keep It Cool
Before delving into menu choices, a word about food approach is in order. What makes a truly memorable Grill Night? Well, for starters, Wisconsinites have a limited season to work with—let's say Memorial Day to Labor Day. So you want to get the most out of each gathering. This means keeping food and drink offerings lively. The last thing you want on Grill Night is sleepy, starched-out guests ready to turn in early.
Go for cool salads and avoid heavy starches like potatoes and corn. Chopped tomatoes and basil, strewn with mozzarella cheese and dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, are a great way to go. A twist on this is sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and dill, enhanced, if you wish, with crumbled feta cheese. Pico de gallo, with just enough jalapeño peppers to keep things interesting, works well, as does the famous Latin American cilantro dip called chimichurri. Choose a few salads, add some crusty bread (a loaf for every four guests), and your sides are done in style, with minimum work and maximum cool.
Let's face it. You can't hold a cookout in Wisconsin without beer. An easy-drinking Capitol Pilsner or Capitol Amber does a good job slaking the thirst, as will a shandy or New Glarus Spotted Cow with a slice of orange. Avoid heavy ales and stouts. And whatever brew you serve, offer it up from a communal cooler packed with ice. Fridge beer is just never cold enough in summer, and nothing kills the mood like warm beer. Sangria or a well-chilled rosé are my picks for wine, though you might want to keep a bottle of Malbec or Tempranillo on hand for traditionalists. Mojitos, with their mixture of lime and mint, keep things Latin and lively. Putting on a pot of coffee will help rouse any dozers. And dessert need be nothing more than good, local vanilla ice cream like Sassy Cow.
And by all means, light the tiki torches and citronella candles. They add ambience and help keep the bugs away.
Meat, Meat and More Meat
Just as Wisconsin is blessed with a tradition of great breweries, so it also abounds with fine meats and butchers. Beef, pork, lamb, game, chicken, sausage—the choice might seem overwhelming. But it needn't be. An embarrassment of riches is a nice problem to have. And if we continue in the tradition of the churrasco—a South American mixed grill of meats—we see what a virtue variety really is. It's all on the table. There's something for every taste. So, the Grill Night menu might contain kielbasa and Italian sausage, a few ribeyes, a slab of salmon and some chops or country-style pork ribs.
If warm beer is a buzz killer, tough meat is a taste killer. Avoiding toughness means using juicy cuts and marinating. Over two decades of cooking fish and game, I've developed two go-to marinades (see opposite page). For red meat and salmon, I craft a teriyaki sauce from four parts soy sauce to one part canola oil, with garlic, black pepper, lemon juice and ginger added to taste. Put in some crushed chili peppers if you want heat. For white meats like chicken, pork or rabbit, I use a Spanish-style concoction made from four parts white wine to one part olive oil, with garlic, paprika, salt and Italian parsley added to taste. Let the meat marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least one hour—longer if the meat is on the bone. Do your marinating in a nonreactive vessel made of stoneware, stainless steel or food-grade plastic.
There are dozens of markets and grocery stores selling good, fresh meat; my favorites are Jenifer Street Market, Jim's Meat and Knoche's, all of which sell good fresh meats and have a number of cuts marinated and ready to grill. Commercial marinades, such as those made by Lawry's, are available in the supermarket.
Troy Campbell, who manages the meat counter at Jenifer Street Market, has another solution for tender meat. Buy Kobe beef—that is, beef from the Japanese Wagyu breed of cattle known for their flavor and tenderness. "The marbling in Kobe beef," Campbell notes, "relates to a prime cut, which leads to more flavor and tenderness." At $13.99 a pound, it isn't cheap. But Campbell now finds that the flavor of a regular steak just doesn't hold up when compared to Kobe.
With your meats of choice brought to room temperature, make sure the grill is ready to go—scraped clean and well oiled. Cook over hardwood-chunk coals that have just turned gray or over a gas grill that has preheated for five minutes. Scatter a handful of hardwood chips over the grill-burner for smokey flavor. Another option is the Royall pellet grill manufactured in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which combines the easy lighting of gas and the flavor of wood. Now, get ready for some quick, hot searing. Fish is done just as it begins to flake. Test meat for doneness using the four-finger method (feeling the skin just below the thumb on the hand used). With the thumb brought to the index finger, this skin feels like rare meat; with thumb to the middle finger, it feels like medium meat; and with thumb to pinkie, it feels like well-done meat.
Allow the meat to rest briefly. Cut the sausage into bite-sized chunks and slice the meats crosswise to the grain at a forty-five-degree angle. Serve the meat on a platter with a big-ass meat fork in the middle, surround it with side dishes, and get ready for some serious eating.
Gas vs. Charcoal: The Endless Debate
Team Gas: This bad boy has heat-at-the-click-of-a-button speed. No messing with lighter fluid or starter sticks here—just push start, give the flame a minute, and throw on the goods. Use the bottom grate for searing steaks, burgers and slabs of salmon. Try the top grate for low-heat jobs like beer-can chicken and pork shoulder. Don't forget that side burner for sautéing a mess of mushrooms. Miss the flavor of wood? Then sprinkle a few soaked chips over the flame.
Team Charcoal: Convenience is for sissies, Coal Man says. Give me glowing coals and I'll give you the chow of cowboys and cavemen. Hickory, mesquite, apple, chunk charcoal or briquettes—take your choice. Want moist? Put a pan of water on the grill. Want slow? Then give it the Ring of Fire—coals circling the slab of meat. Master the flame by working the damper on the grill cover. More air means more heat and fire. Choke it down for more smoke. Keep the air holes on bottom clear so your fire can flow freely.
Get Your Grill On
Gas: Whether you go with a $150 Char-Broil or $3,000 Viking, get a side burner and an off-the-heat cooking rack. A 24-inch grill works for a small group. Go with a 36-inch to feed a horde of hungry Badgers. Keep it scraped clean to prevent flare-ups.
Charcoal: You're looking for a grill here, not a pricey smoker. The kettle-shaped Weber One-Touch, $110, gets the job done old school. The Performer, $400—with gas ignition, a sturdier stand, work area, and warmer— is the next generation.
Wood Pellet: With the push-button ease of gas and hearty flavor of wood, pellet grills are new kids on the grilling block. Go local with Wisconsin- made Royall Pellet Grills, $799 to $1399—all big enough to hold a turkey or 30 juicy burgers.
Teriyaki Grilling Marinade
This works well for strong-flavored meats like beef, lamb and venison. It also works well for salmon and will work on chicken as well. The following recipe is enough for two pounds of meat of your choice.
1/2 cup soy sauce
4 tablespoons of canola oil
1/2 teaspoon of fresh-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, peeled and minced, or 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
2 dried chili peppers, crushed (optional)
Combine all ingredients and whisk together for 30 seconds. Leave to marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Drain meat of excess marinade before cooking.
I used this marinade, originally, on wild game like rabbit, grouse and pheasant, but it takes equally well to other white meats including chicken, turkey breast, and pork chops or loin. Paprika and optional allspice berries give the meat an attractive rosy color.
1 cup of white wine
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of allspice berries (optional)
1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
Combine all ingredients and allow meat to steep in it, refrigerated and covered, for at least an hour. If you are using meat on the bone, such as chicken thighs, allow at least two hours of marinating time.
John Motoviloff is a Madison-based writer and has a steady hand with a butcher's knife. He's the author of Wisconsin Wildfoods: 100 Recipes for Badger State Bounties.