When barbecues attack: Memorial Day disasters to avoid

If you’ve ever barbecued, odds are you’ve experienced one of the following: eyebrow/hair singing; lighter fluid Molotov cocktail; medium-rare chicken. Don’t feel bad. The folks at Eater National have compiled a highly entertaining (but flame-retardant) series of video clips entitled, “You’re Grilling That Wrong: The Ten Best Barbecue Disaster Videos” from across the country.

Have a safe, happy Memorial Day weekend!

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

Aah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.

4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).

6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.

If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Gadlinks for Monday 9.7.09

Welcome to a special Labor Day edition of Gadlinks! For me, this holiday is all about celebrating the end of summer with family and friends — and eating a lot of good food. Check out these travel reads to find out what other cool Labor Day haps are going on around the world.

´Til tomorrow, have a great Labor Day evening!

More Gadlinks here.

Roadside Barbecue: St. Martin Style

I’m a Southern gal through and through, and one thing we country folks know is our barbecue. For us, a platter of grilled ribs or chicken is our sole reason to exist. We can’t live without it, and we take great pride in executing our seasoned meats with our own unique culinary perfection. Whether you’re talking pulled pork doused in a piquant cider vinegar sauce or baby back ribs slow-roasted and bathed in thickly sweet molasses, brown sugar and ketchup, one thing is for sure, if there’s smoke, you can probably find me waiting patiently nearby with a big ‘ole stack of napkins.

So, when I visited St. Martin’s famous Village of Grand Case, which is universally known as “the culinary capital of the Caribbean”, I was prepared for an onslaught of mouth-watering dining choices, and that’s exactly what I got. While Grand Case is most famous for the many gourmand-friendly restaurants that line the charming, narrow streets of town (think foie gras and lobster tasting menus paired with fine French wines), it was the locally run outdoor barbecues or “lolos”, with their sweet, smoky aromas billowing from makeshift metal grills that had me at hello.

And, I mean literally at hello. After a rather stressful and lengthy travel day complete with a four hour delay in Philly via US Airways my husband and I checked into the the Grand Case Beach Club. Within minutes, starving and thirsty, we were back out the door, making the short walk into town when we were overcome with the fragrance of smoked meat. “Oh God,” I said, “I smell barbecue,” as we rounded the corner. And, there they were under a canopy of smoke– a cluster of outdoor eateries merely steps from the beach serving grilled meats, seafood and plenty of cold beer. We had arrived.

Each of these individual establishments boasted its own whimsical name such as “Talk of the Town” and “Sky’s the Limit”, and they were all packed to the gills with a mixture of locals and tourists noshing on oversized plates of barbecue chicken, ribs, whole fried fish, and grilled Caribbean lobster accented with sides of rice of peas, plantains and fried Johnny Cakes (a type of deep fried dough with just a hint of sweetness). The atmosphere was convivial and conversational as diners ate casually at picnic tables complete with plastic cups and plates. Waves lapped the nearby beach while Bob Marley tunes echoed from somewhere in the distance.
We started our evening at “Sky’s the Limit” following the age-old travel rule of hitting the restaurant boasting the largest crowd. It was not to disappoint. After being seated at our picnic table, one of the owners, a very pregnant young lady, handed us two plastic-coated menus with the phrase, “€ 1 to $ 1” emblazoned at the top, meaning they do one dollar to one euro equally, something vacationers should look for when traveling to French St. Martin, since while both dollars and euros are accepted widely, their conversion rates can vary.

Menu choices were straight and to the point, and boasted a la carte items described simply as “grilled chicken leg” and “Creole conch”. Combo platters abounded, which at Sky’s the Limit, came with a ginormous serving of six different sides: potato salad, mac and cheese, peas and rice, cole slaw, plantains and spaghetti (which seemed an odd pairing at first, but miraculously managed to complement the meal perfectly). Not being able to decide from the extensive menu, I had to default to the experts and ask our server what her favorite dish was, “Oh, you must try the garlic shrimp” she offered with a bona fide smile.

A couple of ice-cold Presidente beers later (which go for a whopping $1 each), my immensely-sized shrimp platter, which was more suited for a competitive eater, arrived along with hubby’s grilled rib platter. The price point for all this food? Twelve dollars and nine dollars, respectively.

The shrimp were expertly cooked and redolent with garlic and spice. A couple extra dashes of hot sauce sealed their perfection. Hubby’s ribs were all they were cracked up to be– tender and fall-off-the-bone. Interestingly, the ribs came sans barbecue sauce (as most of the barbecue items do) in favor of a simple marinade and rub, which tasted scarcely of citrus and cumin. An array of sauces are offered on each table for diners to add at will.

As I wiped my face and hands, I glanced over at the grill, which was being manned by a woman, who was clearly at home overseeing her fire. It was then I noticed that all of the grills, many that were fashioned out of oil barrels cut in half, were being overseen by women. In fact, out of all six lolos (which refers to the grill itself and not the restaurant by the way) every single grill master was a woman– one who spends each day and night on her feet, sweating over hot coals to churn out some of the best barbecue this Southern girl has ever tasted. It was an odd yet beautiful sight to see these ladies flipping slabs of meat and fish as well as any male pitmaster south of the Mason Dixon line.

Next day at lunch, we were back at the lolos for an afternoon of $1 Caribs,and to this time, sample some local seafood. Lunch began with boudin blanc made with fresh conch, a definite nod to the French influences that abound in the area. Next up, was a whole grilled snapper topped with pickled onions and peppers served with a mound of dirty rice and peas (kidney beans). Hubby had the grilled chicken platter, which like the ribs was flawlessly tender and juicy.

As we sipped our beers while watching a handful of local children jumping off a nearby pier into the crystalline waters of Grand Case Bay, I couldn’t help but think how at home I felt. Perhaps it was the familiar smoke billowing from the grills that reminded me of down-home pig pickin’s and barbecue’s back in my native Virginia or maybe it was the way our host beamed with familial pride as she moved back and forth from our table to the grill, serving as both waitress and master chef. Whatever it was, it felt like home, and set the tone for the remainder of our experience in St. Martin, a small yet mighty island on the Caribbean culinary map.

Stay tuned for St. Martin deliciousness….


How to host a multi-cultural Labor Day barbecue

Labor Day is a quintessential American holiday. It’s a day to honor the workers, spend time with friends and family, and traditionally, to enjoy one last blow-out backyard barbecue before the cold weather sets in. Burgers, beers, and the all-American apple pie may be the staples, but since America is such a melting pot, why not honor that with a more international array of food and drink? Whether your ancestors arrived in America hundreds of years ago, or just within the last decade, showcase your heritage and the cultures of your closest friends by serving up some traditional cuisines from around the world. It doesn’t have to be a big hassle, you can make it as simple or complex as you like. Here are a few ideas for an international-themed Labor Day barbecue.

Host an International Happy Hour
Spicing up your drink offerings is the easiest way to add more international variety to your party. Nearly every country brews its own beer and, aside from the obvious Dos Equis from Mexico and Heineken from The Netherlands, it’s easy to find Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic), Quilmes (Argentina) and even Tsingtao (China) beer at most local stores. Wine is an easy option too. We all know the major players like Italy and France, but Hungary, Chile, South Africa, Croatia, and many other countries also produce wine. If you plan on serving liquor, set up a signature drinks station. Allow guests to mix their own Brazilian Caipirinhas, Peruvian Pisco Sours, or Italian Spritzs.

Dress Up Your Burgers and Hot Dogs
If you wouldn’t dare not serve burgers at your barbecue, you can still fancy them up with some toppings that reflect international cuisines. Add guacamole or cotija cheese to Mexican burgers, Brie cheese and fried shallots for French flair, or Feta cheese and spinach on Greek lamb burgers. You can also swap hot dogs for meats from various regions – go with spicy Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst with sauerkraut or Turkish doner in pita with yogurt sauce. Kebabs also work well. Try pork glazed with Chinese hoisin, or chicken in an Indian tikka masala sauce, skewered with appropriate veggies. Apply the same rules to your side dishes. Share the workload with friends by asking them to bring dishes that represent their heritage to serve on the side.

Don’t Forget Dessert
Dessert is another area where it’s easy to get creative while still offering a delicious end to the meal. It’s also okay to “cheat” a bit here, and buy some of the ingredients pre-made from the grocery store. Bake (or buy) some Greek baklava, serve French crepes topped with ice cream, Italian tiramisu, or Mexican tres leches cake.

Obviously, these are just a few of the options available. Check websites like All Recipes, consult with family or friends, or make your favorite handed-down-through-generations recipe. And if you have a great recipe you’re willing to share, please post it in the comments.