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A Guide to Grilling and Smoking

East Bay chefs share their secrets for putting together a great summer barbecue — with or without an actual grill.



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For those without a grill, a cast-iron skillet (or other heavy-bottomed pan) and a very hot oven (turned to its highest setting) can yield great results. Robles suggests heating up your skillet on the stovetop and searing the patty in some butter until a nice crust forms. Then, flip over the burger and roast it in the oven until it reaches your preferred level of doneness — "it won't take long," Robles said.

This would be as good a time as any to mention Delany's number-one tip for indoor grilling: "Take the battery out of the smoke alarm." To which I would add, "open your windows," and, of course, "be vigilant." Grease fires are no joke.

Don't Neglect the Veggies

Of course, all the aforementioned options don't give consideration to vegetarian grill masters, and even the most committed carnivore can acknowledge that the vegetables are often the tastiest, and easiest, part of a great backyard barbecue. By and large, you can't go wrong with the simplest prep: salt and pepper, olive oil, and some herbs. Delany is partial to spring onions and asparagus during this time of year. Later on in the summer, he likes the mini eggplants you can buy at the Wild Boar Farms stand at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market — just split those in half and grill them, again with olive oil and fresh herbs.

Robles, on the other hand, likes to put together a salad of figs and romaine lettuce, both grilled and then tossed with a lemony vinaigrette, crumbly cheese (feta or cotija), and a drizzle of honey.

And, while they aren't strictly vegetables, Boelter has been known to take a pot of dry beans, water, and salt, and throw it on the grill next to whatever meat she's slow-cooking: "They took about five hours, but they were really good."

Taking It to the Next Level

Beyond the basic grilling techniques outlined above, home cooks might also consider smoking their meat. After all, that's the difference between true barbecue and what Southerners would simply call a "cookout." While there are small electric smokers you can buy at any hardware store, that approach more or less requires access to a yard. For apartment-dwellers, Delany recommends this simple(-ish) hack: Take two square hotel pans (the kind often used for steam tables) — one that's perforated and a deeper one that isn't. Put wood chips (or tea leaves or whatever you'd like to smoke your meat with) in the deeper pan, put the perforated pan with the meat on top, and then cover the whole thing with foil. Place this whole setup on the stovetop, over low heat, and the wood will start smoking — Delany said he's made tea-smoked salmon in about twenty minutes using this technique.

Chop Bar's summer pig roasts are legendary, and according to Delany, roasting a whole pig inside of a Caja China — basically a big wooden box topped with a charcoal tray — is completely doable at home (outdoors only, please!), as long as you have a place to store the pig while it's brining. (Delany recommends an oversized cooler filled with ice.) A small Caja China will probably run you $300, but you can use it over and over again, and man, will your friends be impressed.

And, for the truly ambitious, there's the world of Argentinian-style parrilla, which translates literally as "grill." Javier Sandes, proprietor of Javi's Cooking, is one of the Bay Area's foremost practitioners of this traditional Argentinian technique — which consists of slowly grilling meat over hot wood and charcoal. In Argentina, every kitchen has a parrilla with a built-in fire pit, but according to Sandes, someone fairly experienced with American-style grilling can put together a jury-rigged version: Take two small Weber charcoal grills, and use one of them as a fire pit. Light up your wood (he uses almond) and charcoal (he uses mesquite chips), then — once they're good and hot — shovel them into the other Weber, put down the grate, and start cooking.

The trick is to control the heat. Sandes holds his hand right above the grill — if he can hold it there for three seconds or less before it's too hot to bear, it's very hot. Four to seven seconds is "medium"; eight to ten seconds is "low." For the beef tri-tips and whole spatchcocked chickens that Sandes is fond of grilling, it's essential to maintain a consistent medium heat for the hour-plus-long cooking time. If the grill starts to cool off, add more hot charcoal. If it's too hot, move some of the coals away; otherwise, you'll end up with meat that's burnt but still raw on the inside.

Of course, Sandes is also well known for another Argentinian specialty: cooking whole animals al asador, on a large cross-like structure that's set up over open flames. Watching Sandes cook a whole lamb for four and a half hours using this method is a spectacle to behold, and adventurous diners might consider hiring him to cook at their next big event.

But for the average backyard griller looking to show off in front of his or her friends? "I wouldn't recommend it," Sandes said.

Lizzy Boelter's Southern Slow-Cooked Pork Ribs with Coffee-Chili Rub


Pork spare ribs or St. Louis cut ribs (a full rack will feed four; start with a half- or quarter-rack if you're using a toaster oven)

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