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Rites of Spring

by John Raven, Ph. B.

Here it is, the time we have all been waiting for all winter. It's time to get started on that good outdoor cooking and eating. Nothing is better than sitting down to a good meal prepared in the out of doors over a natural fire.

I'm sure that all of you carefully cleaned and stored your grills, smokers and griddles last fall. But in case you didn't, you better get with it. If you left your cooker with ashes in it and they got damp, acids have corroded your cooker. You need to clean it real good. If there are any rust spots, they need to be removed. If you have a rusty sheet metal cooker, clean it up shiny with some sandpaper and touch up the spots with heatproof paint available from your auto supply or paint store. Follow directions.

A crusty grill needs to be cleaned to prevent the "yuk" taste that comes from the crust. Chrome-plated grills should be scraped carefully so as not to damage the plating, and then polished with some fine steel wool or, better yet, a 3M Scotchbrite pad. You can find these in most hardware stores. When the grill is spotless, give it a good coat of vegetable oil. Always oil your grill before you use it to prevent food from sticking and to prevent crusty build-up.

Check your cooker for any loose bolts or screws. The large changes in temperatures can cause the fasteners to come loose. While you're at it, check for any missing or damaged parts. If your cooker uses lava rocks, it might be time to put in a new supply. Fireplace supply stores are a good place to look for parts for your cooker.

Next, we check our fuel supply. If you have a gas grill that runs on bottled gas, make sure your tank is full. Check and see if your woodpile is in good working order. Wood that has been blanketed with snow all winter is going to be damp. Remember to cover it next year.

Any leftover charcoal should be tightly sealed. If it gets damp (and charcoal absorbs moisture from the air), it will be nearly impossible to light. You might ought just throw it out and get a new supply. Check your supply of lighter fluid, you're gonna need that. If you use one of the lighters with the long nose, you need to check it to prevent singed fingers.

Grilling Tools

A quick check of your cooking tools should find them all in perfect working order. The knives are all sharp, and everything is in its place. You will probably want to get a new "sop mop" and basting brush. They tend to get rather grungy with use. And don't forget the hot pads and mittens for handling the really hot things. There are some new heatproof gloves on the market that are really handy for handling large cuts of hot meat. Check your catalogs or kitchen supply store.

Now it's time to check your supply of spices. If they have been kept tightly sealed in a dark, cool place they are probably good for another season. (Little play on words there) But it's not advisable to try and keep spices for more than a year. They lose their punch and will result in bland seasoning. Don't buy real large containers of spices unless you are sure you will use them in their lifespan. Fresh spices are the order of the day. Stock up on what you need. Buy a couple of new ones and experiment a little.

A crusty grill needs to be cleaned to prevent the yuk taste Your basic spice chest should contain whole black peppercorns to be ground when applied, salt of your choosing (sea salt, kosher salt or just plain, un-iodized salt -- iodine tends to give foods a strange color), garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne and chili powder. Have some brown sugar on hand for making finishing sauce. You can always use vinegar in a mop or marinade. And no cook worth his or her salt would be without Worcestershire sauce or Tabasco.

Now that you are ready for the first barbecue of 2001, be sure and call me when it's ready.

Chili Talk

Just because winter is behind us doesn't mean it's time to put away the old chili pot. Chili is good anytime of the year. A summer bowl of red with a cool guacamole salad on the side is really refreshing.

I've done some chili experimenting over the past few months. I've been cooking chili on a regular basis for nearly 30 years, but I still find new ways to prepare it. Until recently I had never used the old-fashioned way of making chili using dried chile pods. Before Gebhardt invented chili powder, all chili was made with the dried pods.

It runs into some work, but the results are well worth the effort. You will need some dried chile pods, ancho and New Mexico red. You can find these in most large supermarkets that cater to the Mexican/American population. Purchase equal amounts of ancho and New Mexico red by count. It takes about six of each to make a two-pound pot of chili.

To prepare the chiles, the first thing you do is to break off the stems, open the pods and discard all connective tissue and seeds. Put the cleaned pods in a sturdy pot and cover with cool water. Put the pot on the stove and bring it to a boil. Remove from heat and let it set for 15 minutes. Remove the pods from the pot and let them cool on a plate. Save the pot liquor. Now there are two ways you can proceed. If you have a food mill, put the pods through it to get the pulp and leave the skins in the mill. Or, put the pods in the blender, and taste the pot liquor. If it is bitter, discard it. If it tastes like chili, use enough of it in the blender to puree the pods. You may have to make two batches to get a good puree. The puree must be put through a fine sieve to remove the skins. The skins are indigestible and are best discarded. If you use the blender, you will need to put the puree in a pot and slow simmer it to reduce the amount of liquid in it. The product of the food mill does not need reducing.

You now have the very best chile seasoning for your chili. The puree is equal to the same amount of dry chili powder. You must add garlic, cumin and oregano because commercial chili powder contains these ingredients. Read the chili powder label to see what's in it.

During the years I cooked competition chili, I got into the habit of putting too much spice in the pot. Competition chili contains about three times the spice needed for "eating" chili. I cut way back on the amount of spices and found that I really had a better pot of chili. Remember, you can always add spices but it's heck trying to get them out.

See you next month.

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