An Outdoor View: Grilling at zero

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011

Some people think cooking outdoors is only for summer, a time they refer to as "barbecue season." At my house, it's barbecue season all year long.

Earlier this week, when the thermometer seemed to be frozen at zero degrees, I decided to cook a piece of sockeye salmon for lunch. I could've done it inside, but I chose to do it outside, on my trusty Weber charcoal grill. Why cook outdoors? Because I can add smoke to the flavor of fish or steaks cooked outdoors. The last time I tried that indoors, I set off every smoke alarm in the house.

Many people nowadays use gas for grilling, but I prefer the simplicity of charcoal. I can understand charcoal. It doesn't hiss, it doesn't depend on some magic button to fire it up, and -- so far -- my charcoal grill has never exploded.

For safety reasons, my Weber isn't on my deck. It's beside my driveway, which is now a six-inch-thick sheet of ice. In preparation for cooking, the first thing I did was to pull on a pair of ice walkers. My Weber contained the ash from the last time I used it, so I had to get rid of that. With a stick of wood, I stirred it around until most of it fell though the holes in the bottom. The main idea is to clear the ash from the vent holes.

For lighting the charcoal, I no longer use starter fluid. I now use a chimney starter, a metal cylinder with a partition inside that divides it into two sections. The top section, the larger of the two, is for charcoal. The bottom is for a crumpled double page of newspaper. The chimney starter costs nothing to operate and hasn't failed me yet. After filling the top with charcoal, I put a match to the newspaper, placed the chimney on the grate of my Weber and retreated to the warmth of my house.

While the coals were doing whatever it is they do, I prepared the salmon fillet by placing it skin-side down on a sheet of aluminum foil, folding the edges until they formed a close border around the fillet. I sprinkled a light coating of kosher salt and lemon pepper on the fillet. It smelled a little "off," so I gave it a shot of garlic powder. Then I let it bask on the kitchen counter in that "dry rub" until the coals were ready.

About 20 minutes later, the coals on top were almost completely grey, the sign they were ready, so I dumped them out of the chimney starter onto the Weber's grate and spread them out. Atop the coals and to one side, I placed a small pan of dry alder chips. I then put the grill in the Weber, the fish on the grill, and the top on the Weber, making sure the top vents were wide open.

Twenty minutes later, I stuck a spatula in the fillet to test it. It wasn't quite done in the middle of the thickest part. Five minutes later, when I checked it again, it was perfect -- flaky and moist. With my spatula, I lifted it from its skin and slid it onto a plate I had warmed in the microwave.

This fish had been vacuum packed and stored in a home freezer after being caught in early August of 2010. It was excellent eating. The smoke from the alder chips had given it a delicious flavor and golden-brown finish that can't be duplicated on any sissy kitchen stove.

One thing I've noticed about cooking outdoors in winter is that it's strictly a solo deal. In more than 40 years of doing it, not once has anyone ever said, "Hold up a minute, Les, while I put on my coat, hat, mittens and ice walkers. I want to see how you do this."

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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