Monday, September 10, 2007

Summer Supper

The day is clear, bright and warm. The corn season is upon us. What better than a barbecued chicken breast with a sweet golden ear and a bit of greens?
Earle introduced me to roast corn on the cob. For years I thought he invented the process as I encountered few who had heard of it. But, of course, it is a method probably as old as the domestication of sweet corn, a hybrid derived from the more starchy field corn, by the residents of the western hemisphere prior to the end of the fifteenth century.
The process: You need a good bed of coals, glowing but not flaming. A wood fire on a beach or meadow, a charcoal grill in the backyard. Take each ear, picked that day, and trim the silk and any loose leaves from the ear. As soon as corn is picked its sugar begins to turn into starch. This used to be a serious problem. Todays hybrids slow the process down considerably. Leave the tight leaves and the stem at one end intact. If the ears were in the sun for very long, soak them in cool water for half a minute. This will ensure that the ear is moist enough to steam cook the kernels. Lay the corn on the coals. Turn several times until the outer leaves are blackened all around from the middle to near each end.
Meanwhile melt some butter in a small pan, like a Turkish coffee maker.
To eat: Pull the leaves from the tassel end back to the stem. This makes a cool handle to hold the ear while revealing all the kernels which remain hot. Use a disposable one inch bristle paint brush to paint melted butter on the corn.
After that you can take your choice of typewriter or roller style ingestion.
The kernels vary from a deep gold to caramel (light to dark) with maybe a few burned. Except for the latter all are delicious. But the caramelized corn sugar is the best, and what makes this method unique.
If you can't cook outside Earle came up with a near approximation roasted in the oven. Shuck the ear completely and place it on a square of aluminum foil. Season with salt and pepper and generous dabs of butter. Roll up in the foil and set each ear in a 4000 oven for 20 minutes, or so. Turn about half way through.

The trick to barbecued chicken is one of technique more than sauce, I think.
Every town has one or more do-good clubs that raise funds through a mass meal, or 'feed'. There are crab feeds, spaghetti feeds, Chile suppers, pancake breakfasts, salmon roasts, Burgoos and Perloos, clam bakes and fish fries, ox and pig roasts, and, of course, chicken barbecues. As I write the names the map of the U.S. unfolds before my mind's eye, with each name taking me to a different region at a different season. Once I had the pleasure of visiting a chicken do in central Washington, Ephratra or Moses' Lake way. While my companions tended to the business that brought us to town, I whiled away the time watching a couple of old timers cook chicken in a large outdoor pit barbecue. This consisted of two parallel brick walls about counter height (maybe forty inches), ten or twelve feet long and not more than three feet apart. A wood fire is built in this. It can be fed from either end by means of a long metal tool shaped like a hoe. When it produces a steady, moderate, heat square grates of stout expanded metal attached to lengths of angle iron that extend past the grate to form handles on both sides are laid across the pit. How many of these depends on the rush. Just one early. Four or more at noon or supper time. Two, maybe, in between. The chicken pieces, taken from the pans in which they marinated, are arranged on this close together, but not touching. As soon as the rack is full it is painted with sauce. Another rack is placed on top. Two cooks grasp the handles and squeeze them tight. Both racks, as one, are rotated 1800 . This technique is either brilliant or a complete disaster. It depends on the skill, coordination and dumb luck of the cooks. Once the chicken is successfully turned the pieces are painted with sauce again and left alone for a short time, maybe five minutes? Then the process repeats.
The only point of this for you, poised as you must be at your backyard Weber, or hibachi or what have you, is that the fire is not too hot and the chicken is basted with sauce and turned frequently. When you achieve an even bronze overcast with the sauce's red (or ...?) you have achieved perfection.
In the photo above I achieved 'looks awful but tastes ok' because I turned my back on the grill, briefly, just as a large amount of rendered schmaltz dropped onto the coals to feed a conflagration that charred the skin without advancing the cooking very much. oh. well.
Keep a spritz bottle of water handy to put out flames and cool over exuberant coals. Every backyard chef his own fed. (ha! Take that, Greenspan.)

So what about the sauce? Well, what about it? There are so many that you can dabble all you like or pick a favorite or mix and match to suit your taste, the occasion, or your rich uncle. A better question is: What is a sauce? The primary purpose of the sauce is threefold. The most important is to seal the meat so it stays moist. Oil or fat does this. So every sauce, including the one you are just about to invent, begins with butter or olive oil or both or some other fat or oil. The other purposes of sauce are flavor and appearance. For that you have vinegars and commercial preparations like soy sauce, Louisiana hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and so forth. Judicious admixtures please some palettes and offend others. Such is life. To complete the myrmidons of flavor there are gardens full of herbs and tropic forests filled with spices. This is not to mention the wondrous capsicum family of peppers, sliding down the Scoville scale from bell to Anaheims to Anchos, jalapeƱo to chipotle.

Or the delicious ginger root.

Not to mention Garlic and the rest of the onion clan.

Finally there is the flavorful vehicle: tomatoes or apples. See "Dum Luk's Sauce" for more discussion. Grape and olive and tamarinds and others I wot not of also enter into this.

What ever co-mingling of the above you deem appropriate may or may not look appetizing. It doesn't have to. The appearance factor enters in the presentation to the diner. If it looks good after patient cheffing then you are home free on this score. Only the commercial concoctions need resort to colors and thickeners. They have to appeal to shoppers.

In short, 'sauce' is a life study all to itself. And I haven't even considered rubs and brines and pickles and salt encasing and Pepper coating and throwing the dam thing in the septic tank for aging. The last is NOT recommended. Though I have observed a Gypsy pig roast in which the secret ingredient was a generous application of Gypsy urine supplied fresh from the sources. I was not enough of a Gadjo to try it.
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