The old gas grill lay by the side of the road: used up, worn out, done in by years of backyard cooking. The grill had seen better days, but it had seen good times, too, cooking memorable meals for family and friends. Or so my brother-in-law Whitney told me, when he spotted the abandoned grill discarded by his next door neighbor.
Had they given up on grilling or just gotten a replacement for their worn out equipment? Neither. Invited up on their deck, Whitney saw a completely revamped outdoor cooking setup. Yes, there was a grill (a big one), but next to it, a pizza oven and beyond that, a smoker. It was a big step up in outdoor cooking gear, but a step that follows a national trend.
Backyard chefs have long been committed to gas-fired grills – great for burgers, dogs, ribs, and chicken. But now the choices are so numerous that the gear can even be set up as an outdoor kitchen. Built-in grills can be combined with a dazzling array of equipment options for modest setups or complete cooking suites.
I dropped in at Aitoro’s Appliance on Westport Ave. to talk to Tony Aitoro, the third generation proprietor, about the latest trends in backyard cooking. “The most popular setups include a grill, a small cook top for heating sauces and sides, under counter storage, and, surprisingly, a trash bin,” he said. “Beyond that, you can add a pizza oven, refrigerator, and a smoker. It can all be installed in a custom stone topped counter or modular sections with rock face and concrete tops.”
I’ll confess that I’m a charcoal guy with a tried and true three legged black Weber grill. There are culinary limitations to my choice, but I enjoy it’s simplicity, small footprint, easy maintenance, and traditional feel. I’m a pretty low-end user – grilling over hot coals is my style – but I do admire setups where more control over the fire expands the range of cooking to roasting, smoking, or hi-temp baking.
I told Tony I was overwhelmed by the choice, and frankly the expense, of all this gear. “If you’re into it”, he said, “then a backyard kitchen is a place for the family and friends to gather, spend some time, cook together, and enjoy the satisfying results.” When I thought about it, I realized that it’s likely less expensive than a boat, safer than fast cars, easier that heli-skiing, and you get to
eat well, too. A built-in outdoor kitchen is a way to expand a home’s living space for the summer without a full addition. With some propane heaters or a fire pit, the season can be even longer.
Backyard cooking is largely a guy thing. Great food is the goal, but there’s no denying that the gear itself is part of the fun. Who doesn’t like to tinker with shiny stainless steel equipment – adjusting, fiddling, admiring and fine tuning. It’s no accident that grills are sold in hardware stores, too.
Our neighbor Marc has a backyard cooking setup with great gear. He hosts an annual pig roast, cooking nose to tail with lots of side dishes, finger foods, and drinks. The much anticipated party is a textbook example of the value and reward of a backyard kitchen.
I was pleased, too, that the sophisticated equipment I was looking at could withstand 12 months outdoors in our cold, wet climate. “These units are made with high-end stainless steel, built to be out in the weather,” Tony assured me.
A ceramic cooker like the Big Green Egg is backyard gear that lies between a gas-fired grill and my charcoal-fueled Weber. The egg-shaped interior has a ceramic lining that is heated up by a charcoal fire at the bottom, functioning like an Indian tandoori oven. With the BGE you can get searing temperatures north of 700 degrees for steaks and pizza, or you can control the heat with adjustable air vents to barbecue low and slow.
I talked to Michael, a BGE enthusiast in Atlanta, who loves its culinary versatility. He slow smoked 18 pounds of brisket overnight for the centerpiece of a Father’s Day feast. He’s also perfecting his technique on pork butt, pork shoulders, ribs, beer can chicken, and salmon. The Egg doesn’t take the place of his gas grill for some quick grilling, but it does offer the challenge of mastering a sophisticated piece of equipment, a variety of cooking styles, and enjoying the delicious results.
Tony gave me a few tips for great grilled steak regardless of your cooking gear: Let the steak come to room temperature before cooking. Only turn it once, no poking, prodding, flipping or touching – just let it sit there. Take it off the grill a little underdone and let it rest for 10 minutes before eating. And the steak? It should be top-quality and thick-cut – check with Sal at the Harbor Harvest Market on Cove Ave. for a good one.
This weekend lots of Labor Day celebrations will gather around backyard cooking gear. Simple or sophisticated, burgers or barbecue, family or friends is all part of a great American food tradition.