Saturday, September 18, 2010

Griddles; the Grail of the Grill

Editor's note: For whatever reason, this post was deleted from the blog. It originally appeared in late July. Please forgive me for publishing it again here and now. It bothers me just enough that I'm willing to face your wrath. Thanks. The Bushman
The summer grilling season is past its peak, but here in North Carolina (and much of the country for that matter) there's still weeks to perfect your marinades and hone your skills.
This year, my Dad upped his game by taking the lessons he learned reading Francis Mallmann's "Seven Fires, Grilling the Argentine Way." No, he hasn't been cooking any whole animals over open flame (as the book so beautifully illustrates), but he has brought the joys of griddle cooking to our patios and porches.
I saw my first outdoor griddle this spring, when Dad brought his self-designed and locally fabricated fire box on a family camping trip. With a shelf for a griddle to hover over the open flame, Dad cooked chicken fajita filling over a wood fire that beat anything we'd ever tasted at a restaurant.
Shortly after our enthusiastic response, my sister and I received griddles of our very own, and I've taken my outdoor cooking to new heights in the months that followed.
So what is a griddle? It's just a thick, flat cast iron tray that fits on the grate of your gas or charcoal grill. Like cast iron pots and pans, griddles distribute heat evenly - a great boon to outdoor cooks who constantly struggle with hot and cool spots on their grill, trying to get a consistent result in their cooking. Purists will turn their noses up at the idea of losing those beautiful grill marks on their steaks, burgers and fish. I wasn't too thrilled about the idea either, until the evening I saw nine venison backstrap medallions receive a perfect crust and identical, medium-rare interiors in just 6 minutes on a griddle over a gas flame.
Since then, I've used mine to cook just about everything you can imagine. Vegetables don't fall through the grate and cook alongside fish fillets (otherwise unsuitable for the grill because they're too delicate to flip), breakfast parties come off in a snap because I can cook eggs, bacon, sausage for a crowd, all at one station - and not heat up the house in the process.
And the burgers - oh the burgers - are the best I've ever made. But that has a lot to do with my preparation. As you know, Sue and I rarely eat red meat other than venison (assuming it's available in our freezer), but I've struggled to make venison burgers for years. The meat is so lean, it dries out on the grill long before it's ready to eat. I'm loathe to add beef fat to the mix (as most meat processors do with venison) as that would defeat the purpose of eating this healthiest of proteins. Those troubles are now in the past since the happy introduction of the griddle and the panade.
My hunting partner Brian makes the best venison burger I've ever had. Last winter, I got to see his secret when he mixed up a pound of ground venison with some bread crumbs and milk - this is a panade, though I didn't know it at the time. Later, I read the description in an issue of "Cook's Illustrated" magazine on making the perfect meatball. The recipe suggests a panade of bread crumbs, one egg yolk, 1/3 cup of buttermilk and fresh herbs. That's what I needed to make my super-lean venison burgers juicy and flavorful - a glorified meatball patty! (A note to purists; this technique will NOT give you that classic "burger" texture. It's definitely more like a meatball than the satisfying crumble of a perfectly balanced hamburger patty.) All that liquid and binder solves my "dry" burger problem, but now they are quite fragile and apt to fall apart on the grill. The griddle came to my rescue. I mix the panade into the ground meat and form the patties. As the grill comes up to maximum heat, with the griddle in place and the lid down, I put the patties in the freezer to help them stay bonded. With the griddle smokin' hot, I add just a little bacon fat to the surface and slap those burgers down, flipping them easily when the bottom is perfectly browned. When the burgers come off, I tent them with aluminum foil and turn the flame down before adding my hamburger buns and the piece de resistance, a farm fresh egg to the griddle. The over-easy egg is a decadent topping for my cheeseburger - so good, I'll wager that once you've tried it, you'll never go back to naked burgers again.
Happy grilling.