The Thrill of the Grill

The backyard barbeque: a welcome aroma of summer.  As Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday; charcoal burning everywhere. . .” Let’s first define barbeque and grilling. Executive Chef Ray Comisky of Capitol Grill sets the record straight: barbeque is to smoke or slow cook over low heat. Grilling is cooking fast at high temperatures, and lightly charring the exterior, sometimes referred to as Pittsburgh style. Grilling caramelizes the sugars and seals in moisture.

The seduction of cooking over an open flame may be a part of human nature. Controlling fire was one of humankind’s first great achievements. It made both migration to colder climates and cooking food possible. Archeology indicates that ancestors of modern humans such as Homos Erectus seem to have been using controlled fire as early as some 790,000 years ago.  

The best thing about cooking outdoors is that it is casual .As a grill master, when else can you juggle an icy brew in one hand and flip burgers on the grill and still be considered a gracious host?  The style of cooking, whether it is barbeque or grilling, has a common denominator, and that is sugar. It is on the charred grilled meat or in the rub or in the sauce. Jim Ladd of Heartland Culinary Solutions is a bison meat supplier. He competes with his group of five chefs from around the country, called the Baby Back Stabbers, at the American Royal Barbeque. He explains that the sugar pulls out, blends, and rounds out all the flavors. In sauces it enhances the tomato base. 

To select just a wine for barbeque is a conundrum. Do we match the smoky outdoor cooking style or the food itself? I know what my choices are, but I researched other expert sources including internet search engines and not too many are willing or see the need to match wines with grilled foods. Am I the fool or is it unimportant? I think there is no simple match. The element to match is the outstanding taste and texture while remembering the casual nature of both grilling and barbecue. The rule of red with red sauce gets broken often. Emery, Bird and Thayer’s Executive Chef Russ Muhlberger has been competing with his Skin & Bones team for many years, and his sauce with a raspberry base is amazing with a good Gewurztraminer. The sauces are very important to taste. Dan Turner, Professor of Culinary Arts at Johnson County Community College, has contested; judged and even taught barbeque to Polish students. He has an unusual sauce he says is a variation of a Paul Prudhomme recipe that is a citrus base and a pecan thickener. It brings chicken and pork to a new level. This sauce would be stunning with an aromatic and zesty New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This pairing is an excellent example of the weight of the food being light like the wine and taste being herbal citusy like the sauce. See how this works? Weight and flavors match.

Ray Comisky likes a Bourbon au jus sauce. . . this is not easy. Would the best match be bourbon or wine? I say either but the wine should be very smoky, toasty and woody. Another creative suggestion for that whiskey, toasty flavor would be to get a used whisky barrel, cut it up and soak pieces for the fire for an amendment to flavor in your cooking.

Remember, the best cookout wines are casual and fun. Pouring your well cared for Burgundy or Bordeaux at a barbeque is like wearing a tuxedo to a picnic. It is a wasted effort. Still there is no reason to serve average wine. A little planning will make the pairings unforgettable. While folks are waiting for food to cook, crisp whites or champagne are great starters with salads, seafood and grilled vegetables. A good German Estate Riesling is a wonderful contrast with spicy shrimp. The fruitiness sooths the palate as a contrast to the prickly spice. A big smoky California Chardonnay is perfect with tangy-sauced chicken. When the meats are served, the red wines with big purple fruit that coats your glass and tongue make all the flavors marry in your mouth with a beautiful finish. Some favorites are Red Zinfandel, Cotes du Rhone, a Spanish Rioja and some newer variatials from South America, Carminare and Melbec. These all have mouthwatering juicy big fruit, some spice, a little acidity and smokiness.  So, remember, casual, festive and fun. Match the flavors, weight and texture of the food and the sauce. A light white wine would get overwhelmed by a heavy sauce, and a big red wine would make a light sauce lose its flavor.

Here are a few grill tips. Think outside the ‘cue. Grill these for unexpected delicious appetizers, or garnish:

I know many people say that a beer is the only match when the grill’s on. If you can throw it on the grill and put a sauce on it, though, there’s always a wine that pairing that’s just right. This year, enjoy the “thrill of the grill” every chance you get. Summer always goes by too fast.


Judy Ensminger

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