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 Grilling season! Grilling tips, and a long-smoked turkey thigh.
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Grilling season!

Some people love grilling so much that they declare it a 12-month occupation, dashing out to the deck or back yard to light up charcoal (or turn on the gas) even when it's freezing and snowy.

I'm not that committed. When the weather outside is frightful, I'm happy in a cozy kitchen with the lights turned on and the thermostat turned up. But now that summer is here in full force, I've finally pulled the winter wraps off our barbecue grill, scoured off the worst of the crud that I failed to clean up last autumn, and have happily returned grilling to my culinary repertoire for the season.

I like to think that there's more to quality grilling than simply lighting charcoal and slapping a chunk of meat over the fire until it's charred. With a little forethought, it's possible to enjoy almost as much heat control over charcoal as it is on your rangetop, but you have to approach it in a completely different way. While you can't simply turn the flame up or down with charcoal, you can easily build your fire in the first place so most of the heat is concentrated on one side (very high heat), a bit less on another side (medium heat) and very little over there (low heat).

Black Diamond Years ago I invested in a hulking, locomotive-shaped iron barrel grill (New Braunfels Black Diamond from Texas -, pictured at the right, for those who care about details) - which makes it particularly easy to build a fire under one end of the long, rectangular grill surface while leaving the other end cool for indirect heat.

Weber It's almost as easy to accomplish a similar purpose with the simple, circular kettle grills made by Weber ( and others, by simply piling up your coals on one side of the kettle, leaving the other clear. Alternatively, form your coals in a circle around an empty space - maybe marked by a throwaway aluminum pie pan - in the middle. It takes a while to get used to controlling cooking temperature by moving your food around on the grill, but it's a trick worth learning, dramatically improving the quality of your dinner while getting you - literally - in touch with your ingredients.

Let's run through a few quick grilling points (and later I'll invite you to drop by our forum and add your own comments) before we get into today's recipe.

  • Charcoal or gas? This may be the most serious single issue that divides back-yard cooks, and I have nothing but respect for my friends who have gas grills and enjoy them. But I'm a charcoal fundamentalist: To me, charcoal is an integral part of outdoor grilling, and well worth the short time and effort needed to get it going.
  • Briquettes or hardwood charcoal? I like the old-fashioned, relatively natural appeal of unadulterated chunk charcoal, and in the past have gone out of my way to find it and paid a premium for it. A recent study by the gurus at Cook's Illustrated magazine, however, confirms something I've secretly suspected: Chunk charcoal and standard briquettes both have their uses. The chunk style burns fast and hot and is great for quick grilling. For long, slow smoking, though, briquettes burn long and evenly and don't require replenishing as often. Just stay away from the kerosene-impregnated "easy-light" brands, the folks at Cook's suggest (and I agree), and briquettes will not bring off flavors to your dinner.
  • Black Diamond

  • Speaking of which ... I have not bought a can of charcoal starter fluid since I got my first chimney charcoal starter years ago. Despite the manly joy of the bomb-like "Whooooomp!" that goes off when you light off an oversaturated pile of charcoal, you don't need petroleum products stinking up your steak. The chimney starter (available from Weber and many hardware and home supply stores) is a simple, low-tech device: A metal cylinder with a handle on the side and a grating near the bottom. You put crumpled newspaper in the bottom, fill the top with chunk charcoal or briquettes, put the assembly on your grill and light the newspaper. Natural air currents suck the flames through the charcoal, and within 10 to 20 minutes the coals are glowing and ready. Dump them into the grill and go!
  • Cover up or down? This is another of those cooking-control issues. Cooking with the grill cover lifted (or removed) makes sense for quick-grilling jobs like steaks or burgers. Putting on the cover prevents flareups, keeps heat under control, and bathes your food in flavorful smoke. Lid-down is the only choice when you're slow-smoking over indirect heat, as in today's featured recipe; but lid-up is good when you want to keep an eye on a quick grill job, especially if you don't want an overly pungent smoke flavor.
  • Smoke is a spice, not a sauce. To add more woodsmoke flavors, many grill cooks like to toss a few well-soaked chunks of hickory, mesquite, grape vines or other aromatic wood on the coals. This is fine - I'm a hickory fancier myself - but take care not to overdo it. Just like any other spice (or like oak in wine, an analogy that most wine enthusiasts will grasp instantly), woodsmoke should be an accent in grilled food, not the dominating flavor.)

Recently (May 6), I offered a simple procedure for grilling asparagus, to which many of you responded with advice about enhancing all sorts of other veggies with the kiss of the primal fire. (Excuse me, please, there's something about grilling that inspires bad poetry.)

Today let's try something a little more advanced: Slow, gentle warm-smoke cooking over indirect heat, following a quick hot-fire sear to get things started. This procedure works very well for whole chickens, leg of lamb, prime rib, or just about any good-size chunk of meat or poultry. I tried a slightly offbeat choice, a whole turkey thigh, with delicious results, enhanced by the feeling that I had somehow beaten the system, having invested a mere $3 and change (at the excellent but pricey Whole Foods Market) for a quality, naturally produced piece of turkey large enough to make an ample dinner for two with enough leftovers to build a couple of excellent sandwiches.

Grill-smoked turkey thigh

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 turkey thigh, skin on and bone in
Olive oil
Aromatic wood chunks


1. Start charcoal and give it sufficient time to light fully, the coals hot and covered with light gray ash. As noted in today's article, a "chimney starter" is the ideal way to light charcoal, and for this long, slow cooking technique, briquettes are perfectly satisfactory and may be preferable to quick-burning chunk charcoal. Put a few chunks of hardwood hickory, mesquite, or other aromatic wood of your choice into a bowl of water to soak for a half-hour or so.

2. Rinse and dry the turkey thigh. Rub it with a little olive oil and sprinkle it with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

3. When the coals are ready, set up your grill for direct and indirect heating, placing all the coals in a pile on one side (or in a circle), leaving the other side (or the center) clear. Drop one or two chunks of soaked aromatic wood on the coals.

4. Place the turkey thigh directly over the hot coals, skin-side down, and sear it, with the lid up, until the skin starts to turn crisp and brown, two to five minutes depending on heat. Turn it over and sear the other side for two or three minutes, watching carefully to ensure that it doesn't char.

5. Move the turkey to the indirect side of the grill, where it is not directly over the coals. Put on the lid, taking care to position the vents so natural air currents will direct smoke and warmth from the coals past the meat toward the vents.

6. Roast for 1 to 1 1/2 hours - slower is better - checking occasionally to turn the meat over and rotate it so all sides eventually face the fire, moving it closer or farther from the coals if it seems to be cooking too quickly or slowly, replenishing coals and wood chunks as needed. The thigh is done when no pink color remains and the juices run clear. (A smoke-tinged pinkish-brown edge, however, is normal in warm smoke grilling.) It's not a bad idea to check with a meat thermometer, taking care to place it in the middle of the meat, not touching the bone. (Food-safety experts recommend cooking turkey thighs to an internal temperature of 180F, which seems a little overdone to me, but if you get sick, don't say I didn't tell you this ...)

7. Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for a few minutes before slicing thin and serving.

MATCHING WINE: This wine-friendly grilled dish would work well with a dry, herbal red or a full-bodied white. It was excellent with the modest, Merlot-like Calina 2001 Maule Valley Carmenere from Chile that was featured in Monday's 30 Second Wine Advisor.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Grilling season!"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Thursday, June 10, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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