13. What I did on my summer "hiatus" - Part 1
Catching up on a few things.
Brace yourselves for the latest issue of The Plate Cleaner…Quarterly, I guess? There’s no one specific reason I haven’t been in touch since the end of May. Lack of discipline mostly, combined with the roller coaster of hope and fear and everything in between that has made it harder than usual to think of the kind of thread that usually strings each issue together.
I’ve never heard anyone give the advice that the way to become a better writer is to do it very infrequently and only when you don’t have to work hard for an organizing idea, so I will try to send out future issues at a steadier clip. This week Beth and I are up at a cottage that came with a very low data cap that prevents us from streaming Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, and the like, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back into things.
For lack of a more thematic thread for this issue, I thought it might be best just to look through my phone’s camera roll and bring you up to speed on what plates have been cleaned over the last little while.
In the last issue, I was worried about how the NY pizza-making skills I developed over the winter would translate to another season of Neapolitan-style pizzas this summer. For the most part, very well. Out of the blocks I was fumbling to find a dough recipe that I could rely on. Eventually I wound up at the My Pizza Corner dough calculator and I’ve been using it ever since. Neapolitan dough typically has a much lower hydration than NY-style dough and it’s much easier to handle, especially for beginners, and that’s been very helpful in helping me get back on the Neapolitan horse.
In the winter I can leave NY-style dough in the cold room for a 3-day ferment, but in the summer, it’s impossible to devote that much fridge space to dough. This dough ferments overnight on the countertop, allowing it to develop better flavour without needing to go in the fridge. So far I’ve been very pleased with the results.
The shaping has generally been very good, although there have been a few less than perfect ones I won’t show you. I started the season swapping out the pizza stone I used in the oven last year for a 1/4” piece of steel similar to the one I’ve been in using in the kitchen oven to make NY-style pizzas. In that case, it helps the oven maintain the necessary 550°F temperature necessary to cook a pizza in around 5 minutes. But in the outdoor oven, where temperatures can easily reach 900°F, two things were happening that I didn’t like. First, the bottoms of every pizza were just incinerated. A good pizza crust will have some spotting and charring on the bottom that resembles a leopard’s spots. Crusts cooked on the steel were uniformly charred across the bottom.
Secondly, the high heat of the outdoor oven burned off the steel’s seasoning every time I used it. Seasoning, if you’re not a cast iron/carbon steel cookware nut, is the layer of polymerized fat that you develop on raw metal in order to protect it from rusting and to create a non-stick surface. Developing an initial layer of seasoning takes several multi-hour sessions, so to have to redo it after every single pizza session disqualified the steel almost immediately, to say nothing of having to scrub off the rust that unseasoned raw metal develops very quickly. The pizza stone is back in place now and the bottoms of the crust have gone back to being nice and leopardy. Huzzah!
When I think about grilling, my mind immediately goes to two places: meat and charcoal, either searing a steak on a pile of fully engaged lump charcoal that is radiating so much heat you can smell the fabric softener burning off your shirt, or a smoldering pile of coals slowly turning ribs and pork shoulder into a jubbly-wubbly, face-and-finger-staining feast. It was only after I’d been grilling for a while—and especially after I bought a small propane grill–that I began to appreciate how good grilled vegetables could be.
Until then, I had always grilled vegetables the same way I grilled meat: toss them over coals and pull them when they looked good on all sides. But they would always be pretty al dente on the inside. Which makes sense. I was cooking them like a steak and I was getting steak-like results: cooked on the outside, rare inside.
But vegetables are more like chicken. You want even cooking all the way through, plus a little tasty browning on the outside. That requires a gentler flame, which is what propane delivers. Where my default used to be to pack a chimney starter full of charcoal if any grilling was happening, now I would guess I grill over propane twice as often as I do over charcoal. Partly that’s the convenience of having a grill ready to go ten minutes after starting the flame. Although cooking over charcoal adds a delicious flavour that propane can’t, you could argue that vegetables cooked over gas taste better because they can be cooked perfectly with much less effort than cooking them over charcoal would require.
At one point, I considered sending out an issue called, Grill a Fuck-Ton of Vegetables and Eat Well All Week, because that’s one (or two) of the great thing about grilled vegetables: they keep very well and they can be used in a bunch of different ways. As a side the night they’re grilled. In a pita with some grilled halloumi the next day. Chopped and tossed with pasta for a quick sauce the next night. Or chopped and blended with some olive oil or a bit of vinegar for a sauce to go with some meat. They’re an easy way to jazz up a pot of instant ramen or as filling for an omelet. Or dump them on chips and melt cheese over for easy nachos.
You can cut things like peppers and eggplants into pieces first, which is great for a single meal, but if you’re planning on using them other ways it’s much more efficient to oil and season them and then toss them over the flame whole. The easiest way to know if they are done is that the skin of peppers should be completely charred and ready to flake or peel off (a few minutes in an airtight container or a paper bag will help loosen them further with steam) and an eggplant should be charred and almost completely collapsed, like a deflated football. Once you remove the charred peel of the eggplant, a stern look is about all you should need to have turn almost completely to (delicious) mush.
“What about charcoal briquettes?” you might ask, “They burn cooler than the lump charcoal you’ve been talking about.” And you’re right, they do. But they are almost all made with a bunch of nasty binders and fillers that I don’t want my food over while they burn. Once exception to this seems to be XYLO charcoal blocks, which I came across recently at Lowe’s. They’re made up of compressed charcoal dust with a natural binder and, from what I’ve read, are more sustainable than a lot of processed charcoal products. The blocks (as opposed to XYLO’s other products) burn at a very moderate temperature, which is great for grilling larger quantities of vegetables than is possible on my tiny Weber gas grill.
I’m looking forward to experimenting with the XYLO blocks more. They burn for a long time and don’t leave much ash, so they might work very well for low and slow applications like ribs. I’ll try to keep you updated next quarter ;-)!
As I mentioned earlier, we’re at a cottage this week. We’ve been trying to keep the food low-key. Burgers, sausages, etc. Containers of deli coleslaw instead of making it from scratch. It’s a matter of eating well within the confines of a typical cottage kitchen and its cookware (not that I don’t travel with a few essentials wherever we go.)
It it a little extra? Maybe, but it’s born of years of bitter experience trying to extract a cork with a screwdriver and having dull knives slide off of onions and head straight for my fingers. I’d rather be a little extra than have to spend half of dinner swearing at what is (and isn’t) on hand.
Lunch today was the kind of thing that I consider the perfect cottage lunch, especially at a cottage that requires you to take all of your leftover food with you, leaving an empty fridge and cupboards behind. I very lightly toasted some sandwich bread while the broiler preheated. I spooned some leftover spaghetti sauce I’d made a few days ago over the bread and put it under the broiler to take the fridge chill off of it. When it was warm and the edges of the bread were starting to darken more, I topped it off with slices of processed cheese left over from burger night. White bread spaghetti sauce pizza!
It’s a far cry from the pizzas that started off this issue, but just as perfect when all you want to do is get back to finding a shady spot to read.
It’s time to split some wood for tonight’s campfire weenie roast, so I will leave you without getting to the usual What I’m consuming and What’s on the menu features. Look for them soon in Part 2 shortly!
I’ve given the proofreading team and the editorial board the week off, so please let me know about the typos and confusing sections where I cut but forgot to paste you will inevitably discover.
I would refer you to their video series on YouTube that goes into their dough process in more depth, but between the way they’ve written it up and the fact that they never finished the series, don’t bother. If you need tips beyond your quantities, drop me a line.
I’m taking this moment to acknowledge the incredible privilege I have in having enough outdoor space to do all of this. If you know me fairly well and you don’t have the space to try something like this, get in touch (If you know me fairly well, you’ll know how) and maybe we can work out a time when you can use this space to realize your grilling dreams. Or at the very least have a whack of grilled veg to make your week easier.