Image Credit: Joshua Thompson via Wikipedia
This week's Weekend Grub is less a recipe for what to cook than some suggestions about how to cook it. If you're looking for recipes, check out yesterday's post on vegan BBQ.
Summer is here, and for many, that means time to start cooking outdoors. For some, bottled gas (propane, most commonly) is a preferable choice for a number of reasons, while many others prefer to cook over charcoal. I'm not going to get into a long debate about which is the best. It's something like the 'paper-or-plastic' debate. Given some of the issues around the extraction and processing of propane, as well as it's non-renewability compared to wood charcoal, I think that it's possible to make the case either way.
If you choose to cook over coals, there are some considerations that can help make your grilling a greener experience. A chimney starter is a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use tool that quickly gives you coals ready for grilling. Most importantly, there is no need to rely on starter fuels to get a good fire for grilling. I was introduced to the chimney starter by a good friend several years ago. I was immediately drawn to the simplicity and efficiency of it. It concentrates the heat to start the coals more quickly and evenly than just lighting them in the grill. (Cooking celebrity Alton Brown famously even uses a chimney starter as a kind of concentrated mini-grill for quickly searing tuna. I haven't tried this myself yet, but I plan to, when I have a suitable opportunity. The recipe for Chimney Tuna Loin is fairly quick and easy, but requires a high quality piece of tuna.)
The chimney starter is a simple tool. Very basically, it is an open ended metal cylinder with a grille in the middle, and a handle on one side. Stuff a single sheet of crumpled newspaper into the bottom, and fill the top part with as much charcoal as you need, then light the newspaper. The paper serves as kindling to get the coals started, and the cylindrical shape keeps the heat focused on the coals themselves. After a few minutes, you'll have flames coming out the top, and the coals are ready to go.
In addition to how you start your coals, you can also make greener choices in your selection of the charcoal itself.
First of all, choose natural, or lump, charcoal rather than processed briquettes. Briquettes have undergone more fabrication, so there's more energy spent to make them. They also have various ingredients in addition to charcoal, binders which hold them in their shape, for example, as well as sprayed-on hydrocarbons which are used to make the "easy light" or "match light" briquettes. Some other things that can be found in briquettes include: coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone and borax. If you really want to get into it, I found that there is a website with lots of information specifically about lump charcoal, and even has reviews of different brands of charcoal.
Secondly, look for the origin of the charcoal. A couple years ago, I bought a bag of lump charcoal rather than briquettes, and was proud of myself for doing so until I saw that it came from Brazil. (Wonderful, someone's found a way to make even more money off of clearcutting rainforests.) Charcoal isn't something that you need to import from thousands of miles away. I've since found a store that carries charcoal that is domestically manufactured, and that is what I've used since then.
Lastly, if you are sticking with hamburgers, but have decided to try some locally-raised, grass-fed beef, remember that there is typically less fat in it than there is in most typical supermarket ground beef, and you should adjust how you cook it in order to have it cook properly.