One summer day a few years ago, I tried to light a faulty grill at a friend's house by the beach. After a few failed attempts, there was a small sonic boom, my body slammed against the adjacent wall, and I smelled burning hair. My body still shaking, the first thing I did was rush to the bathroom to make sure I still had eyebrows. (I was slated to go on vacation with my boyfriend's parents for the first time the next day, and I feared that a lack of eyebrows would hinder my ability to be charming.) Thankfully, all I'd lost was the first inch of hair around my widow's peak and a bit of grilling confidence.
As my hair grew back, from charred tips, to unsightly tufts, to awkward curly bangs, to normal, so too did my love of grilling. That smoky flavor! The outdoors! I love it all. But grilling in New York City is, according to varying accounts, dangerous, a pain, or illegal.
With summer around the corner, I perused the New York Fire Department's Barbecue Safety webpage (finding, incidentally, that I was one of the twenty people each year who injure themselves because of a propane grill). The site is one big cautionary tale. Turn on your grill, it will explode, and you will die.
If you want to tempt fate, the FDNY has posted the following rules:
1. Only use a charcoal barbecue on a balcony or terrace if there is a 10-foot clearance from the building and there is a nearby source of water (garden hose or four gallon pail of water)
2. Never use a propane barbecue grill on a balcony, terrace, or roof.
These two stipulations make it impossible for someone like me to grill in the city. Does the fire department really expect me to schlep four gallons of water, a charcoal grill, my grill tools, marinated salmon, soaked cedar plank, shrimp, spices, oil, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel up four flights of stairs to the un-landscaped roof of my apartment house, where, if I succeed in precariously balancing the grill on a flat surface and light the damn thing, I also risk setting the entire building on fire, due to the moderate-to-extremely-flammable oil-based weatherproofing on the roof? I've already charred my hair once. Thanks, but I'll just order in some pizza.
This weekend, I experimented. What would happen if I took my favorite grill meal and moved it inside? On the menu: soy sauce honey-sesame cedar-plank salmon and spicy lemon-garlic charred shrimp. I had an inkling the cedar plank would impart the smoky flavor I love so much from the grill, and instead of making a lose marinade for the shrimp, I'd make a pastier to coat the outside, in the hopes that I'd get a nice crunch. I'd pan-sear them in almost-smoking oil on the stovetop, with no fear of little shrimps falling through the cracks in my grill. Take that, FDNY.
While cedar-plank cooking may sound hazardous or unbearably professional, all you have to do is soak the plank in liquid for a few hours before cooking with it. (You can find the planks at many grocery stores.) As it heats, the water from the plank keeps the food moist, and the wood imparts a subtle smokiness. While I usually choose to soak the plank in water (boring), you can soak it in a variety of liquids—wine, cider, beer, juice—which will help you to flavor your food even more. Plus, the plank is economical: if you care for it correctly, you can reuse it dozens of times, enriching the wood flavor each time, like a well-seasoned wok. It's amazing on the grill. What about in the oven?
It was lovely, indeed. The salmon turned out flaky and smoky, and the pan-seared shrimp were crunchy on the outside and juicy in the middle. All my hair stayed intact, to boot. Far less hazardous than grilling, and, I was surprised and thrilled to find out, pretty tasty.
I'm eager to hear if anyone out there has grill-simulation tricks up his or her sleeve for those of us who'd prefer not to travel long distances with a grill and four gallons of water. And so I open up the comment floodgates!
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