For Tim Coughlan, the pitmaster at Grace & Grit caterers in Southold, the open flames of a grill offers a primal outlet to both play with fire and to turn a piece of raw meat into sustenance. “It brings out the caveman in me,” he said. “It goes back to the origins of cooking.”
The smell of char-grilled meat and vegetables is in the air as barbecue season is in full swing on the North Fork. But Coughlan, who studied at Johnson & Wales University’s campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, and worked at various restaurants in the South, reminds home chefs to watch what they label “barbecue.”
“The New York definition of barbecue is usually burgers, dogs and chicken on a grill,” he said. “That’s a cookout, not a barbecue. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
If you are looking to take your grill game up a notch, however, Coughlan has a simple prescription. Number one, make sure you are investing in quality protein and fresh produce.
Living on the East End means ready access to pasture-raised meat and flavorful, in-season veggies. Deep Roots Farm, in Southold, 8 Hands Farm, in Cutchogue, McCall Wines, also in Cutchogue and Browder’s Birds, in Mattituck are all good places to start for high-quality, humanely raised beef, pork, chicken and more. As for vegetables, you’ll find squash, peppers, onions, eggplant and, of course, local corn at most any North Fork farmstand.
Next comes the question of what marinade or rub to use. For Coughlan, less can be more.
“If I’m cooking for myself, I stick to salt and pepper,” Coughlan said. “I don’t need all the stuff to jazz it up.”
A few tips — if you are going to use wooden skewers for kebabs or veggies, soak them in water first so they don’t burn. Lightly coat the grill rack, not the food, with oil. Safest way to do this? Apply oil to a paper towel and use tongs to rub the towel it on the rack.
And try to keep part of the grill medium-hot and one part less so you can sear the meat, then finish the cooking at a lower temperature. Preparing a gas grill is simple, as you can just turn all but one of the burners off. But a charcoal grill is a bit more complicated, as you need to leave a space in the middle free of charcoal
Coughlan also recommends purchasing a perforated pan to grill anything that might slip between the grill racks — shrimp or mushrooms, for instance.
But say you’re already a proficient home griller but want to try your hand at cooking meat low and slow, for a super-tender texture and deep rich flavor. Then it’s time to get smoking.
“You don’t need to have a great big smoker to make successful barbecue,” Coughlan said. “You just need indirect and low heat.” So before going all in and purchasing a smoker, he suggests turning your propane or charcoal grill into an ersatz one.
Here’s the hack: Soak three or four handfuls of wood chips and wrap them in foil. Place the pouch directly on the flame and heat the grill to about 200 degrees. Close the lid and you have a makeshift method of cooking some real barbecue — dry-rubbed ribs, for example, or boneless pork butt for pulled pork. Careful, though. Coughlan calls the hack a gateway drug to becoming a bona fide smoker. “You’ll say, ‘Hey this works pretty good,’” he added. “And then you’ll want to invest in a smoker.”
Still looking to do something different in your yard? If so, an outdoor pizza oven might be a good option. The biggest benefit of these domed cookers is that they can heat up to temperatures of 600 degrees and beyond rather quickly — much higher than most kitchen ovens. They also make a striking and — at around $2,000, a somewhat affordable investment — centerpiece for outdoor entertaining.
Jason Leonard, a contractor from Southold, recently built a 150-square-foot covered bar, grill and entertaining area behind his home. He purchased the actual oven from an outfit in Arizona, but built the rest — including a steel-topped bar, paved patio and wood overhang — himself. The result is an attractive space for the family to get together and nosh on eight to ten 12-inch pies at a time. “It started with the pizza oven and everything evolved around it,” he said.
A bonus? Sometimes they’ll hit the Leonard family chicken coop and top a pie with a fried egg.
Being a contractor, Leonard was lucky enough to be able to do most of the work himself, but if you don’t have the same skill set, no worries. Contact Jason C. Leonard Inc., and he can make one for you, too.
If you want something a little fancier, something that you know not every one else has, check out North Fork Iron Works on Instagram. Their custom-made Argentine-style grills (parrillas) are big enough to roast a suckling pig over a wood-fueled flame.
The grills are built by Brendan McCarthy, a fisherman and photographer who was inspired after meeting Argentine chef Francis Mallman, the father of the “Live Fire” movement, which advocates cooking over a wood fire. McCarthy recalled Mallman cooking striped bass on the beach following a fishing expedition. He sandwiched the fish between two wood fires using an apparatus that looked like two end tables. It inspired him to make something that could recreate that experience.
Plus, a grill like this offers one of the few opportunities to cook over wood without going camping. “You get the flavors from cherry or apple wood that you don’t get from gas,” McCarthy said. And because the height of the cooking grate can be adjusted using a 15-inch hand wheel typically made from a reclaimed factory object, it also allows for temperature control, a difficult task when cooking with wood. “The main thing about that grill, you can bring it down to the coals, actually, to really sear something,” McCarthy explained. “Then you can move it up and down depending on the temperature you are looking for.”
But it’s the experience and the bragging rights among other grill nerds that really make it stand out. “It’s a little more festive, first and foremost,” he said. “ And you are using wood as opposed to gas. If you’re with your buddies you can argue, ‘Did you let the wood burn enough? Is it going to be too smoky?’ And kind of geek out.”
If that all sounds like too much trouble, Coughlan at Grace & Grit would be happy to swoop in and handle the grill while you relax and tap into ancient pleasure of enjoying the sights, smells, texture and taste of all that goodness cooked outside.
“Really, this is the reason the human race is still around,” Coughlan said. “You can only eat so many nuts and berries.”
This story was originally published in the June 2017 edition of northforker magazine