By Ron James
The 4th of July is magical for grilling – a day when mere mortals morph into mystic grill gods who can do no wrong in the ancient art of burning food. Many Uptown grilling enthusiasts likely fall into this delusional culinary category. And the empowerers of the delusion – bemused friends and family – once again brace themselves for a holiday meal that may be any combination of done to perfection, bloody rare or burned beyond recognition.
I heard a wonderful anecdote about this syndrome when I interviewed one of America’s great grill chefs and restaurateurs, Chris (“Thrill of the Grill”) Schlesinger, about his passion for grilling.
“My dad was a huge outdoor cook, ” Schlesinger explained with a laugh. “He made grilling one of the hardest and most complicated tasks in the world. He checked the wind and barometric pressure and made elaborate preparations to get the grill just right – then he would burn the food. Having conquered the great outdoors, he would march into the house with the burned remains, exclaiming this was the best-grilled food he had ever cooked, amazed that this effort exceeded his last.”
My wife would include me in the mystic grillers bunch. This most likely is a result of our diametrically opposed ideas about the definition of done. I think that one of us is color blind – my pink is her red. What we do agree on is the wines we sip while I’m grilling, and while she watches me grill (making sure that my pink is her pink).
For us, wines to grill by should be chilled, crisp and easy to drink. The list would include wines like dry roses, sauvignon blancs, viogniers, unoaked chardonnays, pinot grigios, and dry to semi-dry rieslings and gewürztraminers. The newer, more elegant and lighter styles of pinot noir would be excellent choices as well. These same wines may also lend themselves very well as the food wine if the grilled food is fish or chicken.
Now this is a personal preference, so it really comes down to what wines you personally enjoy any time or anywhere. If you want to break out a big cab or an ass-kicking zin, then by all means go for it. Schlesinger, as I do, believes barbecue and wine go hand-in-hand. “Whether it’s a burger or grilled mussels,” he pointed out, “there’s a wine for it. I treat wine like another ingredient in the dish. I think of it as a spice.”
Summer Wines of the Grilling Kind
Mirassou 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($9-10)
This is one of my favorite sauvignon blancs. It’s a crisp, refreshing and very quaffable wine and a good value to boot. If you like over-the-top passion-fruity and grassy New Zealand sauvignon blancs, this is not the wine for you. This is a fun, approachable wine with lots of refreshing melon and pear fruit flavors and just enough tropical fruit flavors to give it the trademark varietal taste. It’s a nicely layered wine with subtle mid-tones of honey with perfect acidity for a nice, crisp, clean finish. You can find this wine in many supermarkets and wine shops and box stores.
Richard Totah, co-owner of Jake’s Wine Bar, Hillcrest
The White Knight, 2007 Clarksburg Viognier ($25 in wine bar)
Viognier (vee-ohn-yay) is a wonderful white wine varietal just being discovered by American wine enthusiasts. It fits perfectly with our grilling theme. Fresh, dry, crisp and fruity almost always with floral and spice overtones. The White Knight is from Don Sebastiani and Sons who are working hard to make “the next generation” of wines. If this wine is an example, the next generation is a winner. It has the floral and spice along with and nice citrus touch and clean acidic finish.
A Peachy Grill Recipe
I asked Schlesinger to select a favorite summer grill recipe for our readers. His choice was a tasty mélange of grilled chicken and sausage with peaches, peppers, pecorino cheese and black olive vinaigrette. It is perfect for a summer brunch or lunch.
“This light flavor-packed, easy-to-make dish will get rave reviews,” said Schlesinger. “It’s similar to meals prepared in many other countries. Instead of one big slab of protein with side dishes, it combines fairly small quantities of meat with other flavorful ingredients to create a dish with lots of interesting tastes and textures. All you need to make this a meal is a loaf of fresh, crusty bread.”
GRILLED CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE TOSSED WITH PEACHES AND PEPPERS
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup good-quality black olives, pitted and chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 ripe but firm peaches, pitted and each cut into 8 chunks
1 cup flat parsley leaves, well-washed and dried
2 pounds boneless, skin-on split chicken breasts
1 pound hot Italian sausage links
2 red bell peppers, halved and seeded
1 red onion, peeled and sliced thick
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 pound very thinly shaved pecorino Romano cheese
Yields 4 to 6 servings.
In a large bowl, whisk together extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, garlic, black olives, and salt and pepper. Stir in peaches and parsley and set aside.
Sprinkle chicken generously with salt and pepper and place over coals skin side down. Grill until breasts are just opaque throughout, about 7 to 9 minutes per side. To check for doneness, nick, peek and cheat: Cut into one of the breasts at the thickest point and peek to be sure it is opaque all the way through with no pinkness.
Soon after you start grilling the chicken, put the sausages on the grill and cook, rolling them around occasionally until they are done. When they are both done, cut them into bite-sized pieces and add to the bowl with the vinaigrette and peaches.
Coat pepper halves and onion slices with vegetable oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Place on grill and cook until they are well-browned. Cut into bite-sized pieces and add to bowl.
Toss all ingredients together until everything is well-coated with dressing. Transfer to serving bowl, sprinkle with shaved pecorino and serve.
Ron James is a wine and food columnist and radio host whose columns and features have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.