My only real fear in life - pyrophobia - can be attributed on the one hand to the part-time magician father of a childhood friend who, on the occasion of my third birthday and for reasons I will never understand, set one of my Airedale's Milkbones on a sterling silver platter, and turned it into a sputtering ball of flame with a mere wave of his hand. The trick scared me witless. On the other hand, I place the responsibility for this fear at the feet of my mother, who, with great regularity, used to ignite our lamb chops, sending angry blue flames licking up the outside of our white 1960s stove. Either way, fear of fire does not bode well when you cook for a living: food professionals are supposed to know how to do things like calmly flambé without immolating one's apron. Forget about flambéing: when the outside temperature heats up, my friends and family look to me, of course, to fire up the grill, and that's been something of a problem for me.
"There is really no need to be frightened," my partner said, dousing a perfectly-stacked charcoal pyramid with a substantial squirt of lighter fluid. She dropped a match into the late 1950s Weber kettle grill she inherited from her late father, and within seconds an eight foot conflagration ensued that threatened not only our house and her eyebrows, but most of the eastern seaboard. I backed up into the neighbor's yard, and the deer in the area stayed away for the next week, doubtless remembering that heartbreaking scene involving Bambi, her mother, and the evil fire that engulfed their forest. There had to be a better way, I thought, and there is.
When the warm weather hits and everyone is clamoring around the deck, waiting for that steak to be cooked or those franks to be slapped on the grill, there is no reason to shy away from controllable flame, even if one is pyrophobic, like me. For those purists (like my partner) who insist on going the charcoal route for the undeniable flavor that charcoal arguably imparts, the key to safe, controllable grilling is the inexpensive charcoal chimney -- an ancient gadget that hearkens back to the days when successful and safe fire-starting meant the difference between eating or starvation, and life or death. Simply stuff the bottom of the chimney with newspaper, fill the top with coals, and light the thing through the holes at the bottom. The paper will, in an ever-so-Zen-like manner, evenly and gently ignite the coals, which you then carefully spread out into your grill: it may not be as fast as using lighter fluid, but your food won't have that odorous, just-fished-out-of-the-waters-off-Perth-Amboy fragrance to it, either. Another option for pyrophobics is the auto-ignition gas grill: hook it up to a gas or propane line, flip a switch, and turn on as few or as many burners as you need, which is a boon to us pyrophobic, griller-wannabes. You might not get that fresh-grilled flavor, but odds are you won't singe the hair off your arm either, unless you cook something that has a particularly large amount of fat in it, like, say, those aforementioned lamb chops. Even with a gas grill, fat + flame = fire, so you've got to know when to duck and cover. Or go out for pizza.
Nevertheless, when it comes to grilling, I've discovered that, as with everything else, common sense and simplicity are key, and with those two things come inherent safety. Thinking of your grill as a big stove and the grates as a large sauté or roasting pan is a good place to start. For instance, what would happen if you placed something delicate and quick-cooking - shrimp, say - in a pan that's been sitting over high heat for fifteen minutes? You'd wind up with incinerated shrimp that have the consistency of a kneaded eraser. So it pays to think about what you're cooking and how long it would to take to cook it in your regular oven; most things cook quickly over direct flame so if you want something crisped on the outside and cooked on the inside, place it on a hotter part of the grill for a few minutes, and then move it to a cooler part of the grill, and cover it up. But whatever you decide to grill, remember the cardinal rules: always use a fireproof mitt, long, cool-handled tongs with which to turn your burgers/franks/fish/chicken, and finally (and perhaps most important), never, ever use hairspray before grilling.
After all these lessons and rules about tools and hairspray and flames that threaten to engulf the yard and the pachysandra, the question remains: was it worth the trouble and therapy of overcoming a phobia just to grill and provide summertime sustenance when the sun is as high as an elephant's eye? The answer is yes, even if it was only to make Porter's Brats, a dish so simple and thrillingly inexpensive that it makes me swoon with delight and rue the day I was ever afraid of grilling. One would never make an immediate association between Porter (a proper and gentlemanly, seersucker-wearing Deerfield man who lives in tidy Lake Forest, Illinois, where he is married to my best friend) and his recipe for grilling these divine, succulent, and slightly rakish sausages from Milwaukee which is, for me, part of what makes them so wonderful. "Boil them in cheap beer," he said, "with onions. And then throw them on a hot grill until they're crisp and plump." Which is exactly what I did. After I asked my partner to light the flame.
If you're unable to find real Bratwurst, substitute any good quality, mildly-flavored chicken, turkey, pork, or veal sausage. And if you're diet has taken a lo-carb turn, replace the dark beer with a lo-carb variety, increase the number of Juniper berries and black peppercorns, and serve the result on fresh, baby greens.
4-6 16-ounce bottles of dark beer
3 large sweet onions, sliced into thin rounds
10 Juniper berries (available at specialty markets)
6 Whole Black peppercorns
12 Bratwurst, or similar sausage
12 Frankfurter buns, toasted and kept warm
1. Fill a large stockpot with dark beer, add onions, juniper berries, and peppercorns, cover, and bring to a simmer for approximately 20-40 minutes. (The time on this recipe is flexible.) Place brats in the stockpot, and bring to a boil for 8 minutes; lower to a slow simmer for an additional 12 minutes.
2. Preheat gas or charcoal grill. For gas, heat to medium high; if you're using charcoal, spread the coals out evenly.
3. Grill brats until plump and crisp, moving them around to avoid burning them. Serve on toasted frankfurter buns, topped with the onions.