- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My travels on the world’s barbecue trail have led to some rather strange places and exposed me to some pretty strange foods — but I never expected to find a twist on the commonplace hot dog at 3 a.m. outside a Rio de Janeiro samba school.

The term “school” is a little misleading here. Actually, it was a cavernous hall where members of one of Rio’s many samba clubs practice their routines in preparation for Mardi Gras. You can work up quite an appetite gyrating to the thunderous beat of samba. In response, outside the club, dozens of grill jockeys stand ready to relieve that hunger.

One pit master in particular caught my attention as much for her grill — an automobile tire rib with charcoal — as for her unique take on hot dogs. She cut deep notches in each dog and filled it with an aromatic mince of onions, chilies and garlic all chopped to about the consistency of dust.

The accompanying condiment was equally striking. No ho-hum mustard or ketchup for this dog. The topping was an electrifying salsa made from tomato, corn kernels, onions, olives, peas and diced hard-cooked quail eggs.

Even if you’re a total incompetent at the grill, you probably have tried grilling a hot dog. If you’re like many neophytes, maybe you have served them half-frozen in the center (no big deal because hot dogs come fully cooked) or have burned them to a crisp.

I hope you at least remembered to lightly butter the buns and toast them on the grill. In any case, your task would have been greatly simplified had you known about three-zone grilling.

In three-zone grilling, you set one burner on high (if you’re using a gas grill), one burner on medium and leave the third burner off. The hot zone is the searing zone, the medium zone is the cooking zone and the off zone is the safety zone, where the dogs can rest if they start to burn or there are flare-ups. On a two-burner gas grill, the warming rack serves as the safety zone.

On a charcoal grill, the hot coals are mounded in a double-thick layer on one side (the hot zone) and in a single thick layer in the center (the medium zone). The remaining third of the grill is left coal-free (the cool or safety zone). On either type of grill, you control the heat by moving the food back and forth from hot zone to cool zone.

While we’re on the subject of hot dogs, I also have some thoughts on grilling bratwurst. Once found mainly at football-game parking lots in Wisconsin, brats have become a popular alternative to hot dogs at cookouts and tailgate picnics across the United States.

Being a nice Jewish boy from Baltimore, I didn’t know much about bratwurst until Johnsonville Sausage became one of the sponsors of my PBS television show. What I soon learned is that unless you know how to handle it, a bratwurst can quickly become an incendiary device, particularly if you try to grill it directly over high heat the way you would its hot dog cousin.

A brat is a mildly spiced, generously marbled pork sausage that, unlike the precooked hot dog, requires thorough cooking. Wisconsin wisdom holds that the proper way to grill it is low and slow, directly over a gentle fire. A medium-low to medium heat is enough to crisp the casing and cook the sausage through without causing it to burst, sending highly flammable juices shooting into the fire. Oh, it’s also a big help to use tongs, not a barbecue fork, for turning the brats. You don’t want to puncture the skin, allowing the fragrant juices to escape.

Over the years, I’ve developed another way to cook brats, and it’s flame- and fail-proof. You grill the brats using the indirect method. On a gas grill, you light the burners on one side or on the outside or front and back, and you cook the bratwurst over the unlit burner. On a charcoal grill, you rake the coals into mounds at opposite sides of the grill and cook the brats over a drip pan in the center.

To my mind this is the best way to grill bratwurst. The casing crisps, the meat remains plump and moist, and you never get flare-ups. There’s another advantage to indirect grilling of brats. Toss a handful of soaked hickory chips on each mound of coals, and you endow the brats with the soulful flavor of wood smoke.

Below is a hot dog that really is hot. It’s sliced down the middle and stuffed with pepper Monterey Jack cheese, diced onions and pickled jalapeno chilies. You can prepare a cooked bratwurst the same way.

Whichever you use, one thing’s for sure: Labor Day will never be the same.

Hot dogs

This recipe was adapted from my book “How to Grill” (Workman Publishing).

8 knockwurst or thick hot dogs

4 to 6 ounces of pepper Jack cheese, thinly sliced and cut into

½-inch wide strips

1 jar of sliced, pickled jalapeno chilies (about 32), drained

1/4 medium white onion, finely minced

8 hot dog buns

2 tablespoons melted butter

Condiments of choice

Set up grill for direct grilling and build a three-zone fire. (See preceding instructions.) Get out butchers’ string.

Make two lengthwise cuts in each knockwurst or hot dog to remove a slender V-shaped strip from the center. The idea is to cut the hot dog almost in half lengthwise but leave the halves attached at the bottom.

Line the resulting slit with cheese and chili slices and minced onions. Tie hot dogs crosswise in 2 or 3 places with pieces of butchers’ string to hold in the filling.

Arrange hot dogs on grate lengthwise so they are supported by the bars of the grate. Grill until nicely browned on bottom and both sides, tilting hot dogs on their sides with tongs, 6 to 8 minutes.

If dogs start to burn, move them to moderate zone or cool zone. Transfer hot dogs to a platter or cutting board and snip off and discard the strings.

Meanwhile, brush buns with melted butter and toast them. Again, if they start to burn, move to the medium or cool zone. Serve hot dogs with condiments of your choice and get ready for a revelation. Makes 4 servings.

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