- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

When it comes to grilling, there are three kinds of people:

• Winter warriors, those die-hard pyromaniacs who grill no matter how much ice and snow have piled up on the patio.

• Fair-weather grillers, who are sufficiently endowed with common sense to put their grills into hibernation come the first freezing day or snowfall.

• Snowbirds, such as yours truly, who have arranged their lives to reside in a grill-friendly climate all year long.

The number of winter warriors is growing. If you belong to this stalwart band, you can skip the following paragraphs and proceed directly to the recipe. Actually, you should take a peek at the maintenance tips to make sure your grill is in top performance mode.

I’m going to assume that the rest of you belong to the middle group. By Memorial Day, you’re aching to savor the soulful scent of igniting charcoal, yearning to engage in the primal act of cooking meat or seafood or vegetables over live flames. In short, you’re just dying to fire up that grill.

Just as professional baseball players go to spring training, pit masters have their warm-up rituals. So here’s a guide to getting ready for the new grilling season.

First, for our friends who grill over charcoal (and, according to the Barbecue Industry Association, you belong to a rapidly growing subculture), you must uncover your grill or take it out of the garage.

If you didn’t clean it at the end of the season like you were supposed to, use a garden trowel to scrape any burnt-on ash or crud out of the firebox (or metal bowl if you have a kettle grill). While you’re at it, scrape out the ash catcher or ash pan, if your grill has one.

Make sure the air vents on the top and bottom of the grill open easily. If not, lubricate them with a little oil or WD-40. Remember, these vents enable you to control the heat when indirect grilling or smoking. For a hotter grill, open the vents wide; for a cooler grill, partially close the top vent.

If you have a grill with a cast-iron or chrome-plated grill grate, it may have rusted during the winter. This is not the end of the world. Simply build a hot fire in the grill, and when the grate is very hot, brush it vigorously with a long-handled, stiff wire brush. (It’s easy to clean a grill grate when it’s very hot and virtually impossible when it’s cold.)

Now take a paper towel, fold it into a small tight pad, dip it into a bowl of vegetable oil (such as canola oil; no need to use costly extra-virgin) and rub it across the bars of the hot grate at the end of long-handled tongs. Repeat as often as necessary, replacing the paper towel as needed. The grill grate should have a bright sheen of oil, and the pad should come away clean when you’re finished rubbing.

There are three basic tenants of good grill hygiene. I have a little mantra to help you remember them:

• Keep it hot.

• Keep it clean.

• Keep it lubricated.

Repeat these steps any time you fire up the grill just before you put on the food. And don’t forget to brush and oil the grill grate when you’re done cooking.

While we’re on the subject of charcoal, if you’re accustomed to lighting your coals by dousing them with lighter fluid, you might consider investing in a chimney starter, which is a large upright metal tube or box with a metal or wire partition inside.

You put the charcoal (preferably natural lump) in the top compartment and a sheet or two of crumpled newspaper in the bottom. Place the chimney in the grill, and light the newspaper. After 20 to 30 minutes, you’ll have perfect evenly lit coals.

The chimney starter has three advantages over the conventional method: It eliminates the need for petroleum starters (which, some people complain, leave an oily flavor in the food). It also lights the coals efficiently and uniformly, so there are no unlit coals on the periphery of the grill. Finally, it looks cool as all get-out.

And now for our friends with gas grills (about two-thirds of American grillers). Take your gas grill out of storage. Scrape any excess gunk or debris out of the firebox, as described for charcoal grills. I’m sure you remembered to empty the grease catcher/drip pan at the end of the season, but in the unlikely event that you did not, empty it now.

Remove the grates and metal baffles or ceramic or lava stones. Inspect the manifolds and burner tubes for spiders, dead leaves and other blockage, and remove with a long bamboo skewer or knitting needle.

Check the tiny holes in the burner tubes. If any are blocked, open with a pin or needle. Make sure the burner controls turn freely. If stuck or frozen, lubricate them with a little oil or WD-40.

Now hook up the propane and, with burner controls off, open the tank valve. Do you smell gas? If you do, make a half-and-half mixture of dish soap and water. Brush it over the propane tank valve and hoses leading into the grill. If there is a leak in the system, you’ll see a large bubble. Call your grill manufacturer and get these parts replaced.

If there are no leaks, turn on the burner valves and push the igniter. (Always have the lid open when you light your grill.)

Make sure that all burners light and that the burner controls work. If you have any problems, contact your grill manufacturer.

Preheat the grill to high, then brush and oil the grill grate as just described. Repeat this procedure right before you put on the food and again after you take it off.

Another tip learned from long, hard experience: Invest in a couple of extra full propane tanks. There’s nothing worse than running out of fuel in the middle of cooking.

Don’t forget the grill master’s mantra: Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated.

If you did borrow a knitting needle to clean your grill, wipe it off and carefully put it back where you found it.

Dill grilled salmon

The recipe calls for salmon, but you could use any steak fish, such as swordfish or tuna.

For that matter, you could substitute another fresh herb, including tarragon or basil, for the dill.

2 lemons

1 bunch fresh dill, washed, shaken dry, stemmed and roughly chopped, with a few sprigs reserved for garnish, if desired

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2/3 cup olive oil

Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

4 salmon steaks or fillets (1½ to 2 pounds, each piece about 1 inch thick), or other steak fish

Oil for greasing grill

Greens, optional

Cut 1 lemon into wedges and set aside for serving.

Remove 3 strips lemon zest (the oil-rich outer rind) from the other lemon with a vegetable peeler and roughly chop. Juice this peeled lemon.

Make the marinade by placing the dill, garlic and lemon zest in a food processor and finely chopping.

Gradually pour in the lemon juice and olive oil, and puree until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. (The marinade should be highly seasoned.)

Arrange salmon pieces in a nonreactive baking dish just large enough to hold them.

Pour most of the marinade over the fish, turning the pieces a couple times to coat both sides. Set aside a few tablespoons of marinade for serving. Cover and marinate fish in the refrigerator while you light the grill.

Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Drain salmon steaks and arrange on hot grill with all the pieces going in the same direction, with the long axis of the fish running at about a 45-degree angle to the bars of the grate. Grill until cooked to taste, 3 to 5 minutes per side for medium, and rotating the fish 45 degrees after 1½ minutes to lay on a handsome crosshatch of grill marks. (A spatula works well for turning.)

Transfer salmon to a platter or plates lined with greens, if desired, or garnish with dill sprigs.

Spoon reserved marinade over top or into a little bowl on the side and serve at once with lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Makes 4 servings.

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