The Comfort Food Diaries: Grilling in Winter

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Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

At 20 below zero, it takes extra time for the grill to get up to speed. After years of living in a cold, dark place, I no longer bother throwing on a coat or boots before climbing over snowdrifts to fire up the battered Weber in my backyard.

"North Country? Where the hell is that?"

Most of my colleagues in Manhattan have a vague idea that "upstate" lies somewhere north of Yonkers, so when I explain that my geographic coordinates are closer to the Canadian border, eyes pop.

On maps, my house abuts a long blue line, the official demarcation for eight million acres of empty, better known as Adirondack Park. About 30 minutes farther up the road is a barren plateau called Tug Hill, due east of Lake Ontario, which frequently sets records for daily snowfall totals in the Lower 48. We're talking more than 200 inches per winter, folks. Last year, the mercury never rose above 10 degrees for the entire month of January. Lake effect. Wind shear. Thundersnow. Black ice. Polar vortex. Weather is not a dull subject up here. I've learned to chop kindling with a maul, fetch the mail on snowshoes, turn through a skid on poorly plowed roads, and cook mammoth stews that steam up the kitchen windows. But when a blizzard howls and my 200-year-old house creaks in response, cabin fever kicks in, so that's when I get serious about grilling.

First comes the dash outside to remove the vinyl covering. A crust of snow and ice sticking to the exterior has to be chopped away, then the frozen-stiff material is wrestled off the unit. The cover is supposed to extend the life of the grill by protecting it from the elements, but I've discovered that extreme cold will break down a cover after about two winters anyway. I crank open the propane tank and stand there, body shielding the pilot light, as it generally takes six or so crappy wooden matches before the flame catches. (The electronic igniter died a few years back.) I scrape char off the cast iron grates, slam down the lid, and run back inside.

Before moving to the North Country, I didn't eat much red meat. Steak was not in my budget downstate, but this is a land of hunters, and everyone seems armed to the teeth. Bow, trap, black powder, shotgun. Deer tied to the hood. A neighbor goes after black bear. Another shares the ducks he bags every autumn. One of the carpenters who worked on the farmhouse when I first arrived had a bumper sticker on the back of his pickup that read: "I didn't claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables." My butcher's name is Leonard. He has rabbit and sweetbreads in the freezer case; makes his own liverwurst and headcheese. I drive to town about once a week to see him. He cuts my porterhouses one and a quarter inches thick and charges nine bucks a pound for the privilege. It's the ideal portion size for those nights when I feel like frostbite is a small price to pay for animal protein properly seared over open flame.

By the time the thermometer finally hits 500°F, my steak has been rubbed with olive oil, cracked black peppercorns, and coarse sea salt. Now I don a hooded parka purchased during a trip to Iceland. (Those Vikings know how to dress for subzero.) Back outside, I whip open the grill and toss on the meat before too much heat can escape. Smoke billows into the darkness. Fat flares in the drip pan. I can hear the creek running and the crackle of ice on pines as the wind picks up. Fingertips and cheeks tingle. Eyes tear. The moisture in my nostrils starts to freeze. Thankfully, the wine doesn't, so I swig a glass while waiting to flip the steak. Booze is actually counterproductive under these circumstances: Contrary to popular belief, it does not keep you warm, and can advance hypothermia. I risk it for a decent Pinot Noir.

After 15 minutes, I'm done, even if the meat isn't. Before returning to the cheerful warmth inside, I look heavenward on clear nights, tracking Orion or Ursa Major as they rise. On a really rare occasion, when conditions are just right, the aurora borealis might shimmer green or blue or red overhead.

How's that for dinner and a show?