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Chef John Foster: Memorial Day is also grillin’ day, and here’s to doing it the caveman way


Memorial Day snuck up on me again this year; it always does.

This great U.S. holiday is the day set aside to remember those men and women who died in service to our country, first and foremost. But Memorial Day is also widely considered a red-letter day for the start of summer vacation and, in my world, for grilling out.

Too often in recent memory, the day has been blustery, cold and rainy – not a good combination for grilling out. And if you grill on wood like I do, you must be able to rely on some dry kindling from the backyard to get started.

Yes, I am a caveman. No gas, charcoal or infrared for me; I am a sticks and log guy, building the inside of my old Weber with small kindling, larger sticks and then nice dry split wood. It produces a clean hot fire, that bank-to-coals that can be brought back up to flame at any time.

It’s a bit tricky to cook on; hot spots are like the face of the sun and if you don’t build it evenly then one side of the grill has no heat. I think the reasons I like this type of cooking revolve around campfires as a kid and the smell of wood smoke. I also like the flavor that it imparts to all the items, not just the juicy proteins.

And the proteins would do well to be juicy. This is how we all cooked in the old days, over the hearth and usually lower and slower than we want to now. Meats were trimmed less, so extra fat added a layer of insulation to the meat, allowing the muscle to absorb the flavor and moisture of the fat as it melted slowly. This allowed the huge haunches of meat to stay moist and develop softer textures.

Make no mistake, a quarter of bison was still pretty tough, but it was edible. These days we trim our proteins much closer, sacrificing some of the flavor and moisture in exchange for healthier food. We have conjured spice rubs and marinades out of thin air and relied on modern food science to replace the salt and pepper of our youth. Unfortunately, even the best of the store-bought condiments are full of things that belong on the periodic table, not the dinner table. So if you want to avoid the science lesson and stick to grilling the caveman way, here are a few suggestions:

Use meats that are inherently more marbled with fat. As much as you might like pork tenderloin, it is not ideal for grilling, it’s too lean. There are ways to adapt, but more on that later. For now let’s concentrate on a nice pork loin or pork chop with a ribbon of fat cap on the edge.

To give it more flavor and moisture, add it to a brine of equal parts water, apple cider and apple cider vinegar. For every three cups of the brine, add in 1 cup of brown sugar and 1 cup of kosher salt and finish the brine with a quarter cup of fresh cracked black pepper. Mix the brine thoroughly until the solids are dissipated. Add in the pork and leave in the brine for an hour. Make sure when you go to grill the pork that you dry the surface thoroughly so that it doesn’t stick.

If you skin the chicken, replace the fat. Chicken in many other countries is skinned before cooking; the thought is that the skin is unclean. Truth be told, I love slightly charred skin from the wood grill, but too charred is bitter and disappointing. If you make the choice to skin the chicken, then the fat the skin yields needs to be replaced.

Try wrapping the pieces in bacon that has been blanched briefly in boiling water. This provides moisture and flavor. If that isn’t your thing then try a wet spice rub. My favorite is jerk spice, a rub from the Caribbean that has been around for more than 500 years. The Arawak Indians of the Caribbean basin were known to use similar rubs to preserve and in some cases hide the off-flavor of meat and seafood.

To finish the protein they grill it over wood (the circle is complete). The combination of the spice and the wood smoke is intoxicating. The wet part of the rub comes from mixing the dry spice with clarified butter or canola oil to rub the mix more thoroughly into the chicken and give it fat. Then leave the chicken overnight or at least an hour before popping it on the grill. Don’t liquefy the whole recipe of dry mix, which can be kept in a mason jar for a week or two in a cool dark place.

Jerk spice

5 tablespoons of onion powder
1 tablespoon thyme
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon Jamaican allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Help the flavor of steaks, don’t hide it. Finally, there is the issue of how to flavor your steaks. Most prefer the touch of Worcestershire or A1 sauce, some favor BBQ sauce or even ketchup. But consider the flavor profile of a well-marbled strip steak or rib eye. Mineral undertones with a rich fatty finish, a well-grilled steak requires acid to balance the richness. Add a little pop of spice and herb and you have a marinade light enough to help the flavor, not hide it. Drop your steak in this marinade for an hour, wipe it clean and grill.

Steak marinade

4 cups of salad oil
1 cup of Tamari soy
1 cup of cider vinegar
1 cup of Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, tarragon and thyme in equal portions

Whisk the ingredients thoroughly until combined and add the steak to the marinade.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.

Click here to read more from Chef John Foster.

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