Long Islanders gravitate to the outdoors and toward the soft glow of the backyard grill as the season shifts from the gray horrors of winter to the blue heaven of spring. With a deep-seeded caveman sensibility pushing us to gather around a flame, we delight in the prospect of open-air cooking with fare hunted and gathered from local butchers, supermarkets and farm stands.
After all, we as Americans have grill marks on our souls. And whether succumbing to our carnivorous nature with steaks, chops, burgers, chicken and hot dogs or accepting our vegetarian brethren with their egglants, mushrooms and asparagus, a grill gathering early in the season swiftly silences the ghost of old man winter.
But rather than simply thrusting meat to fire amid grunts of approval from onlookers, grilling through the summer months benefits greatly from modest planning and carefully chosen ingredients.
As luck would have it, an organization with the main purpose of guiding consumers through their own personal grilling journey actually exists. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, first established in 1980 as the Hearth Products Assocation before merging with the Barbecue Industry Association in 2002, is a trade association whose members include companies taht manufacture, import, distribute, sell and service barbecues, grills and smokers. With May being National Barbecue Month, HPBA communications director Sue Crosby said people are excited to get outdoors and put flame to food.
“People love grilling because it becomes an event,” she said. “You have the neighbors over in a casual setting and you showcase your cooking skills. As for the food, it’s a change in pace from indoor cooling. People love the smokiness and that unmistakable grill flavor.”
Crosby said barbecue and grill statistics prove that consumers are grilling year-round, even during the usually shut-in winter months. According to the HPBA, shipments of grills and smokers reached close to 14 million consumers in 2013, with gas grills edging out charcoal grills by more than three million units.
The great debate between charcoal and gas grills can often reach a fever pitch in backyard barbecues across America. While some grillers crave the smokey nuanced flavors of charcoal, others seek the quick-lighting power of gas.
“People are going to choose a grill based on their needs,” said Crosby. “Gas grills are great for a quick outdoor meal. Right after work, you want to throw a burger on a grill; that’s when gas comes in handy. But with the charcoal grill, that’s for the taste. That low and slow, smokey flavor that barbecue fanatics crave.”
While the quick spark of a gas or electric grill will speed along the cooking process and keep cookout guests from impatient groaning, many purists believe that nothing beats the deep, rich, smokiness of a charcoal-kissed meal. Kingsford, those charcoal standbys, offers Match Light charcoal that ignites fast thanks to a measure of lighter fluid already on the briquet. But for true charcoal club members, nothing beats real hardwood charcoal. These imposing lumps are not uniformed, but instead are unique, like intensely black snowflakes that reach blazing temperatures when given a suitable amount of time.
Drawbacks to the charcoal grill are they are a bit harder to handle and are also messier. They also require a lot more attention from the outdoor chef. Gas grills, on the other hand, offer push-button lighting and a constant, consistant heat requiring far less attention. But those advantages pale in comparison to the primal thrill of lighting and playing with fire through charcoal.
As for the meats hitting the grill most often, Crosby said the favorites remain the same. According to HPBA, the top meats in order of most grilled include: hot dogs, steak, burgers and chicken parts.
When it comes time to forage for grill fare, Long Island boasts an impressive collection of meat purveying masters. With two locations in Roslyn and Woodbury Prime Time Butchers offers full service, four-week dry aging done on the premises. Ivarone Bros., with locations in Woodbury, Wantagh, New Hyde Park and Maspeth, Queens, is a famous Italian butcher and specialty shop. The old-school meat house age their meats for 21 to 28 days and also sell American Kobe Beef in certain cuts, hamburgers and hot dogs.
For a Massapequa butcher shop, head to Sal’s Meat Market. Operating since 1956, this neighborhood fixture boasts meats aged 21 days in an all-wood, walk-in using UV lighting and moisture packs to keep optimal temperature for aging.
These days, food and cooking are cultural phenomena; The Food Network is incredibly popular and people are constantly snapping photos of food for their many social media personas. And grilling gives the everyday home chef the opportunity to experiment in ways that elevate food and impress family and friends.
But beyond the enticing allure of grill meats and vegetables, the art of grilling truly exists to bring groups of people together in an unplugged setting free from the technology that seems to follow everyone around.
“Cooking outdoors gets people away from smartphones and computer screens,” said Crosby. “Grilling is about kicking back with friends and food.”
For all things grilling, including choosing grills, safety, knowing your fuel and much more, visit the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association at www.hpba.org and click on the “consumers” tab at the top of the page.