Cook — and eat — outdoors for the best summer flavors
Special to the Weekly
EAGLE COUNTY — Short-lived as it is here in the Vail Valley, summer is sweet. And as much as we spend our days soaking up the sun and warmth hiking, biking and strolling through farmers markets, etc., outdoor dining is also a must.
When throwing a casual meal outside, most people view it as a sublime opportunity to fire up their fancy gas grills, but it turns out that the best flavors are found by employing more rudimentary outdoor cooking techniques.
“One thing to know with outdoor meals is that propane or natural gas is your worst enemy,” said local chef Riley Romanin, who owns and operates Hooked in Beaver Creek, as well as the brand new Revolution in Beaver Creek Lodge.
“You should always barbecue on real local wood — the peach wood from Palisade works really well,” he said. “Every time I cook at home with my family, I build a campfire right inside of my Weber grill. As soon as the flames go away, you put your grill rack on top. It’s amazing the amount of flavor you get from wood.”
The big question is, of course, how to get your hands on such wood. Rather than driving two hours west to a peach orchard in Palisade, Romanin’s insider secret is to ask the Palisade farmers at local farmers markets.
“They usually cut up the wood from last winter and fall and put it in boxes,” he said. “I use it for everything around the restaurant.”
By “everything,” he really means it. The best type of steak to cook in such fashion, or for any other kind of grilling, is ribeye. The valley’s most successful homegrown chef also cooks chicken on the wood fire, as well as corn on the cob and sausage. Romanin highly recommends Continental Sausage, a Denver company that for 50 years has produced exotic, European-style sausages using Old World chopping rather than grinding production techniques to maintain the most flavor. Romanin even uses the wood fire grill to cook Hooked’s mouth-watering paella, throwing all the ingredients — stock, rice, vegetables, seafood and all — into a single pan.
“It’s a one-pan stop,” he said. “The smoke from fire gives it most of its flavor. It gives the dish all the smoked taste you need rather than using smoked paprika.”
‘SMOKE ROLLING OUT’
Luther Watkins, manager of Moe’s Original BBQ in Eagle, is also a big fan of the wood grilling/smoking setup for entertaining outdoors. He notes that a DIY grill brings better taste than an electric or gas setup.
“The main ingredient besides the meat is your barbecue pit and your wood,” said Watkins, who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and learned to appreciate high-quality barbecue at a very young age. “People love seeing the smoke rolling out during an outdoor meal. Ours is an old metal barrel, we put grates in it and all the smoke folds over into the actual pit. You can do a direct heat source pit by putting cinder blocks underneath or cement blocks and metal grates. People like to do that on the beach. There’s a lot of different pit styles, but anything with direct heat, you’re definitely going to have smoke flavor but you’re roasting instead of smoking.”
Down South, the fire/smoke pit and meat of any kind is the essential piece of an exquisite outdoor meal. Watkins said that “whiskey, family, good friends and music” are next on the list, in that order. Then of course, there are the side dishes. Most people love some iteration of coleslaw for their outdoor meal, but Watkins points out that no matter how delicious it is, a mayonnaise-based slaw doesn’t last long outside of a refrigerator. He recommends marinated slaw instead, the base of which is apple cider vinegar, celery seeds and sugar. It can be served either warm or cold. Red beans and rice is another versatile, durable side dish that hits the spot outdoors. Salad is also a winner, but prone to wilting, so a grand recommendation is Romanin’s simple and lip-smacking side dish: grilled corn salad.
“It’s one of my favorite things to make in the summertime,” he said. “You can serve it cold or slightly warm. If it sits in the fridge for a day or two, it marinates and gets even better. It goes with any kind of grilled meat.
Also, if you’re not serving straight up Maker’s Mark with your outdoor meal — Watkin’s recommendation — then Romanin suggests the slightly more refreshing watermelon and basil cooler, which requires simply chopping pieces of watermelon and basil and blending them with either rum, tequila or vodka and serving over ice.