I am absolutely itching for summer to start.
Ready for it.
It’s buzzing in my brain like a hungry mosquito zeroing in for a feast on a naked expanse of skin.
Warm weather, sunshine, and swimming.
Porches, fishing, and laying on the grass by the river.
In celebration, I’ve made some changes to my website and added a few new pieces to virginiawillis.com. I’ve added a new homepage for the summer. While you are there check out my events and and I hope you enjoy my little homage to blackberries and a little something I wrote for Taste of the South about growing up picking them with my grandfather, Dede.
And, like always, it’s the food. I love summer food. Okra. I’ve had a hankering for okra for a few weeks already! Lady peas and butterbeans. Tomatoes. Summer Squash. Corn. Ah, fresh sweet corn.
Garrison Keillor is rumored to have said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.”
Ok, well, consider the source. I mean, I think he’s genius and dearly love Prairie Home Companion, but, um… Well, then you know, fresh sweet corn is really good. Simple. Uncomplicated. Satisfying.
I’ll let you ponder that for a bit…..
Ok, getting back on track, summer does mean grilling.
I love to grill throughout the year, but in the summer it’s just practical to keep the heat out of the kitchen. Burgers and brats are brilliant, steaks and seafood are stupendous, but perhaps my absolute fave? The cheap and cheerful pedestrian chicken.
Chicken can be absolutely sublime on the grill. Smoky and charred, yet tender and juicy.
It can also be drier than chalk and just about as tasty, too. The trick is if you pierce the meat with the tip of a knife and the juices run clear, it’s done. If the juices run pink? It’s underdone. If there are no juices? …… Ahem.
One technique that can help prevent dry, tasteless chicken is brining. Brining poultry will produces moist and tender results. Muscle fibers absorb liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier in the end. I like to think of this as a cup that is filled “over the rim.”
Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. The heat causes the coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind and then join together with one another, resulting in shrinkage and moisture loss. Meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking, but with brining and the cup is “filled over the rim” it reduces the moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent.
Here’s a recipe to start your summer. Grilled Chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce. The trick is to cook the chicken almost all the way through before you start to brush it with the sauce, otherwise the sauce will burn.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Grilled Chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better for keeping the heat out of the kitchen than firing up the grill. Dede would make his barbecued chicken on the Fourth of July, using a potent vinegar bath on grilled chicken that produced a pungent, meaty odor, sending out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as the chicken cooked on the grill.
1 gallon cold water
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 whole chicken, cut into 6-8 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for the grill
Mama’s Barbecue Sauce, warmed
Combine the water, salt, and brown sugar in a large plastic container and stir to dissolve. Add the chicken; cover and refrigerate to marinate for 4 to 6 hours.
Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to High, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the marinade and rinse under cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels, season with pepper, and set aside.
Season the chicken with pepper. Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts. Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes.
During the last 5 to 7 minutes of cooking, brush the chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce.
Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final brush of sauce for flavor and serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.
Mama’s Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 6 1/2 cups
There has seldom been a time in my life when a mason jar of this sauce wasn’t in a corner of my mother or grandmother’s refrigerator. The truth of the matter is, once you have had homemade you will go off the store-bought kind for good.
Make a batch, then separate out a cup or so for brushing on the chicken. Don’t dip your brush in the big pot then dab on half-cooked chicken to serve that same sauce on the side. Eew. That’s just bad food safety and asking for a tummy-ache.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, very finely chopped
2 1/2 cups ketchup
2 cups apple cider or distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, and pepper.
Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have smoothed and mellowed, at least 10 and up to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will last for months.