Nothing heralds the arrival of summer like a good barbecue. In anticipation of Thursday's event with popular Mississippi chef Robert St. John, we boned up on our grilling during a weekend-long session with his new book, New South Grilling. The book is aimed at seasoned barbecuers hoping to add some spice to their backyard feasts, and though we are by no means experts, we've grilled our share. Still, the book posed a fair challenge. We drained an entire propane tank, came close to a kitchen fire only once, and had some great meals. Here's how it went:
Friday night: Grilled Fish Tacos with Three Sauces
We fell in love with fish tacos after visiting the West Coast. You don't find them much in the South, so we make them at home all the time. The key components are a firm white fish, red cabbage and a cream sauce, which really distinguishes the dish and makes it singular. St. John's recipe calls for mahimahi, which arrives at our local, land-locked supermarket only rarely. No luck this time, so we settled for a nice Gulf fish, tilapia, and wouldn't you know it — China farm-raised. We live 4-5 hours from the Gulf but can only get China-grown fish. (Except for Mississippi-raised catfish, which, incidentally, works in fish tacos only if fried.) The unique features of this recipe were the pineapple pico de gallo and the avocado mayonnaise, a real winner. This one is recommended for the mayo and especially for those who've never prepared fish tacos at home. An easy, essential staple.
Saturday lunch: Chicken Tacos
Anxious to revisit the avocado mayonnaise, we split the leftover fish and grilled some chicken with St. John's poultry seasoning, then wrapped them in corn tortillas for a variation on the fish tacos. For drinks, we wanted to make the Crescent City Grill Southern Sunset but couldn't get our hands on fresh raspberries, and though frozen may substitute, we opted instead for the Julia's Julep, a take on the classic Southern cocktail from St. John's pal and Delta girl Julia Reed.
Saturday night: Key Lime Grilled Shrimp with Pecan-spiked Rice
This one took some serious prep. We selected it because St. John calls it the best shrimp recipe in the book and because we love key limes. We were also interested in trying his no-stick grilling marinade on the shrimp. The real surprise of the dish was the pecan rice, which was cooked perfectly, if we do say so, and the flavors were tremendous. This is a dish you could serve in place of stuffing at Thanksgiving and you'd get no complaints. On top of the rice went the shrimp, which we overcooked a tad (they're tricky on the grill) and a Key Lime Beurre Blanc that was ladled over the whole dish. Each element was so distinct and flavorful that we enjoyed them more separately than together. All in all, though, we were impressed that we'd pulled this one off, and very pleased that we had a rice dish to add to our permanent repertoire.
Sunday "dinner": Whole Roasted Citrus Chicken with Grilled Sweet Potatoes and Stuffed Tomatoes
When Alton Brown was here last month, he was asked if he referred to the noon meal as lunch or dinner. It's a tricky distinction, especially in the South, and Mr. Brown said that it depends: if you were grabbing a quick bite with office buddies, it was lunch. But if you were having a huge family-style meal after church, it constituted a dinner. That's what we had Sunday. Family came over, we all pitched in and worked out this "second-best" chicken dish from the book (the first is Mr. St. John's Yardbird with Barley and Hops Enema, a beer-can chicken recipe which someone said sounded "unappetizing" ... until you've tried it, we're certain), along with some terrific side items. The whole chicken went into a citrus and sugar brine overnight, then was stuffed with oranges, lemons, limes, onions, garlic and fresh thyme. It sat on the grill obediently for an hour as we rustled up the sliced sweet potatoes, slathered in butter and brown sugar, and tomatoes stuffed with pesto made from homegrown basil, onions, shallots, and Italian breadcrumbs. Everything was a hit, especially the chicken, again cooked to perfection, and bearing a unique, sweet flavor. The potatoes were a hit with the kids, as was the promise of Grilled Bananas Foster. If you've never prepared this flaming dish, don't try this one ... at least not with company waiting. We ran through a sack of brown sugar and wasted much good rum, nearly starting a stovetop fire in the process. Luckily, bananas, ice cream and caramel sauce satisfied the kids, and another round of juleps on the sideporch made a nice respite as the kitchen aired out.
Sunday night: Chicken Pesto Quesadillas
Dinner would have carried us over into evening just fine, but we weren't yet deflated, even after the bananas foster incident. So we used the remaining pesto and uncooked chicken for these delightful, simple quesadillas. With some leftover sweet potatoes and pecan rice (a recipe all the in-laws took home) on the side, it made a perfect late dinner. The pesto will freeze, so here's another keeper.
How nice to come home on Monday evening and have a fridge full of leftovers. There are enough variations left — grilled fish with the Key Lime Beurre Blanc, tomatoes stuffed with shrimp and parmesan, and citrus chicken sandwiches with avocado mayonnaise — to last well into the week, and we hadn't even ventured deep into the cookbook. We're still looking forward to the Grilled Crawfish Pizza, the Black and Blue Burgers with Jalapeno Chips, Grouper with Black Bean/Corn/Tomato Salsa, Grilled Potato Salad, and Marinated Cedar-Plank Salmon ... and maybe that yardbird too, just as soon as we get the propane refilled.
Until then, we'll eat with Robert St. John in front of the store this Thursday evening, May 22, at 5:30 p.m. when he stops in to grill and sign copies of the new cookbook. Place your order here.