bon appetit blog
Posted by Julia Bainbridge
Filed under: Cooking Tips

With the Fourth of July right around the corner, pretty much everything you’ve been searching for on our website has the word “grill” in front of it. (We know this; we keep tabs on you.) But grilling can be intimidating: What charcoal should you use? For that matter, what kind of heat? (Yes, there are different kinds of heat.) Today we turn to Elizabeth Karmel, executive chef at New York City’s Hill Country Barbecue, teacher at the Institute of Culinary Education, writer of Girls at the Grill, and all-around grilling know-it-all, for tips. Attention!

Thou Shalt Season–and We’re Talking About the Grill
“Barbecue grills are like cast-iron skillets: The more you use them, the better your food tastes,” says Karmel. A new grill that hasn’t been touched by any kind of flavoring will make your food taste like…a new grill that hasn’t been touched by any kind of flavoring. So season it. Here’s Karmel’s method: Fill the cooking grate with link sausages (not the bulk breakfast variety, but Italian or really any uncooked fatty sausages). Grill the sausages slowly on a low-medium heat until very brown. Remove the sausages and let the grill burn off the residue for 20-30 minutes. Clean the cooking grates with a brass-bristle brush. Congrats: You are seasoned.

Thou Shalt Be Prepared
You’ve invited friends over, you’ve shopped for all of your ingredients, you’ve stocked the cooler, and you’re ready to cook. But head to the deck and what do you find? A nearly empty bag of charcoal, and that’s not going to get you far today. “This scramble at the end is typical,” says Karmel–people forget to re-fuel. “If it’s a charcoal grill, always have an extra bag of briquettes on hand. Even if I have a whole bag, I get another for backup. Gas grillers should have a spare tank because it’s not always easy to get one at a moment’s notice.” Think of your grill like a car: Always have a spare.

Thou Shalt Buy a Good Thermometer
Sure, there are other cues for doneness, but a good thermometer takes the guesswork out of the equation, and most home cooks–and even pros–need that. “We have lots of fancy thermometers available to us in the market today, and I’ve tested every one out there–people give them to me as gifts all the time,” says Karmel. “I have found that the best is the old-fashioned analog thermometer.” Why? 1. It’s less expensive; 2. It doesn’t rely on battery; and 3. It can be re-calibrated. To re-calibrate, which you only need to do every other year if you use it often, submerge it in a glass of ice water to test that it reaches 32 degrees F. Get more instructions here.

Thou Shalt Just Learn to Build a Fire Already
The number one rule of successful grilling, says Karmel, is knowing the difference between direct and indirect heat. When using charcoal, arrange the briquettes so that one “zone” of your grill that isn’t directly above coals (an “indirect heat” zone). Here are our tips on setting up a CHARCOAL GRILL with INDIRECT heat, setting up a GAS GRILL with INDIRECT heat, setting up a CHARCOAL GRILL with DIRECT heat, and setting up a GAS GRILL with DIRECT heat. Finally, if you want to keep the fire burning, keep the vents open.

Thou Shalt Oil the FOOD, Not the GRATES
“Many grilling people say to dip a paper towel in oil and then rub the grates with it,” says Karmel. “But the grates are hot! That rag is just a torch waiting to happen. And because oil burns at a low temperature, the minute you put it on that preheated grate it will burn, get tacky, and act as a glue to your food.” To get those beautiful grill marks and to prevent those natural juices from escaping your steak, oil the meat.

Thou Shalt Not Extinguish Flare-Ups Using a Water Bottle
No brainer: Grill grates are really hot. So the minute you hit them with water, you create steam that can burn you. The only way to extinguish a flare-up is to reduce the oxygen–meaning close the lid of your grill. And in case that flare-up turns into something bigger, have a fire extinguisher on hand at all times.

Thou Shalt Work Clean
Wash your hands and your platters between raw and cook stages to prevent cross contamination. Use two sets of tongs, one for raw food and one for cooked food. Karmel color-codes hers with red and green duck tape: “Red means stop, raw food has touched these. Green means go, only cooked food has touched these.” Finally, keep the grill clean by using a brass bristle brush. Brush those grates twice every time you use the grill: once after pre-heating and once after all your guests have left. (But first, put the burners back on high for ten minutes, which will burn off any stuck-on food, and then brush away.)

Thou Shalt Not Stab Your Food
Use tongs instead of a fork. That way you don’t pierce the meat and let all those yummy juices fall into the ash, never to be tasted. Karmel goes for 12-inch locking tongs. She finds that the length and the locking capability help prevent hand fatigue (and she’s done a LOT of grilling), plus locking makes them easier to store.

Thou Shalt Be Patient
Don’t open the lid while cooking. “You’d never bake a cake with an oven door open, would you?” says Karmel. Well, no. You want to allow the hot air to surround your meat so that it cooks through in a reasonable amount of time. And, as tempted as you may be to slice right in, allow the meat to rest for 5-10 minutes. This way, the natural juices get re-absorbed before slicing and serving. Translation: Your meat will be tender and juicy.

Thou Shalt Not Overthink It
In other words: have fun. “People get nervous and tied down to a recipe,” says Karmel. “So just buy what want to eat–or go to the farmers’ market–try something you’ve never eaten before.” Then, just grill it! “If you know the difference between direct and indirect heat, all you need then is olive oil, salt, and pepper and you’re ready to grill.”

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New York Times, Dining & Wine
Dinner’s Journal
By Pete Wells
Published July 9, 2012

When I used to go to Hill Country Barbecue Market as a civilian, I regarded the sides and desserts as unnecessary calories that would keep me from consuming unholy quantities of barbecue. But when I returned as a critic and began to eat my way around the entire menu, I quickly realized that the sides and desserts were often as impressive as the meat, and in a few cases more impressive. Elizabeth Karmel, the restaurant’s executive chef, oversees all the food at Hill Country; I spoke with her by telephone to learn more about three standout dishes from both sides of the operation.


Moist Brisket ($23 a pound)

Because Hill Country uses gas-assisted rotisserie barbecue pits, the pitmasters are able to regulate the temperature precisely. They keep the heat in the pits very low and even, so that much of the meat cooks for as long as 10 or 12 hours before it’s tender. This means that pitmasters are often tending the smokers in the middle of the night so the meat will be ready by lunchtime. (The tradeoff for this extremely tender meat, I think, is a less pronounced smoke flavor than you’d find in an old-fashioned Texas barbecue pit.)

Hill Country rubs the brisket, like all its barbecue, with a mix of salt, cayenne and butcher-grind black pepper, which is coarse-ground pepper with the fine powder sifted out. The restaurant cooks whole brisket, then carves off the deckle and tip; these fatty pieces make the “moist brisket,” while the flat of the brisket is what the restaurant sells as lean brisket. During cooking, the fat cap is left on the brisket. “The brisket really needs to have that fat rendering out and continuing to moisten the whole piece of meat during whole cooking time,” Ms. Karmel said. “That’s the mistake people make when they’re cooking brisket at home. You really need that fat.”


White Shoepeg Corn Pudding ($4.75 for 8 ounces)

At times, I was sure that this peppery corn custard was the best thing on the menu at Hill Country; other times I favored the moist brisket. The corn pudding is Ms. Karmel’s attempt to reverse-engineer and adapt a recipe made by her grandmother, Mary Odom. Ms. Odom, who was born in North Carolina, spent part of her childhood in Georgia and moved to Virginia after she married, made this recipe only in the summer, and only with white corn. “As a true Southerner, she would not eat yellow corn,” Ms. Karmel said. White pepper and nutmeg are spices Ms. Odom relied on frequently; the cayenne and dried chives are Ms. Karmel’s idea.

She shared her recipe, which would make an excellent addition to a Fourth of July celebration. I’d suggest making it in the cool of the morning, though, since the oven needs to be on for more than an hour.

White Shoepeg Corn Pudding Recipe

Adapted from Elizabeth Karmel, Hill Country Barbecue Market, Manhattan
Time: 1½ hours

1          teaspoon sugar

½         teaspoon salt

½         teaspoon ground white pepper

1/8       teaspoon cayenne

¼         teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

8          cups fresh or frozen corn, preferably white shoepeg, cooked and drained

2          cups heavy cream

2          eggs

¼         cup freeze-dried chopped chives

3          tablespoons butter

1          cup finely chopped shallots

1          cup finely shredded skim-milk Cheddar

1          cup finely shredded Monterey Jack cheese

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the sugar, salt, white pepper, cayenne and nutmeg in a small bowl. Purée 6 cups of the corn in a large food processor. Processing until smooth between each new ingredient, add the cream, the eggs, the sugar and spice mixture, and the chives. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
  2. Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. When it starts to bubble, add the shallots and sauté until they are translucent and beginning to brown on the edges. Add the remaining 2 cups of corn and stir until heated through. Add to the mixing bowl with the corn purée and stir. Mix in the cheese until well combined.
  3. Pour the corn pudding into a buttered 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish and set it in a larger baking dish or sheet pan. Pour warm water into the larger dish to a depth of about 1 inch. Carefully transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until the custard is slightly golden on top and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve hot or warm.

Banana Pudding

What I love about Hill Country’s banana pudding is that it isn’t a fancified, cheffed-up riff on the original; it more or less turns back the clock to a time before many cooks began to get their pudding out of a box. The pudding is a French-style custard with cream and egg yolks with a bit of banana liqueur but no banana extract and no cornstarch. Once the pudding thickens, it’s layered over sliced bananas and Nilla wafers.

“I really wanted it to taste like your mom made it, or your grandmom made it for you,” Ms. Karmel said.

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By Pete Wells
Published: July 3, 2012
New York Times

IN the line of duty, I’ve eaten food served on a curl of bark, food served on a slate shingle, food served on the end of a wire, food served in an antique silver caviar caddy and food served in a box of rocks.

But for sheer power to send ripples of anticipation through the pit of my belly, none of those vehicles beat the greasy butcher paper at Hill Country Barbecue Market.

Whenever I eat at this restaurant on West 26th Street, I head for the meat counter and ask for a pound of moist brisket. If a pound strikes you as too much, then you haven’t had Hill Country’s moist brisket. A counter worker with a long knife tears off a sheet of brown paper and proceeds to bury it under slabs of meat. Beef ribs, too, yes, and some jalapeño-cheese sausages.


Chef, Author, Media Personality

A couple of those, please.

Let’s make it three.


When I stop at last, the counter worker grabs the ends of the butcher paper and scrunches them to form a basket filled with smoked meat and serpentine wisps of steam. I carry that basket to my table and set it down in front of my friends, casual as can be. They look amazed, and if they don’t, I rethink the friendship.

At the table, the paper is flattened into a communal plate, and I cover one patch of it with seasoned salt. Pink from cayenne and spotted with black pepper grains, the salt goes with brisket better than barbecue sauce. Paper, meat, salt: by now my stomach is in a riot and I am sure I should have ordered two pounds of brisket.

Moist brisket on greasy paper is not the only reason to eat at Hill Country, but it’s a convincing one. The term “moist brisket” is the restaurant’s euphemism for the deckle and tip of the brisket, upholstered in fat that will slowly render and baste the meat during the 13 or 14 hours it spends in the smoker. Carved just before serving, the meat is juicy throughout, but the parts that really get me going are the blackened edges that give way to a mahogany-tinted quarter-inch or so of smoky borderland between crust and interior.

The moist brisket, along with the beef and pork ribs that carry a similarly peppery, crunchy top layer, show Hill Country’s rotisserie barbecue pits at their finest. The restaurant is a state-of-the-art Manhattan homage to the preindustrial craft of Texas barbecue, particularly as it is practiced in the town of Lockhart.


The flavors Hill Country achieves in its pits are not precisely the ones I remember from meals at Lockhart’s legendary rivals, Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market. At both places, the smoke was deeply entrenched in the meat.

Despite burning about 1,500 pounds a week of post oak shipped in from Texas, Hill Country doesn’t produce that kind of deeply smoky barbecue. It produces very slowly roasted meat with an echo of campfire around the edges. The low smoke quotient makes a spongy, beige pork chop a disappointment, and leaves the market chicken just another slightly dry rotisserie bird.


But it does no harm to the prime rib and the beef shoulder. They may not be great Texas-style barbecue, but they are still terrific slabs of roast beef, cooked medium-rare through and through and ringed with that salt-and-pepper crust. And the jalapeño-cheese links, shipped to Manhattan by Kreuz Market, are always full flavored and insistently spicy, though their juiciness varies from day to day.

When Hill Country opened, five years ago last month, it joined a wave of new restaurants that tried to coax more smoke into barbecue than had seemed possible on the tightly regulated shores of the East River. In a glowing $25 and Under column in 2007, the last time Hill Country was reviewed in The New York Times, Peter Meehan focused on the meat, especially the brisket. “No other barbecue place that has opened in New York in recent years has gotten it so right, right out of the gate,” he wrote.

Since then, Hill Country’s other virtues have become easier to notice, or harder to ignore. Year after year I am drawn back to the dessert case for another plastic cup of banana pudding, built upon a custard so thick with eggs and cream it brings Paris to mind, and not the one in Texas. And as New York has become cluttered with strenuously playful cupcakes, few make me smile as easily as the one at Hill Country that is filled with grape jelly and frosted with a fluffy turban of peanut butter.


According to hard-liners, the only permissible side dishes with barbecue are white bread and saltines. Anything else is as out of place as a yuzu macaron.

Hill Country takes a more liberal point of view, thankfully. When I can afford to surrender the stomach space, I will have some peppery corn pudding, which has roughly the same relationship to an ear of corn that an ice cream sundae has to a cow. And I am always grateful for the relief provided by crunchy, sparingly dressed coleslaw and a vinegary salad of black-eyed peas.


None of these dishes look like restaurant food; they seem like things packed for a church picnic by the best cook in town. The cook in this case, or at least the one whose recipes the kitchen follows, is the restaurant’s executive chef, Elizabeth Karmel. Named in her honor, EAK’s Bowl of Red is a ground-beef chili that could be a meal in itself, although it’s soupy enough that I wish Hill Country really did serve it in a bowl rather than in the same paper cartons used for all the sides.

In Texas, much of the atmosphere of a barbecue joint is provided by the employees and the customers. Since shipping live Texans across state lines can be complicated, Hill Country’s owner, Marc Glosserman, bought inanimate objects like battered butcher blocks, salvaged floorboards and an old Blue Bell ice cream freezer.


All this may be mistaken for the set dressing a big chain might use, but no chain would play Ray Wylie Hubbard and Reckless Kelly, or hire bartenders who mouth the lyrics as they tuck their bottle openers into the back pockets of their jeans.

Hill Country may not be the real thing. But it plays the part better than anybody else in town.

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While you are rushing around and enjoying the summer sunshine, take a break and prepare this heady, soul-satisfying pork roast. Known to us from the ad world as “the other white meat,” a pork loin roast is lean and delicious on it’s own, but even better spiced with a dry rub full of black pepper, garlic, rosemary and smoked paprika.

The double flavor-whammy in this recipe is that you are studding the roast with fresh garlic and rosemary before coating it with the dry spices. The inside herbs echo the flavor of the rub so they will be infused through the whole roast. The rub will caramelize on the outside and form a crust and the garlic and rosemary will get soft and scent the juicy meat. Besides, the slices look extra cool with little bits of rosemary and garlic buried into the meat. I love this pork roast served with Sweet Potato Chipolte Puree for dinner but make enough for leftovers, it makes a killer Cuban Sandwich the next day!

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You know, sometimes cooking can be as therapeutic as it is nourishing—not to mention tasty! And I think that making a paillard is the ultimate in stress relief since you pound the meat until it is uniformly thin.

This week, I am getting out my frustrations by making Chicken Paillard with a Greek Farmer’s Salad and that heavenly garlic-cucumber-yogurt sauce called tzazaki. The fresh lemon and oregano rub infuses the thin pieces of chicken (called paillard), making it sparkle with flavor. Served on top of a Greek farmer’s salad (a.k.a. Horatiki) and dressed with the pungent tzazaki, it’s a dish that’s hard to beat. If you’re not a yogurt person, the chicken is also good served on the salad with a spicy oregano vinaigrette.

Have fun pounding the chicken and…don’t forget it’s fun to play–or pound–your food!

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This week, I am making a simple, and simply, delicious recipe. Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon is served in steakhouses across the country and sold by specialty meat houses and butchers.

And I am here to tell you their secret; you can make them yourself at home quickly and easily! I usually cut the steaks themselves because beef tenderloin sells for an average of $19.99 to $24.99 a pound, and often times the already cut filets (sold as filet mignon steaks) sell for about $5.00 more a pound. Besides, when you buy a whole or a half of a tenderloin, you can make sure that the filets you cut come from the center and not just the ends of the tenderloin! The bacon lends a salty, savory, smoky flavor to this very lean beef, and it is also a great way to keep the filets together while they are grilling.

I “flavorize” these steakhouse filet mignons by brushing the grilled filets (while they rest) with a simple butter sauce seasoned with shallots and parsley. Feel free to grill the filets without the final flourish, but it is that little “je ne sais quoi” that takes these steaks from the GRATE to GREAT!!!!

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Tired of the same ole dogs and brats this summer? Try these soul satisfying Fresh Turkey Sausages with Apple Fennel “Sauerkraut.” It’s a real treat for everyone–people who think they don’t like sauerkraut will love the “not” sauerkraut. Those who favor the kraut will love the sweet savory flavor of the tart apples and fennel as a nice change of taste. Serve on a bun or off with lots of spicy brown (German) mustard and a robust beer, sparkling wine or hard apple cider. This is also a great cookout dish!

And if you are wondering why the gorgeous green parrot? It’s because I didn’t have a good picture of the sausages and kraut and the Parrot makes me smile:)!

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Try this very light and refreshing Asian Taco of grilled chicken wrapped in Boston lettuce and fresh mint leaves. It’s just the thing to get you back to your fighting weight before the next big cookout! More importantly, it is delicious and easy to make!

Speaking of which, why not give your favorite griller a copy of my first cookbook, ”Taming the Flame.” And, if you buy the book, I will personalize a bookplate just for you or for your favorite recipient. Buy the book here and send me an e-mail with all the details for the bookplate—and don’t forget your mailing address!

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The Original Beer-Can Chicken

Sweet Potato “Chips”

Lip-Smackin’ Grilled Asparagus Spears

My motto is “if you can eat it, you can grill it!” And, it came to me quite accidentally when I was teaching a rambunctious and enthusiastic group of Irish cooks at Darina Allen’s famed Ballymaloe cooking school in Country Cork.

I was filled with vim and vigor for my favorite American grill and barbecue recipes and the students were new to outdoor cooking and to the traditions of Southern barbecue. In an effort to get them to understand my philosophy of using an outdoor grill as an alternative heat source, I very simply said, “if you can eat it, you can grill it!” My way of saying that everything tastes better when cooked on the grill.

The 100 students seemed to understand what I meant and over the course of the next two days, I introduced them to my favorite backyard fare. And, although I love every single food that comes hot-off-my grill, this simple meal is what I always fall back on and was the class favorite as well. So, I think it is fitting that I start this column off with my go-to grilled menu that is stunningly simple, virtually foolproof to prepare and infinitely satisfying.

I think Beer-Can Chicken is the best way to prepare a roast chicken—bar none. The beer steams and deepens the flavor of the meat of the chicken leaving it juicy and flavorful while the vertical roasting of the bird allows the excess fat to render out of the skin leaving it crisp and golden brown. It is the kind of chicken that I have seen friends attack with their bare hands and eat with abandon on more than one occasion. And every time I teach it in a class or make it for new dinner guests, I am surprised how many people have never cooked it or even seen it made. Since I have made it more times than I can remember, I sometimes think it is old hat and passé but chicken this good should never become passé. It’s a classic dish made with a new-fangled technique.

Beer-can chicken can be served with any number of vegetables and side dishes but my favorite combination is with simple grilled asparagus, and sliced and grilled sweet potato “chips” preferably cut from a Garnet sweet potato. The bright green of the asparagus and rich orange of the sweet potatoes compliment the chicken and make a pretty plate as well. I often make a custardy creamed-corn cornbread to serve along side these three dishes from the grill and you can grill that or bake it in the oven—as you wish.

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