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Taste of the season: smoke and onion

January 17, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

IT'S dull and overcast, a gray world. The freeway's gone comatose, as if nobody's sure why they're even out on the road today. Everything's slow and muffled. This is as close as you ever feel to hibernating.

And then, as you pull into your friends' driveway, the cheery smell of smoke and browning meat eddies around from the backyard, and eternal summer breaks through. Out there, it's a party -- everybody's grilling meaty ribs or monster steaks or a juicy pork roast or piles of big, thick burgers! Winter fades away. The world makes sense again.

Barbecuing in winter. Sure. Your real Angeleno keeps on barbecuing straight through February. I have personally been known to grill in light rain, and a cousin of mine claims to have done it in that snow stuff they have up at Mammoth Mountain.

"Of course I barbecue in winter," says longtime L.A. studio musician Kent Housman. "What else is there to do?"

Woolf Kanter of Pacific Palisades agrees: "There's absolutely no reason to stop, even if it's raining. It's barbecue, right? Especially if you have a smoker -- then you're really covered. Smoked barbecue is better in winter than in summer, it's comfort food."

Exactly. Why stop at all? Barbecuing is our birthright. Our supermarkets don't stop selling charcoal just because it's January. Around here, nothing really keeps us from treating the whole year as one long barbecue season.

And so we do. My cousin recently put in an expensive range at his house, but he keeps working on his rib-barbecuing technique month in and month out.

It can get nippy out there, but that's not such a bad thing. January weather is as close as we have to those brisk autumn days people glory in back East. On a gray afternoon, barbecuing becomes a private, meditative, poetical sort of thing, kind of like hiking back to town for a gallon of gas.

Granted, once in a while you will experience wetness coming out of the sky. My advice: Wear a broad-brimmed hat, such as a cowboy hat; works about as well as an umbrella and leaves your hands free for business.

Plus you don't look so silly. Barbecuing with an umbrella in one hand is kind of Mary Poppins-ish. (Anyway, it's totally incompatible with sipping beer, an inalienable perk of working the grill.) I also recommend wearing the sort of artificial-fiber zip-up jacket that dries out fast.

You can barbecue all the same things you do in summer, but you may feel the urge to cook seasonally. The main difference between summer and winter barbecue is that the winter variety tends to be more substantial. Say, really thick steaks, or a pork roast instead of pork chops.

Or something oniony. I happen to believe that when the weather gets a little chilly, you need Big Mr. Onion on your side. And the best way to have that is to use the onion's aromatic soul -- its fresh juice -- freed from the husk of its flesh.

Yes, making onion juice will make your eyes smart (do it near a fan, if it really bothers you). But the juice contains the only valuable part of the onion, its volatile perfume.

No kidding, the only valuable part of the onion. Sure, raw onions are OK in salads and sandwiches and fried onions are luscious. But the onion solids, by themselves, have nothing to offer but a commonplace bittersweet taste and a coarse vegetal odor.

For a winter lunch, onion burgers made with onion juice seem ideal to me. The sweet scent of onion permeates the meat, giving you a warm breath of encouragement in every bite. You could put plain mustard on them, but the weather calls for a richer sauce: sour cream stirred with Dijon mustard. It goes beautifully with onion-scented beef.

In summer, I'm all for giving hamburgers a nice smoky flavor and putting them in the classic burger bun, but these babies work best when you go easy on the smoke and serve them on toasted crusty bread, along with a simple salad. Once I found some really ripe hothouse tomatoes in the market, sliced them up and topped them with mayonnaise.

If you want to grill something more substantial, it's hard to beat a pork loin roast. Brine it overnight so it will be more juicy, and baste it with onion juice (of course). If you were roasting it in the oven, you'd have juices for making gravy, but that's not an option here. I like a simplified version of the pomegranate, herb and garlic sauces they make in Armenia and Georgia: just a jolt of sweet-sour flavor and bright fragrance.

To accompany the roast, throw some carrots on the grill; parsnips too, if you want to go two-tone. And cook them until they're good and limp -- this is no season for the crunchy, light-'n'-fresh grilled veggies that people make in summer. You want them thoroughly cooked, sweet and comforting -- and fragrant, like all this winter barbecue.

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