Summer may be the undisputed season of grilling but there are plenty of opinions on how best to approach the task. All across the Steel City, former chefs, self-proclaimed grill masters and gastronomes shared some strategies, recipes and anecdotes for achieving the perfect warm weather feast.
The number one rule with grilling or cooking is that “trial and error is okay in any culinary endeavor,” said Leon Edelsack, 63.
When people start barbecuing the best thing to do is “experiment,” explained the epicure, who four decades ago attended culinary school in Washington, D.C., before landing a job with the Marriott Corporation, then at a French restaurant in Virginia prior to pursuing “some catering.”
Food services delivered a tremendous amount of knowledge, he said, though none more pertinent than the realization that “the restaurant and hospitality industry is long hours and doesn’t pay a lot of money.”
Although Edelsack has since shifted careers — he advises corporations today — he still shares insights through cooking classes at Temple Sinai.
Over the past four years various teachers like Edelsack have shared their knowledge at Temple Sinai, though none has yet focused on grilling due to practical limitations, explained Carolyn Schwarz.
“We’ve done everything inside, in the Temple Sinai kitchen,” she explained.
It is precisely that ability to cook outdoors that is most enchanting to many denizens of the city.
“I grill all the time, even when it’s cold outside,” said Edelsack.
“In college, at University of Michigan, the Hillel owned a hot dog cart, and for a year and a half I ran that hot dog cart,” said Chudnow. “For nine months at a time I was a professional hot dog griller and seller.”
The experience taught him much about meat.
“We did a lot of testing with the kosher dogs and what brand to use,” he said. Ultimately, Chudnow and three other students selected Abeles & Heymann.
“They are a superior dog to the other brands available in that price,” he maintained. “For a nonspecialty hot dog, they are the best.”
Chudnow revealed some secrets of the trade.
“If you cut three or four slices into the hot dog, it grows a little more, it crisps up a little more and makes it more attractive,” he said. Also, hot dogs should “always be grilled, never boiled. I think that’s a terrible thing to do.”
For Ilya Belopolosky, the secret of the char lies in using a cast iron grate. Not only do you “get the heat off” of it, the grate gives “great linings on the steak,” he said.
The former New Englander also recommends investing in a rotisserie attachment. The model Belopolsky boasts fits nicely on his classic round Weber grill.
“I grew up using propane but as an adult I’ve gotten more refined in taste, and I’m now purely into charcoal,” he explained. “There’s definitely a flavor you get off the grill; you get that flavor and that’s what you’re missing with the propane.”
What about the environment?
“Because of both air pollution emissions and health considerations, gas grills tend to be a little bit better,” admitted Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, a national nonprofit. Although, “charcoal will give you a little bit of a better flavor. That’s the trade off.”
“As an Orthodox person, my tendency is to be more traditional,” he deadpanned.
That’s why the longtime Squirrel Hill resident and his wife employ a six-foot charcoal grill during their annual NCSY fundraiser.
The behemoth of a barbecue is one of six total grills employed at the gala, and while the five others rely on propane, each of the volunteer operators behind the flames are equally referred to as “grill geeks.”
There is a certain camaraderie that comes from grilling, noted Chudnow, who recalled strategizing with his fellow students on a host of related issues, including the logistics of transporting a hot dog cart across campus, optimizing economics and what condiments to offer.
But while the act of grilling can bring some together like cabbage and salad, it can sour others.
Given the proximity of the cart to one of Chudnow’s classes, he would “always take a shift before class,” he explained. “I would grill a hot dog and walk the block to class, and my friend would hate me because I smelled like hot dogs.”
But not all grilled foods need to be of the fleishig variety.
“You can definitely have a great barbecue without using meat,” said Cohan, who uses a skillet when smoking his dishes. “Marinating vegetables and cooking them on the grill is really delicious, and there’s lots of alternatives to the traditional hamburger and hot dogs. For instance, portabella mushrooms are really great on the grill.
“We just encourage people to try a meatless barbecue, because if they do I think they’ll be surprised how great it could be,” he added. “Now, between vegetables that come out of the ground and all of the plant-based alternatives you can get at the store, you literally don’t have to miss anything.”
Whatever you end up cooking this summer, always remember one thing, offered Butler: “The first commandment of grilling is never walk away. Things will be charred; somebody has to always stay with the grill. It’s like a small child.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.