Bring on the heat

Spring is here, time to fire up the grill

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I don't know about you, but the recent spate of wintry weather has made me weary! One day, we're shedding our shoes in favor of sandals, getting out the gardening tools and eagerly planting basil. The next day, we're frantically bringing things in to keep them from freezing or being crushed by a sudden deluge of ice pellets. But there's an old saying: If you don't like the weather in Taos, just wait a minute.

When the weather is warm, I yearn to be outdoors. I quickly develop bad weather amnesia the minute it stops raining and the sun comes out.

Well, it looks like the warm weather is finally here to stay. When it's gloriously temperate in the early evening, I have no desire to sequester myself in the kitchen. So, as I sit on the porch sipping a glass of wine, watching the golden hue of the foothills as they glow with the setting sun, I simply bring my kitchen outside with me. I can manage all my courses alfresco, from salad to dessert, even when I have company. I want everyone to enjoy the bucolic surroundings as long as possible before heading in for dinner when inevitably (this is Taos, after all) it is just too cold to stay outside to eat.

Sure, you can slap some chicken on the grill for a satisfying enough meal. But a little preparation makes something humdrum become memorable. For me, that first barbecue of the season is an invitation to go all out and create an unforgettable spread. And I usually want to cook enough to invite people over to share the experience.

I admit I'm extra lucky. My husband, Dirk, is my grill master. He relishes the opportunity to man the open flame pit and turn out dish after dish cooked to perfection. Knowing I have the cooking covered, I can turn my attention to the menu and the preparatory details.

Ribs are super easy and foolproof, but they give the impression you've cooked for days. In a way, you have. The day before we were going to grill the ribs, I baked them in the oven. But that process is what makes them so easy. The next day when ready, I brush them with a favorite barbecue sauce just before Dirk throws them on the fire to caramelize and turn them tender and luscious. They will even hold nicely in a warm oven, loosely covered with foil, for an hour or so.

To add another entrée as a counterpoint to the ribs, I mix ground beef and pork, chopped green chile and shredded cheddar cheese and make little sliders, which stay moist and tasty even if they get slightly overcooked. By serving them sliders rather than full-size burgers, my hungrier guests can eat more than one without feeling guilty. And by mixing the chile and cheese in with the meat, I avoid the fuss and mess while producing a juicy result.

A smoky potato salad, featuring grilled baby potatoes and bacon, provides a variation on the usual theme. The chipotle dressing is quite tangy (and different from the usual chopped egg, celery and mayonnaise recipe) and spicy. You can make it the day before, but add the dressing just before guests arrive. It will stay moist and creamy that way.

Every since I tasted a grilled Caesar salad at a local restaurant, I have been a convert to heads of romaine, brushed with olive oil and garlic (and the secret ingredient, a touch of liquid smoke) and placed on the grill until slightly charred. Drizzle them with lemon juice and a sprinkle of shaved Parmesan cheese - or simply balsamic glaze. Your most reluctant salad eaters may become converts! And it is also nice to have a real vegetable on the side. For that, you can't do better than asparagus, that sturdy but elegant workhorse of veggies, which just happens to be currently in season.

Finally, under-ripe peaches are just showing up at the store, almost too hard and sour to eat, but exquisite for roasting over hot coals. Finish them off with a bit of butter and cinnamon sugar. Serve with homemade vanilla ice cream for an "unimpeachable" dessert.

Cook every one of these recipes and have a party. Or pick and choose a few and pair with your own personal favorites. The grilled romaine goes great with a steak. The ribs are scrumptious with a pan of cornbread and some coleslaw. The sliders can be made larger and served as a heavenly burger on a good bun crusted with salt and pepper. The smoky bacon potato salad can be a wonderful light meal on its own, served with a fresh salad of baby greens. You can't go wrong.

Either way, get out there, start grilling!

Never-fail barbeque ribs

2 racks of baby back pork ribs, about 4 pounds each

Salt and pepper

About 2 cups of your favorite barbecue sauce

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash ribs under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Generously salt and pepper both sides of the ribs. Arrange in a large roasting pan bone side down.

Place in oven and bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and carefully flip them over with a tongs. Bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

(May be made in advance to this point and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before grilling.)

When ready to cook, generously brush the ribs with sauce. Grill for about 8-10 minutes on a side, until the sauce is caramelized and the ribs are crispy.

Remove to a large cutting board. Cut apart into individual ribs to serve.

This recipe serves four generously as a main course - or serves eight as part of a larger spread.

Beef and pork sliders with green chile and cheddar cheese

2.5 pounds ground beef (85 percent)

1/2 pound ground pork

8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

6 ounces medium Hatch green chile, diced

1/2 small red onion, diced

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

24 slider buns

24 cornichons (small pickles available in the olive bar of most grocery stores)

Or very small kosher dill pickles

Combine ingredients together well, but try not to overmix. Place in a bowl and cover. May refrigerate the mixture overnight.

Place a decorative toothpick through each of the pickles. Set aside.

When ready to grill, divide meat mixture into patties. Grill to medium or as desired.

Serve with a tomato slice and a pinch of sprouts. Spear a pickle through the top of the bun.

Makes about 24 sliders or eight hearty burgers.

Smoky grilled baby potato and bacon salad with chipotle dressing

3 pounds baby red potatoes

8 slices thick bacon, preferably applewood smoked

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced end to end

1/2 cup finely diced celery (optional)

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Set over high heat until boiling, then reduce heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

Cut bacon into 1-inch pieces. Cook bacon until crisp. Reserve bacon fat.

Toss potatoes in reserved bacon fat until lightly coated. Grill over medium flame until grill marks form, about 5 minutes. Remove to tray and cool. When cool, quarter or halve the potatoes, taking care to leave on the crispy skins.

Place red onions in a small bowl and cover in cold water. Soak for at least 1 hour. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, heat on high until sizzling, then reduce heat to low and sauté the onions until caramelized, about 5-6 minutes.

Whisk together the mayonnaise, the lemon juice, the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the vinegar, the chipotle powder and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the potatoes, 2/3 of the bacon, the onions and the celery, if using. Gently toss with the vinaigrette using a spatula. Taste for chipotle, salt and pepper and add more to taste. Pour into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley, garnish with the remaining bacon.

May be dressed up to an hour ahead. Serve at room temperature.

This recipe serves eight to 12 people.

Grilled romaine caesar

2 romaine hearts (trimmed heads of romaine lettuce)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Chopped parsley, optional

With a paring knife, trim the stem of the romaine, careful not to cut off the leaves. Using a long and thin knife, carefully cut through the stem and all the way up through the leaves to the end. Rinse well under cold water, being certain to wash away any grit that may be hiding. Gently shake off the water and place in a colander to drain.

Mix together the olive oil, the garlic and the liquid smoke in a glass cup. When ready to grill, lay the heads cut side down on a tray and brush lightly with the olive oil mixture. Carefully turn cut side up and brush the other side. Grill for about 5 minutes on a side, until slightly charred and wilted. Remove to the tray.

Sprinkle evenly with the lemon juice, top with the shaved Parmesan. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Garnish with parsley, if desired.

(Another good dressing is to simply drizzle a small amount of balsamic vinegar over the grilled romaine heads, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and serve.)

This recipe makes four servings.

Grilled asparagus

2 pounds thin asparagus spears, washed and trimmed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Smoked salt and freshly ground pepper

Brush the asparagus with the olive oil. Grill for about 5 minutes total. Remove to a platter, sprinkle with the smoked salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serves eight.

Grilled peaches with cinnamon butter

4 firm peaches, cut in half and pitted

4 tablespoons softened butter

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Vegetable oil

Combine the butter, sugar and cinnamon, mix until smooth. Set aside.

Lightly brush the peaches on all sides with the vegetable oil. Grill cut side down until golden. Turn cut side up. Place an equal amount of the cinnamon butter mixture on each peach, then cook until melted, about 1 minute more.

May be made ahead and left at room temperature.

Serve with a scoop of good-quality vanilla ice cream.

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