I never thought I’d hear myself utter the sentence, “Man! I sure am glad we ran out of bacon!” But, sure enough, last night I said those very words.
The original idea, inspired by a recipe at Serious Eats, was to wrap pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast in bacon and then skewer them along with alternating pieces of pineapple. The thinking was that the bacon would help to baste the chicken as it cooked on the grill, thus keeping it moist and, as an added bonus, adding the flavor of bacon. I was pretty anxious to try out my new gas grill and this sounded like just the ticket.
Now, I’ve always been something of a purist, preferring charcoal for grilling, but charcoal is kind of a pain on the boat. You have to think about it enough ahead of time to get the coals going and then, once done cooking, you have a bunch of hot coals to deal with. Plus you have to store the charcoal in a dry place. So, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and go for a propane grill. Mighty big of me, don’t you think? Rather than spend a stupid amount of money for a “marine” grill that we’d only use once in awhile, I figured why not just buy a cheap-o portable grill that can be easily and cheaply replaced when it finally rusts out. We were going to wait and get one when we got back to the US but, what with the hot weather we’ve been having, the idea of keeping the cooking heat outside was really appealing. So, off to the store we went to get a grill.
Not so fast! We assumed that, like in the US, every grocery store, hardware store, home improvement store, etc. would be stocked to the ceilings with grill choices, most of which would be propane. Well, we’re definitely not in the US anymore. Our first stop was Ace Hardware since it’s relatively close and usually has what we’re looking for. And, this time was no exception. They did have what we were looking for: a small propane grill with a lid. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure the legs folded up and, at around $70 US, it was the same price as the equivalent Weber unit in the States, and this was just an Ace brand (GrillMark). Wasn’t sure I was ready to shell out the bucks yet. I was pretty sure I could do better at Home Depot or Walmart.
Back at the boat I did a little internet shopping and found out that I wanted a unit that put out at least 85oo btus and preferably 10,000. Most of the really cheap-o grills were either lower or didn’t bother telling what their heating capacity was. But, it looked like I could find what I wanted for anywhere from $35 to about $100 once we got back to the States. Of course, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be able to grill NOW, not wait until we returned in September. So, I planned an excursion to Walmart and Home Depot.
I rode the 10 peso colectivo (converted “short” bus) out to the other end of town where the box stores are located. I wandered into Walmart first, confident that I wouldn’t have to look any further. Well, for a country that does an awful lot of outdoor grilling, the choices of cooking appliances is certainly sparse. First off, pretty much all the BBQs that were available were charcoal. Walmart didn’t have any gas grills. Then, the grills that they did have were the worst of the el cheap-os. Depending on your age, you might remember when, back in the 60s, most of the grills sold to backyard burger-burners were low-sided, round grills with no lid and four spindly tubular legs. Guess, what? You can still buy them in Mexico. Even the little “portable” units that look like they belong in the trunk of a ’59 Plymouth alongside one of those round plaid coolers with the screw-of lid. They weren’t worth anything then and they damn sure aren’t now. OK, so Walmart was a bust. On to Home Depot. Heck, at the Salem (OR) Home Depot they have a huge section devoted to every kind of grilling appliance imaginable from the lowly hibachi to ultra-fancy $1000+ outdoor kitchens. Hardest thing is sometimes to find a decent-sized charcoal grill but that’s not what I was looking for anyway. So, Home Depot here I come.
The La Paz Home Depot is set up pretty much like all the Home Depots so I was somewhat taken aback when I walked in the front door and was not greeted by a double row of BBQs all lined up and back-to-back. I searched the store and didn’t find any. Then I had a flash and decided to check the outdoor garden section. At first I didn’t see any grills out there either. Then I noticed a propane tank up on a shelf at the far end. I went down there and found about 1/2 dozen different BBQs to choose from. I think maybe 2 of them were gas and the rest charcoal. And none, not one of them was a small portable unit. Well crap! Now what?
I walked across the parking lot to the big new Soriana Market. Soriana is kind of like a Fred Meyer if you’re familiar with them. Not nearly as large of a non-food section as Freddy’s but a similar idea. They had the same crappy selection of grills that Walmart had. If I was planning on having a “Mad Men” themed backyard pool party I’d snap one up in a second but that’s not what I wanted it for.
So what’s the deal? I understand about the lack of gas units. Charcoal is better for most purposes. And, it’s available in every tienda and supermercado. But what about the dearth of BBQ grills in general? I thought about it and realized that, although I’ve seen lots of folks cooking over a flame, I’ve seldom seen a Weber or any other commercially available grill. What I have seen a lot of is concrete blocks with a refrigerator shelf or section of fencing laid across them and a fire underneath. Or, for the more upscale, a built-in masonry unit on the patio. So, maybe most Mexicans just have no need for a sheet metal grill made in China. But that wasn’t helping me at all.
Finally, I returned to Ace Hardware. The gas grill they had was good for 10,000 btus, the legs folded up and the lid locked closed. Everything I needed and, although it cost a little less than double what it would have cost in the US and I think it’s the “old” model as it doesn’t match any of the photos on the internet, I was in no position to quibble. Not if I intended to do any outdoor cooking before we left La Paz anyway. So, I snatched it up.
So, back to the bacon-wrapped chicken and pineapple skewers. But first, I needed skewers. We bought some metal ones awhile ago and they would have worked quite well except that the article I read had me all paranoid about the chicken drying out. I was afraid that the metal skewers would tend to help the inside of the chicken cook and it may be done long before the bacon was crisp. So, wooden skewers it had to be. No problem as we’d seen them several places and even noted the fact to each other at the time. But do you think we could remember where exactly it was that we saw them? We checked Walmart and Soriana since we were in the neighborhood. No go. How about that kitchen store outside Mercado Madero? Nope. Maybe it was at one of the dulcerias. No, they had sticks for making corn dogs or all-day suckers but no little wooden kebab skewers. Finally, on a whim, we decided to give Ace a shot. Well, as they say, “Ace is the place”. We not only found skewers but also a grill brush that we couldn’t find anywhere else. Later, we stopped at Arámburo, our neighborhood grocery store and, sure enough, they, too had skewers.
OK, back to the food, for real this time. I put the chicken breasts in a brine of water, soy sauce, sugar and salt and stuck them in the fridge. I put a handful of skewers in a pan of water to soak and we headed to the pool to cool off for the rest of the afternoon. When we got back to the boat, I cut the chicken into 1″ cubes, wrapped each piece with a half a slice of bacon and then threaded them on the skewers, alternating with 1″ chunks of fresh pineapple. The bacon ran out well before the chicken and pineapple did so I just continued on without it. Had quite a nice little stack of kebabs when I was done. Lit the flame on the grill and gave it about 10 minutes to heat up nicely.
I took a hunk of paper towel, doused it with vegetable oil and, with tongs, wiped it over the grill to help prevent the food sticking. I’ve done this before and always read that it’s the thing to do but, if it really helps, I’d hate to see what happens if I forget. My experience is that the food always sticks anyway. How much oil are you going to get to stay on a thin round rod that is hot enough to smoke the oil as soon as it hits?
Anyway, I put the first batch of skewers over the flame and closed the lid. These were the skewers that were on the top of the pile and so, were the last ones I did which just happened to be the bacon-less ones. After about 4 minutes, I turned them. Had to move a few around as there were definitely hotter and cooler spots. Another 4 minutes or so and I brushed teriyaki sauce on all of them and moved the ones that looked done to a plate and the others to the top rack for a little bit more cooking while I started the second run, the bacon-wrapped skewers.
As expected, as soon as the heat got to it, the bacon started dripping grease. Not sure exactly what I thought would happen. Actually I think I pretty much knew what would happen but I was just hoping it wouldn’t. As the bacon grease started to cover the heat deflector, it naturally caught fire which increased the heat inside even more. I got the skewers off the top rack and set them aside. I turned the bacon-wrapped skewers and moved them around a little but things weren’t looking good. I lowered the flame but the grease-fed fire was keeping things heated up. The next time I opened the lid, everything was getting smoke-blackened. The exposed ends of the skewers had caught fire and burned up. This was not looking good. I finally decided to cut my losses and just shut her down. We’d eat the ones we had and forget the rest.
The unwrapped chicken and pineapple tasted really good. The pineapple really set the chicken off nicely. We had Vietnamese garlic noodles along with for a very tasty dinner.
I was ready to toss the partially-cooked bacon-wrapped chicken in the garbage but Lulu thought she could salvage it in a frying pan on the stove. She cooked it up and it looks pretty good, other than the smoky-grey parts, but we haven’t eaten it yet to see if it came out alright or not. It’s probably OK but the whole thing still pisses me off (for no particularly good reason).
Could I have controlled things with a charcoal fire instead of gas? Maybe, but I doubt it. I do know that, next time I use the grill, there will be liberal use of aluminum foil.