Saturday, April 16, 2011

Getting the perfect grill marks

As with most of her suburban New Jersey friends, my mother had her hair set and starched every Saturday morning. I went sometimes, skipping cartoons for the chance to sit in the foot space under the mirrored counter and watch in wonder as women got their hair curled and teased and lacquered for the week ahead.

What made it worth missing Mr. Peabody and The Jetsons was those special days when she or others put on moon hats and the smocked beauticians painfully plucked strands of hair with a crotchet hook before plastering them with bleach. It was fascinating, but the fumes could singe the insides of your nostrils. I didn’t mind, though, so long as I got my own congratulatory crown of Aquanet for having been well behaved.

That wasn’t the best part of going to the beauty parlor, though. That came when we’d walk just a few doors down to where a heady aroma greeted you before your hand even touched the door. Our local deli was owned by the son of one of my mother’s friends. She was greeted there with queenly flourish and, usually, a complimentary tub of sour dill pickles.

An intoxicating mist of vinegar and garlic hung over the place and pint-sized regulars like me knew to stand near the bread slicer, where you’d soon be handed the heel of a still-hot loaf. There always was a long line after Saturday morning services, but it was the only place my mother would buy my father’s Depression-era favorite, boiled tongue. I vividly recall feeling faint when I realized it was an actual cow tongue that landed with a thunk when tossed onto the slicer. I still cringe at the thought, but one bite of that pink meat, piled onto warm rye bread with a bracing slice of raw onion and a smear of spicy brown mustard, brought a beatific smile to his face.

No, what I wanted was the other house specialty: perfectly grilled kosher hot dogs, tucked into toasted rolls and stuffed with steaming house-made sauerkraut. They’d be tightly wrapped in foil, along with fragrant knishes, and placed in a large brown paper bag for the ride home.

As soon as we hit the car, the begging started: Can I have mine now? No. Pleeeeease? No. I won’t spill. No.

Delicious? Yes. Fun? No.

On the rare occasions I indulge in a hot dog today, I still insist on a kosher dog – typically a Hebrew National, which as you might recall answers not to the government but the dietary laws of a Higher Authority. Inspired by a jar of Boar’s Head Sweet Vidalia Onion Sauce, we had some just last weekend.

I mentioned this to a co-worker, a lifelong aficionado of those red hot dogs that have been banned from most of the civilized world but are still popular in the South. When he mentioned fixing his in the toaster oven, I could have blown Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda through my nose.

"I thought that was normal. That’s how you get those nice grill marks,” he protested. “You cook yours on the grill? Huh. It didn't occur to me to cook hot dogs on the grill."

Since it is a blessing to protect the innocent, let’s call my colleague J.

J added that using a toaster oven is energy efficient. “Plus, it’s great if you want a grilled cheese sandwich, too,” he said. “What? That’s also weird?”

Not surprisingly, J has a time-tested technique for toaster-oven grilling hot dogs. “Preheat to 350 degrees and make sure the bars are hot enough to impart authentic-looking grill marks,” he advised. "I always wipe it down before I cook hot dogs, of course, because I don't want them coming out tasting like pizza."

After preheating, hot dogs will be sizzlingly ready in about five minutes, give or take. "I just put them in and walk away until I smell them," he said. "Another sign is the sound. When they're ready, they kind of go 'pssssst'."

J, who says he has sworn off red hot dogs in favor of kosher ones – “I like knowing what's in my food; at least, sometimes" – acknowledges that they’d be simple to prepare at work, but wrong.

"Easy as it would be, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “You know, I never thought this was odd, but now I feel kind of bad about making fun of inmates who make grilled cheese with an iron."

J expressed one last bit of praise for his toaster oven, which he also swears by for baking potatoes.

"My toaster is a culinary miracle. Seriously, it has completely changed my life," he said, pausing as the words hung in the air, than snapping back into the moment. "That is, as a single person. Who is not old."

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