For many of us, this is when we turn our attention to the great outdoors.
The cover is off the pool, the grill and patio furniture have been cleaned off, and we're running through summer recipes to wow our guests as we prepare to start weekend entertaining.
Bookstores are displaying barbecue and grilling books galore, and the garden and back yard are starting to show signs of life.
By midweek, everyone is officially praying at the altar of the local meteorologist for cooperation.
So now that everything is spruced up and ready to go, how can you make this barbecue season a truly memorable one?
Dive in to one of the hottest cuisines in the world, which until now, has been relegated to Indian restaurants: tandoori cooking.
The ancient tradition of preparing food in a tandoor oven has a history with roots that trace to Turkish, Arab and Persian cultures.
Originally developed in central Asia and later brought to India by the Moguls, tandoor ovens were traditionally made of hand-molded clay, often with hay and animal hair mixed in for structural reinforcement.
The contemporary tandoor is thankfully lined with high-temperature ceramic, which not only maintains cooking temperatures, but also resists extreme temperature changes.
The tandoor is wider at the bottom, resembling a tall planter turned upside down, and foods are put in via the opening at the top.
The end result of a centuries-old method is still pleasing today -- foods are uniformly seared on the outside, moist on the inside, and natural sugars caramelize to create a flavor profile that isn't nearly as easy to achieve on a standard grill rack.
According to Floyd Cardoz, executive chef and partner of Manhattan's
Tabla restaurant, and author of
one spice, two spice
, it is uncommon for Indians to have a tandoor at home.
More likely is for a village to have a community tandoor where residents purchase their breads.
But this is not your typical neighborhood bakery -- it's not even a storefront, but rather one individual who is selling
(Indian flatbread) to his neighbors.
Tandoors are constantly lit, so despite being built in the ground, temperature shifts and potential cracks caused by moisture seeping in to the clay aren't much of an issue, especially when the ceramic tandoor is surrounded by a stainless-steel housing.
High Heat, High Flavor
Wood Stone tandoors in his restaurant, and offers high praise for their home use as well.
At home, he has "a very primitive one in a metal barrel that sits on the side of my back yard. It was originally installed a decade ago, when I was creating dishes for the menu at Tabla."
Today, he uses it a couple of times a month, along with his Fortunoff four-burner grill with rotisserie.
Breads such as naan are stuck to the inside of the oven using a damp cloth or cushion, where they bubble and cook in mere minutes, similar to pizza dough placed in a brick oven.
Other foods, usually meat, are placed inside on extra-long skewers.
The high, indirect heat -- averaging 650-750 degrees Fahrenheit after preheating -- seals in moisture quickly; coupled with the right marinade, a wet spice rub and the fire itself, meats, vegetables and even fruit seem to inhale a depth of flavor that a traditional backyard grill can't quite produce.
This is healthy cooking, too, as the quick sear makes the need for additional fats or oil almost nonexistent.
The key is to use high-quality spices (Cardoz recommends
Penzeys Spices), fresh herbs and occasionally yogurt to bring out the natural flavors of food.
As Cardoz says, "If you're proficient with a grill, it's easy to work a tandoor."
Practice does make perfect, however; numerous stories abound of naan that doesn't quite stick to the tandoor wall and ends up in the embers, where it is quickly vaporized before it can be retrieved.
When it comes to what to cook in your tandoor vs. a traditional grill, the options are endless.
"Any kind of meat works, from a full leg of lamb to flank steak, and a wet marinade is better than a dry rub in most cases," Cardoz explains.
"Seafood is also great: shrimp, crab, lobster, a whole black bass or red snapper, or chunks of meatier fish, like mahi-mahi, striped bass, tuna or swordfish all cook well on skewers. In terms of vegetables, the more traditional ones are cauliflower, peppers and even whole eggplants, but you can do anything you normally cook on a grill -- zucchini, mushrooms, onions."
And for dessert?
"Pineapple, peaches, or any other firm fruits. As long as they'll stay on the skewer, they'll be terrific," Cardoz advises.
Accessories, all the rage for grills, are fairly minimal for tandoor ovens.
Most come with at least one naan hook, a naan scraper and skewers that are at least three feet long to reduce the chance of burned hands and forearms. A cover and some good oven mitts are the only other items you'll need.
MARINATED HANGER STEAK
Recipe courtesy of Floyd Cardoz, from one spice, two spice
To control the temperature, small vents can be opened or closed, and ash from prior fires can be kept in the pit for use in lowering flames if they get too high.
A hardwood charcoal, without additives, is Cardoz's preferred fuel, but most home tandoors are equipped for easy hookup to a gas line. In that case, professional installation is recommended.
Cooking With Gas
Kurt Eickmeyer, VP of sales and marketing for Wood Stone Corporation, says that while Cardoz favors charcoal over gas for better smoke flavor, "We recommend natural gas or propane for use with our tandoors, because regulating, understanding and maintaining the heat can become an adventure unto itself."
While tandoors are energy-efficient, "for most clients, gas gives an additional ease of operation and flexibility," Eickmeyer says.
Fuel costs are comparable to those for a traditional gas grill. "Generally, 40,000 BTUs is the maximum heat needed to saturate the vessel. The only minor downside is that it does take a while to get the heat up so that it remains at a consistent temperature -- one to two hours.
But as compared to a
DCS 36" grill, which has three 25,000 BTU burners, you'll still probably use half the amount of gas," Eickmeyer points out.
The Wood Stone tandoor comes in round, square or octagonal shapes, fully assembled, and runs about $10,000 with shipping.
Wood Stone's first request for a tandoor came from chef
Wolfgang Puck more than ten years ago. "Despite the fact that we understood ceramics because it's the core of our
stone hearth oven business, we didn't understand what it was all about," Eickmeyer says. "We had to learn how the clay actually cooked in order to replicate it for our customers."
Ultimately, the tandoor didn't fit in with Puck's new concept, but Wood Stone ended up with a new product line that has been improved upon over a decade of research and with the support and enthusiasm of high-profile chefs such as Oprah's personal chef Art Smith, Puck and Cardoz.
So test your creativity this summer: Instead of throwing shrimp on the barbie, thread them on a skewer and put them in a tandoor.
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Evie Task is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in northern N.J.