A few summers ago, we spent many evenings in our third floor apartment in Easthampton trying not to melt. As soon as the Valley's humidity set in that summer—I believe it was in May—we realized that the season would be long and uncomfortable, even with a borrowed air conditioner poking out of the bedroom window.
The kitchen itself became an oven. The air was as still and thick as hot Jello in the windowless room, which was strangely positioned in the middle of the building. Onions on the counter softened like bananas. Everything felt a bit sticky to the touch.
Our first work-around for the heat was to dine outdoors. We balanced plates and beers on our laps, rocking in our green wicker porch chairs whose flaking paint gave them the appearance of molting birds. When boiling rice water turned the kitchen into a rain forest, the outdoor dining ritual soon gave birth to outdoor cooking.
In multiple trips, we carried the necessary equipment down the two flights of narrow stairs to the porch: wok, water, soy sauce, tiny bowls filled with various accompaniments, hot sauce, chopsticks and serving bowls. We'd poke the cauliflower with a fork as it cooked in the wok on the lawn of our apartment building, the vegetables teetering atop the burner base of a turkey fryer hooked up to a propane tank. It was like camping at home.
The evening light turned golden as we cooked, and it slid down across the lawn in long shadows. The heat still hovered thick in the air, but a slight breeze dried my sweaty forehead and rustled the hairs on the back of my neck. Heaven.
Three years later, as homeowners, we continue the tradition. Although our kitchen is larger—and yes, there are windows—boiling water still feels like an atrocity when the temperature inside the house wavers on the edge of insanity. The propane burner and grill can cook almost all we need, and we've incorporated a hot plate into the mix. We can boil anything from corn to hard-boiled eggs, and even grill up some pizza along with our burgers. Here are a few tips for the aspiring outdoor chef, although we do not always follow most of these guidelines ourselves:
- Get Organized: create a large, clear surface to lay out the tools and ingredients you'll need—don't end up balancing a pot lid on the compost bucket, like you-know-who.
- Footwear Matters: this may seem obvious, but it's a challenge in our household. If you are barefoot in your home, slide something on those tootsies before venturing outside to deal with boiling water and sharp gravel.
- Hose it Down: water down the cooking area (this one is serious, folks)! Especially with the current drought, make sure you wet the immediate area around your cooking fire, whether it be grill or propane tank, and keep the hose nearby and ready to spray at a moment's notice.
- Stop and Smell the Zucchini: don't wander off—trust me, it's easy to get distracted inside. If anyone hates the smell of burnt rice more than you, it's your neighbor who's window it's wafting toward. A drink comes in handy as a way to entertain yourself while waiting for the food to cook. You can also look around and enjoy the outside world, which is why you're dong this in the first place.
Follow these simple steps, and you'll be a pro at cooking outside in no time. Grilling is only the beginning—get a hot plate and try stir fry, sautéed dishes, pasta, and more. And don't forget to enjoy that sunset.