Short service items
These are the short pieces written to fill in gaps, balance a section, or cover off a sidebar topic. Their subjects may not be glamourous, but they still deserve snappy and value-packed writing. Every editor has written many such items; here’s a selection of mine.
How to build a marinade for chicken
When marinades are good, they’re very good—infusing complex flavours and moisture into meat. But when they’re bad, they’re horrid, as anyone who’s eaten a pallid, stringy, pickled chicken breast will know. Most marinades combine four agents:
Acids, such as vinegar, wine, juice, or yogurt, loosen the meat’s folded proteins, tenderizing it and creating wee gaps for moisture to occupy, at least temporarily. A little acid is good, but as a short-fibred meat, chicken is already tender—too much acid can leave it stringy or mushy, with a pickled taste. Better to dab on a tangy sauce or squeeze on some lemon juice just before serving. And remember high-school chemistry: acids react with metals, so never marinate in a metal bowl.
Salt also helps rearrange proteins, but more importantly, it holds in moisture during cooking. If you’re avoiding salt, don’t bother marinating—use a salt-free rub or glaze instead.
Flavours from herbs, spices, veggies, and such get sucked in along with moisture. But flavours have to get into the liquid before they can get into the chicken. Throwing some dried herbs or, worse, whole spices into a marinade at the last minute is expecting a miracle, as if peppercorns could magically wiggle themselves into the meat. Instead, finely chop or grind ingredients and make the marinade ahead to let the flavours infuse. Or heat a marinade briefly and let it cool.
Oil keeps air-exposed surfaces from drying too much, especially if you marinate in a bowl instead of a resealable plastic bag.
Building a marinade is the first step; using it well is the second. Two to three hours of marinating is about right for skinless chicken breasts. A longer soak is okay for pieces protected by skin or if the marinade is based on yogurt or buttermilk. A quick bath is better with kebabs and other small pieces, where greater surface area means more penetration. Before grilling, dry the meat’s surface with paper towels; a wet surface can’t get hot enough to brown properly. And while you must never infect dinner with bacteria by brushing used marinade on food that’s about to come off the grill, a marinade can make a tasty sauce. Just boil it for a few minutes to kill micro-organisms.
Jerk spice picks
After a long, long winter, we crave the tongue-peeling, sweat-inducing spice of a trip to Jamaica. Time to warm up to our favourite jerk seasonings.
Walkerswood: the jar says “Hot and Spicy” and it does not lie. A well-balanced paste; with scotch-bonnet heat tempered by sweet and tart ingredients.
Wonder Chuck: savoury and aromatic, with soy sauce underscoring bright allspice and coriander flavours. Like Walkerswood, it’s on the salty side.
PC Memories of Montego Bay: the heat builds slowly in this pourable marinade—overall, it’s milder and more tangy than the others.
The war on rubs
Now that barbecue is a pro sport, grill jockeys are jonesin’ for that extra lift, the performance-enhancing secret ingredient to juice up their rubs. Some flavour or texture boosts—cocoa, cinnamon, cornstarch—are familiar indulgences, pick-me-ups that are risky only if you use too much. Others, once edgy, are socially acceptable now. Espresso powder? Smoked paprika? Who hasn’t tried them at some party?
Then there are the chemical-laden additives, cooked up in some suburban lab: these hook the unwary and ruin social lives. Maybe it will give you a quick thrill, but if someone offers a rub made with cherry Jell-O, chicken-soup mix, or unsweetened lemon Kool-Aid, we advise you to just say no.
How to foil alien abduction
Party all night long. A team led by the late Nicholas Spanos, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University, determined that most abductees reported being snatched from bed at night.
Be happy. Mind-reading aliens mistake your bad mood as a desire to relocate.
Wear protective headgear. The helpful experts at stopabductions.com suggest a “thought-screen helmet” made of 3M’s Velostat or its less expensive rival, Linqstat (both also used to shield sensitive computer parts from static electricity).
Choose your friends wisely. Some previous abductees claim to be repeat targets, so don’t hang out with them.
Get snipped. Many abduction accounts suggest a somewhat pervy alien interest in human reproduction, perhaps explaining cases, reported by prominent British researcher Jenny Randles, in which ageist aliens rejected people older than 40 and men who’d had vasectomies.
Buying a smoker
Invest in a smoker because you want better temperature control and a tighter smoke retaining chamber than your grill offers. And because a steampunk-style contraption looks exceptionally cool among your toys.
Bullet, or water, smokers stack food above a water-filled drip pan that moderates the heat and adds humidity. The good ones, like Napoleon’s Apollo or Weber’s Smokey Mountain cookers, make it easy to add fuel any time; cheap ones don’t.
Pellet smokers slowly feed compressed hardwood sawdust into a burn pot. Look for ones with a digital controller, which adds pellets as needed to hold the temperature you set. Pellet smokers are great at smoking, but aren’t ideal for high-heat grilling.
Kamados have excellent venting to control heat, and ceramic walls to retain it, so a single load of charcoal can keep a kamado going all day long. Owners can be fanatical about their kamados, whether it’s the well-known Big Green Egg or a Primo Oval, Black Olive, or Saffire.
Electric smokers are compact and user friendly. The best-known brand, Bradley, uses an electric element and compressed hardwood pucks to create smoke. But purists feel this smoke just doesn’t taste like that generated by flame combustion.
Offset barrel smokers separate the fire box and the large cooking chamber, providing excellent heat control, but they are space and fuel hogs. Cheap offsets made of thin sheet metal leak smoke and won’t last. Look for 1/4“steel plate; it will outlive you.
Quick fix for dripping taps
In one especially unpleasant circle of hell, the damned can’t sleep because the taps drip at night. If you find yourself there, try this temporary silencer: drop one end of a piece of string an inch or so down the drain, and tie the other around the end of the spout. Now the drip descends silently. During the day, if the same taps screech like the dickens when they’re opened partway, the problem is very likely the washer, which needs tightening or replacing.
How to unstick a window
When it’s summertime and the livin’ ain’t breezy because the window won’t open, the likely culprit is a sloppy handyperson who’s painted the window sash shut. Reach into your tool belt, pull out your utility knife, and slide the blade between the sash and its channel, breaking the paint seal. If an unpainted wood sash is sticking, it’s not the heat; it’s the humidity. Dry and shrink the sash with a hair dryer. Once the window’s moving, rub the butt end of a candle in the channel for lubrication.
Recipe for Hawaij
Centuries ago, the flavours of Africa and India came through the ports of Yemen before spreading into the Arabian Peninsula. Hawaij is Yemen’s traditional spice blend, an assertive and peppery mix. It continued its travels in modern times, when Yemenite Jews brought it to Israel and made it a familiar seasoning in soups, in vegetable and rice dishes, and on kebabs.
At the cottage, we like it as a grilling rub for chicken and lamb. In a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, grind 4 tsp cumin seeds; 1 tbsp each of peppercorns, cardamom pods, and coriander seeds; 2 tsp each caraway seeds and salt; and 1⁄2 tsp whole cloves. Stir in 2 tsp each of turmeric and onion powder. Makes about 1⁄2 cup.