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.

Service writing

Food writing

DIY writing

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 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

smoking-grill-guide-6-6bInvest 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 12 tsp whole cloves. Stir in 2 tsp each of turmeric and onion pow­der. Makes about 12 cup.