Chillin’ By The Grill

Santa Fe is blessed with a lengthy grilling season; we can fire up the Weber from early April to late October. But the same high-altitude effects we routinely experience with indoor cooking can also rear their ugly heads on the portal and the patio.

As you head to the grill, remember grilling is more about hot and quick — unless you are doing a large roast or leg of lamb — so make sure the fire has burned down to hot coals or the gas grill is heated completely before you add the food. Although coals may burn somewhat cooler due to our thinner air, great results can be achieved by getting the grill hot and searing in the flavors and juices.

A few more tips: Look for BBQ sauce recipes that are more vinegar-based and lower in sugar content to prevent over-charred and undercooked meat. Boil ribs before grilling to break down the connective tissue; chicken on the bone should also be gently poached before it hits the grill to avoid that undesirable black-but-bloody outcome.

You recall our East-Coaster’s struggle with high-altitude challenges in last month’s column. Bernice is having greater success with her cakes by raising her oven temperature 25 degrees, but her buttermilk biscuits are still flakeless and leaden and she is worrying about her strawberry shortcake for the Fourth of July picnic.

Bernice is not alone. One of our first e-mails came from a Santa Fe resident who has struggled with her biscuits for 12 years, ever since moving here from Virginia.

Our stricken biscuit fan sent me three distinctly different recipes to help her adjust. One called for self-rising flour, baking powder and soda; one had yeast and baking powder; and the third used sourdough starter, baking powder and soda. I told our reader that she was seriously over-leavened!

It’s natural to think that your biscuit bombs need more leavening to lighten them up but, in fact, the reverse is true. Leavenings — which include yeast, baking powder and soda — are actually overactive in our lighter air. Left unchecked or unreduced in recipes developed at lower altitudes, they will have the same effect as a balloon that is over-inflated — the balloon goes “bang,” the bread falls, the biscuits drop.

Since self-rising flour already has both salt and baking powder in it, it’s best to switch to all-purpose flour and then reduce the leavening accordingly. The rule for baked goods that rely on baking powder and baking soda to give them loft is to reduce both ingredients by 1Ú4 teaspoon per teaspoon called for in a sea-level recipe. The addition of one additional tablespoon of the liquid called for in the recipe (i.e.., milk, buttermilk, cream) per cup of flour will also help combat the effects of our desert environment.

The presence of both yeast and baking powder in the same recipe is a mystery to me, although my friend, cookbook author Jane Butel, has a recipe for sopaipilla that contains both and they are light and heavenly. (We will tackle frying in a future column.)

For yeast-leavened recipes, the general consensus is to reduce the amount of yeast specified by half. But I think that yeast also adds flavor to bread, so a better adjustment is to leave the sea-level measure intact and reduce the rising time by half. In other words, for a recipe that requires an hour of rising time, punch down the dough (which stops the process) after 30 minutes and proceed with the recipe as written.

With our biscuits now safely light, what will happen to the rest of our Independence Day picnic menu at 7,000 feet?

Hard-boiling the eggs for deviled eggs will take up to 30 minutes on a simmer setting to be thoroughly cooked. Allow 30 minutes for the potatoes in the potato salad, too. In general, you can plan on a minimum of 25 percent longer cooking time for most things you cook in water on the top of the stove. Beans are a topic in themselves, which we will approach later this summer.

One thing blissfully unaffected by high altitude is chile roasting. Once the season hits in mid-July, you can roast away unhindered by anything but time and your appetite.

In the interim, here’s a great high-altitude biscuit recipe for Bernice and all our biscuit-challenged readers. These beauties will stand tall and delicate on the picnic table and hold up under whipped cream and strawberries.



(Makes 12 3-inch biscuits)

2 cups all-purpose flour

21/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup unsalted butter, cold

3/4 cup +2 tablespoons cold buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine all dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and blend into dry ingredients using two butter knives or a pastry blender. Slowly stir in buttermilk and mix dough just until it holds together. Turn dough onto lightly floured board and knead gently until a cohesive ball forms.

Pat down dough and lightly flour surface. Roll dough to 1 1/2 inches thick. Using 3 inch biscuit cutter, cut biscuits as close together as possible. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until nicely browned. Serve warm.

Chef’s note: Biscuits are a shortbread, so the less you mix the dough, the more tender they will be. I use these biscuits for strawberry shortcake. I split them while they are still warm and butter each biscuit. To assemble, fill and top each biscuit with sweetened whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries. I also purée some ripe mangoes with a little Grand Marnier and drizzle it around the shortcake for a zippy twist on an American classic.

“Freelance foodist” John Vollertsen is a consultant to Vista Clara Spa & Resort and the Taos School of Cooking, and co-director of the cooking school at Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe, where he teaches regularly scheduled high-altitude cooking classes. His column appears in Taste on the third Wednesday of every month.

Chef Johnny VeeChillin’ By The Grill