There's something festive, transfixing, and special about cooking around an open fire. It's a ritual as old as humanity that transcends time and place, and immediately bridges everything I miss and love from my past with everything wonderful about my present. When we fire up our grill on our small stone patio in Brooklyn this summer, surrounded by high wooden fences and climbing ivy, I'm instantly transported back to my happy place: My perfectly spiced childhood in North Africa, the freedom and fun of that distant time, and the mouthwatering grilled food that so often fueled my days and nights.
As a kid growing up in Morocco, when school was out for summer, my friends and I spent months on the beach eating burned maize charred over cinder blocks and sharing spiced lamb sandwiches for lunch cooked on open fires right behind the dunes. Sometimes, fishing boats would row up as the crowds left at dusk, and we would buy fresh fish at a bargain from the fisherman and feast on grilled octopus or sardines, salty from the sea and flavored by the smoke of a small beach bonfire we pulled together with driftwood and discarded newspaper.
From these long, memorable months, filled with fire, food, friends, and good fun, I have nothing but the fondest memories, which I've carried with me, year after year, and move after move. And since then, each summer now, no matter how far I've moved my home in Morocco, nor how many years have passed since those childhood days, I find myself rekindling those flames and flavors, and with them, the wonderful feeling of those moments.
At my first job out of college, I met a man and fell in love — not just with him, but with his shared affinity for good food, the great outdoors, and grilling. We got married and lived in a small Manhattan studio with sunset views and a roof-deck — it was almost perfect, save for the lack of a grill. On weekends we often road-tripped to our parents' and friends homes in the country and suburbs, where we could get away from the confines of our tiny apartment, enjoy more time in nature, and, naturally, cook and share tasty meals outdoors.
A few years after we married, we started to look for a home where we could be happier; in other words, somewhere we could have our own space, any space, to cook outside over an open fire with friends and family.
On the most sweltering summer days, when most city dwellers are huddled inside by the AC, under ceiling fans, or tucked away in deep-chilled restaurants or movie theaters, we can't wait to fire up our grill, no matter the heat index or humidity.
After a long search, we finally found what we were looking for: A small but cozy city home with a garden patio just large enough to fit our grill and smoker, some potted herbs, a couple of chairs, and a table. Now, on the most sweltering summer days, when most city dwellers are huddled inside by the AC, under ceiling fans, or tucked away in deep-chilled restaurants or movie theaters, we can't wait to fire up our grill, no matter the heat index or humidity.
I open our spice cabinet, mix up my favorite Moroccan spice mix of paprika, cumin, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, and pepper, and marinate fresh fish, vegetables, or meat. I chop up a bunch of fresh rosemary and mint, and we fire up the coals. We make anything from couscous with grilled lamb kebabs, to spiced chicken with lemon and olives, to pizza with grilled tomatoes, eggplant, and mushrooms. We've grilled clams, oysters, duck, turkey, slow-smoked brisket and ribs for hours, and the occasional cheeseburger or Italian sausage.
Our current setup is lovely, with a purple plum tree in the middle and an out-of-control rose bush quickly taking over the back wall, over which raccoons often surprise us as we sip our chilled drinks, but it's a far cry from the wide-open, sandy spaces of my childhood. In the end, it's the goodness of all these fresh, mouthwatering flavors — the smells, the heat of the flames dancing in the breeze, and the delight of experiencing all my very favorite things, together with people I love that help replicate those treasured memories of my childhood so well. They make any summer great, to me, no matter where we may be.