Sara and Steven,
Wow—we have covered a lot of ground!
Steven, I'm envious of all your travels. It's always interesting to see (and taste) all the different ways people cook with fire around the world. What I've noticed is that wherever it's done, there always seems to be a constant feeling of good humor, excitement, and excellent food. Grilling just brings that out in people.
Steven, I like your "rule of palm" when it comes to figuring out what needs covering and what should be left alone on a grill. The pie pan you mentioned that we use at the East Coast Grill is an easy way to create some convection heat to speed up the cooking. At home I use those disposable pie pans, which work equally well.
Sara, you'd enjoy the Chinese box. It's very easy to use and people are amazed by the unique process and great flavor.
I'm glad you raised the question of grilled vegetarian options. I think grilled vegetables are great and very versatile as well. It's funny—sometimes when people come into my restaurant and eat a grilled mushroom or a thick slice of eggplant, they think they are eating meat because of the intense flavor.
I like to cut my vegetables thick and cook them on a fairly hot fire, so that they can get a hard sear while still retaining their texture. Another vegetable preparation I use is the hobo pack (at least that's what we called when I first encountered the technique as a budding Boy Scout). In that day, it was hamburger, onion, potatoes, and a lot of catsup wrapped in several layers of foil and cooked in the coals. Since then, the dish has evolved, and some of my favorite combinations are sweet potatoes and raisins with butter and molasses. Or new potatoes and spring onion with garlic and olive oil. It is genuinely simple, and I like the added culinary drama when the foil pack is removed from the fire and unwrapped. It's like a present.
With regard to indoor grilling, I'm afraid I've got to take a slightly snobby position and say I think it's pretty much nonsense. In my mind, if there's no fire, it's not grilling. I've never really seen an indoor grill with any heat power—the steaks tend to take a long time and turn out gray. Sure, I can use a hot grill pan and put a big sear on the steak, but that is not grilling. I apologize for the attitude, but as I said before, I've found that if I don't take a strong position, folks question whether I'm a real chef or not!
In any event, hibachis are perfect for small outdoor spaces. Steven, what's up with the shoebox-sized grill you mentioned?
It has been excellent talking to you both. Sara, if you're ever in Cambridge, please say hello. Steven, perhaps I'll catch you on the Vineyard this summer.
A final word to all eager grillers: Remember, part of the thrill of grilling is its unpredictability—a good sense of humor is key.
Happy grilling and enjoy your summer.