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Fire up that grill, even if it's freezing

Bears hibernate through winter, but grilled burgers don't have to. Why should they? Gone are the days of your father's massive brick outdoor fireplaces the size of Stonehenge that threw off enough energy to fuel a cruise ship and had grills large enough to barbecue a musk ox.

Such monstrosities were usually built at the far corner of the backyard, a long hike from the house. As for using them in winter - forget it. Unless your houseguest was a yeti, or you had a dog-sled team, no one barbecued until tulip time.

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Since the advent of smaller, covered, more portable grills, year-round outdoor cooking has become more available and practical. For winter grilling, they can be wheeled closer to the house (but not too close) or into some sheltered, well-ventilated area and, voílà, you're ready to go.

A winter cookout is no different than a summer one except that it's a cook-out/eat-in. And there's nothing new about it. Our cave-dwelling ancestors carried on through the cold. So put on your parka, get out there, and fire up the grill. You won't regret it.

A grilled steak, charred burger, or succulent skewer of fresh seafood kabobs can be an unexpected dining experience for your family and guests when the snow is flying.

Bear a few things in mind when the Alberta clipper is about to make a scheduled stop in your backyard. First, keep it simple. Second, make it quick. Stick to those foods that cook up fast and that you're comfortable with. This is no time to experiment with duck on a rotisserie or grilled leg of lamb if you've never done either one before. You don't want to have to bundle up every 10 minutes to go out and poke or baste something that's going to take an eternity to cook.

But simple doesn't have to mean plain, bland, or boring. Even a humble burger can be served with a bit of panache and imagination.

You do have to consider ambient temperature and the dreaded windchill factor when grilling in cold weather. In other words, stoke your grill with plenty of charcoal, or let your gas grill preheat 5 to 10 minutes longer than usual. You may have to increase cooking times if it's particularly windy or cold. Charcoal-grillers should also watch the time: Weak coals are much less forgiving in cold weather. Grill while the fire is hot. Use a stopwatch or timer to keep track of the coals and grilling times.

There's not a more simple crowd pleaser than a burger. Remember, for juicy beef burgers, the meat should have a fat content of at least 15 percent. (Much of the fat will cook out of the meat, and it's the fat dripping onto the hot coals that adds significantly to that grilled flavor.) Or try substituting ground turkey for beef and mix it with a soft herb cheese such as Boursin or Rondele. If you're a lamb lover, a lamburger stuffed with crumbled feta or Roquefort is hard to beat.

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Try it. I'm sure you'll agree that grilling is indeed for all seasons. Just don't make the mistake I once did: After leaving a marinated steak beside the grill while it heated up, I went inside to warm up. When I went back out, alas, the steak was gone. Little cat paw prints led me to my 6-foot stockade fence. There, stuck between the pickets, was my London broil, perfectly intact. I grabbed it and threw it on the grill. It was delicious. My dinner guests went home happy, full, and ignorant of what had happened. Only the cat left hungry.

Grilled hamburgers stuffed with Roquefort

2 pounds ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste
12 ounces Roquefort cheese
Two large red onions, cut into half-inch slices
6 hamburger buns

Preheat grill to medium hot. Indoors, season beef with salt and pepper. Divide into six equal portions. Form each portion into two thin patties. Crumble Roquefort and spread equally onto six halves. Top with remaining halves. Press edges together to seal.

Grill onion slices. Cook hamburgers to the degree of doneness you prefer. Don't forget to toast the buns on the grill, too. Top burgers with onion slices. Serve with potato chips or French fries.

Serves 6.

Note: If Roquefort isn't to your taste, try stuffing burgers with your favorite crumbled or shredded cheese or one of the following: salsa; crumbled cooked bacon; sliced avocado, sour cream, and bacon; sliced, sauteed mushrooms.

Or mix ground meat with: taco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pickles and hot mustard, mixed herbs, or horseradish.

Scallop kabobs with pineapple and mixed vegetables

Seafood is particularly easy for winter grilling. It requires very little in the way of preparation, and it cooks quickly. The following recipe is for two kabobs. Multiply the portions for as many as you like. If you're using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 20 minutes to avoid burning. Almost any firm fish works well. Try raw shrimp if you prefer, or mix shrimp and scallops.

The tang of fresh pineapple plays well with shellfish and gives a tropical touch to a chilly day.

4 to 6 large sea scallops, rinsed and patted dry
4 to 6 wedges of fresh pineapple
1 green bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 to 6 cherry tomatoes
1 medium onion, cut into wedges
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat grill to medium hot. Meanwhile, indoors, thread scallops, fruit, and vegetables on skewers, alternating seafood with fruit and vegetables. Mix juice of lemon with olive oil and salt and pepper. Brush kabobs with half of lemon juice mixture.

Grill, covered, about 5 minutes. Turn, brush with rest of lemon juice mixture, and cook an additional 5 minutes, or until scallops are opaque. Overcooking will toughen scallops or other shellfish.

Serve with buttered rice or baked potatoes. Serves 2.


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