John Snedden studies a big package of jalapeños, looks at the rest of the items in his cart, and does a quick tally. Turning to one of the store’s employees, he asks if he can take just half the package. While the employee unwraps and re-wraps the jalapeños, I ask Snedden how he found this market.
We’re standing in the produce aisle of the Panam International Market on 14th Street, Northwest, just north of DC’s Columbia Heights. The market is in a nondescript building and lacks any of the frills of the chain stores. The aisles are tight, the ceiling is low, and the food is jammed onto the shelves. But the selection is surprisingly varied and the prices are phenomenal.
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Snedden discovered the market years ago. He likes that it uses the same meat purveyor as Rocklands and loves that he can find unique items at a fraction of what other stores charge. During this trip, he picks up three pounds of chicken thighs, shrimp with the heads still on, tomatillos, jalapeños, corn, radishes, bananas, celery, rice, cilantro, garlic, lemon, and lime. Grand total: $15.65.
At my apartment, Snedden peels the shrimp, leaving the heads on, which he says you can eat, like soft shell crabs. I fire away with questions about the different types of heat for grilling.
Snedden explains that gas or propane is the easiest and the most consistent for cooking, but it lacks the flavor imparted by charcoal or wood. It can also mean a drier result. Snedden is partial to charcoal with a mix of wood chips for flavoring. He avoids using the easy match-light briquettes or lighter fluid because of the chemicals and instead uses a chimney device to start the fire.
I’m relieved that I finally have the right equipment: a Weber grill, a chimney starter, charcoal briquettes, and some wood chips.
Snedden raids my fridge and cupboard for pantry items he can use for the shrimp marinade, chicken glaze, and salad dressing. He whisks a quick marinade for the shrimp, and lets them soak for just half an hour—the small, porous shrimp will pick up flavors quickly. Then he creates a marinade for the chicken. He soaks the chicken in the sauce for half an hour, but it can sit for up to four hours.
Snedden heads outside to light the grill. When the charcoals light in the chimney, he pours them into the grill on just one side. This allows him to control whether the food should be directly on the heat or not.
While we wait for the grill to get hot, Snedden soaks the wood chips in water so they won’t flame out as soon as they’re added. Next he starts on a salad. He peels the papery skin off the tomatillos, then rinses and chops them. He dices celery and jalapeños, thinly slices the radishes, and mixes it all together.
Next, Snedden starts boiling water for the corn. He runs outside to place the chicken on the grill. Back inside, he brushes the leftover jalapeños and some onion with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Those are added to the grill right away. After the corn has boiled, Snedden finishes it on the grill, which gives it a toasty color and flavor.
Snedden is like a one-man marching band—moving around and juggling many tasks at once with perfect timing. He hears the sizzle of the chicken and moves it around the grill. He adds the shrimp in batches so he has time to flip them without burning or over-cooking them. He bastes the corn with flavored butter and finishes the chicken with a glaze.
I ask him how he mastered the grill. Snedden tells me he started experimenting when he was young and just kept practicing. After one whiff of that smoky air that smells like summer, I look forward to practicing well into the fall.
All recipes serve 4.
1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
4 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined with heads left on
Mix the mustard, honey, and garlic together in a bowl. Marinate the shrimp in the mixture for half an hour. Cook the shrimp on the grill for 1½ minutes on one side and 45 seconds on the other.
Put only half the shrimp on the grill at a time so you have enough time to turn all of them and avoid burning them.
Serve with the tomatillo-and-radish salad (recipe follows).
4 tomatillos, peeled and large diced
4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 tablespoons plus 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sugar
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
In a salad bowl, toss the tomatillos, peppers, radishes, and celery. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, olive oil, sugar, and cilantro. Dress the salad to taste.
For the chicken and marinade:
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon pepper
2¼ teaspoons hot sauce (Snedden likes Hunan Red Chili sauce)
1½ teaspoons lemon juice
3 pounds chicken thighs
For the glaze:
¼ cup strawberry jam
¼ cup apricot preserves
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons mustard
Note: This glaze can be made with any flavor jam or preserves, except for grape.
In a large bowl, mix the white vinegar, cider vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, hot sauce, and lemon juice together. Add the chicken and let sit at least half an hour and no longer than 4 hours.
Place the chicken over the hot coals, thigh side down. Cook the chicken for 35 to 40 minutes, turning occasionally. Keep an eye on the skin side to make sure it doesn’t overly char. Combine the glaze ingredients in a small bowl. 5 minutes before taking the chicken off the grill, brush the thighs with the glaze.
1 cup rice
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped (another herb, such as basil, parsley, or chives, may be substituted).
Cook the rice according to the package’s instructions. Stir in the butter and cilantro.
4 ears corn, shucked
1 stick butter
2 cloves garlic, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Old Bay seasoning, to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a hard boil and cook the corn for 8 minutes.
In a small saucepan set over low heat, add the butter and garlic. Cook until the corn is done. Season the butter with salt, pepper, and Old Bay seasoning.
Remove the corn from the water. Brush the cobs with the butter mixture and grill until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 bananas, sliced
In a small sauté pan set over low heat, melt the butter and brown sugar. Add the slices of banana
and cook until caramelized. Serve alone or with vanilla ice cream. • Read More Frugal Foodie Columns