At Girls Can Grill, we love our wine almost as much as we love grilling, which is why this month’s Griller Gal is so special. World traveler and sommelier, Mary Cressler, has transformed from a wine educator and writer to a barbecue competitor and caterer.
Mary hails from the Pacific Northwest – a region not always recognized for its barbecue – but her grilling and BBQ skills are a match for any region, as she demonstrates on local news segments and through her websites Vindulge and Ember and Vine.
Looking at her Instagram feed, you would never know Mary was a former vegetarian. Photos of big hunks of beef and ribs are interspersed with wine and fresh seafood. After a decade of devouring only veggies, it was one plate of short ribs in Hawaii that changed her life.
“I was dining at a James Beard Award Winning restaurant and wasn’t about to ask this famous chef to change his prix fixe nine-course menu because of my dietary preferences at the time. I ate the meat and my diet changed forever! It was the greatest thing I had ever had in my life up to that point.”
So how did she transition from introducing meat to her menu to fully mastering it on the grill?
“It came down to practice and trust.”
Mary acknowledged that she was initially intimidated by grilling and barbecuing.
“I used to be so afraid of undercooking meat. I used to overcook the heck out of meat, until I learned how to take the proper temperature of meat. And it’s not just using a thermometer, but where to actually insert it. All of those things intimidated me.
When you follow a stovetop or oven recipe, there are usually precise cooking times to aim for, so you can cook by time and feel confident that it will come out fine. But barbecue is almost the opposite. I don’t think I trusted my instinct when I would strictly follow a recipe. I now have the instincts and tools (like good thermometers) and confidence to cook on my grill and smokers.”
Mary shares the Girls Can Grill motto believing that anything that can be cooked indoors can also be cooked outdoors, even in freezing temperatures. And the grill is not just her go to cooking method for meat. She loves grilling and smoking fruits, vegetables and even legumes.
“If someone is used to cooking in a kitchen, with a stovetop or oven, it’s good to think of it (at least in the beginning) as just another cooking vessel. I mean that’s really all it is, just another mechanism to cook your food. Once you get used to it, and learn it’s nuances, you’ll get more and more comfortable. It’s like an oven, not all ovens are the same. The longer you cook with your oven you learn if it cooks hotter or cooler than the temp you set it to. You learn where the hot spots are, which burners you like best for certain dishes, and so forth. It’s the same with your grill or smoker. The more you use it, the more you understand its personality and intricacies, and then the more comfortable and confident you become.”
Lately, she’s had a lot of practice. Her husband’s backyard barbecue hobby has quickly become her shared passion. The two team up regularly to create fun, balanced dishes. They even purchased a commercial-sized Yoder Chisholm smoker and are now competing on the barbecue circuit and have opened a catering and pop-up company in Oregon. She also cooks on a Traeger pellet grill, a Portable Traeger Grill and a Weber Kettle Grill.
And their creations are influenced by their travels around the world.
“Every time I travel somewhere I come home with new ideas and inspiration of things to cook with a BBQ twist. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Italy, for instance, I come back wanting to cook an Italian classic, like Arancini, or meatballs, but with a twist. Some of the best risotto I ever had was traveling in Northern Italy, so I was inspired to make smoked pumpkin risotto last fall. Take tomatoes. I love a classic Italian red sauce (whether pomodoro, marinara, ragu). And we LOVE to smoke tomatoes. So we smoke a couple pounds of tomatoes and make red sauces with those tomatoes. Then use the smoked sauce to make something like smoked sausage lasagna.
In France, one of my favorite dishes is a classic Coq au Vin. Why not smoke the chicken first then make a smoked version of the dish. When I traveled through Santorini, Greece, I had the most amazing eggplant dishes everyday. So I decided to smoke our own eggplant to make a twist on a classic Baba Ghanoush. In fact, the more I think about it, I’m thinking there are probably more fusion dishes inspired from my travels than there are traditional BBQ recipes on my blog 😉
And we live in the Pacific Northwest, which has a very heavy influence on the style of food we cook, and lots of fusion restaurants here. Lots of salmon, locally grown pork, wood, etc.”
What approach do you take to creating grill/BBQ recipes?
Smoke everything! When it comes to the cook I like to think of the grill as just another ingredient, trying to not make smoke the dominant flavor. We have a catering company called Ember and Vine that works primarily with wineries, and because we’re usually pairing the food we cook with wine, our goal is to make food that pairs well with wine. This is all achieved with balance. Heavily sauced or overly rubbed proteins overpower most wines, so our approach is to season the food (but not too heavily) and cook it in a way where you can taste the protein first, the smoke flavor second, and the seasonings and/or sauces third.
When people think of BBQ, they often think of beer or bourbon. What do you want people to know about pairing wine and BBQ?
Pairing wine and BBQ is no different than pairing any other style of food with wine. People always assume big and bold when it comes to BBQ, but that’s not always the case. It’s not always about just ribs and brisket. If you think of the smoke as just one of the many ingredients in the dish, you open yourself up to a wide variety of wine pairings.
- Take salmon or pork tenderloin (which is great smoked btw). Those both pair fantastically with local Oregon Pinot Noir.
- White fish, vegetables, poultry, those all open themselves up fantastically to white wines, especially fuller bodied white wines like Chardonnay or Viognier.
- Rosé wines are among my favorite for chicken and brisket (yes, brisket!!).
- You want to stick to those ribs or steaks? That’s where I turn to a peppery Syrah or Zinfandel.
I believe smoke is a condiment to the overall dish, not the defining flavor of the meal. It should be balanced, just like a good wine.
Do you have any BBQ tips or secrets that you’d be willing to share?
Invest in a good thermometer! I also think many folk are intimidated to ask questions. One big tip – ask – a lot – of questions! While there will always be the secret hoarders, most people love sharing their cooking experiences to help us all get better. Another tip – quality meat matters. I know budget plays a big part for many of us, but garbage in is garbage out. Consider finding a quality meat provider when cooking low and slow because it matters. It really does! We’re lucky where we live and have access to fantastic quality local meat and ingredients, farmer’s markets, and lots of great butchers as well.
What’s next for Vindulge and Ember and Vine?
Vindulge was just nominated for an IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Award for Best Recipe-Based Blog, which is so exciting for me!!! To be included in the caliber of culinary professionals is such an honor! Plus we now have a regular spot on our local morning lifestyle TV show to do cooking demos, which is always incredibly exciting for us. Getting to share our food on live TV is a ridiculous amount of fun.
As far as Ember and Vine, we want to put more focus this summer into BBQ Competitions, and possibly start selling some products. And someday (someday!!) my goal is to write a book on our style of Pacific Northwest BBQ and wine pairings.
Favorite cut of meat to BBQ? Line Caught Pacific Northwest Salmon (when done right it’s the greatest thing ever!). Also short ribs. It was the meat that forever changed me, and it’s out of this world when smoked!
Sauce or No Sauce? No sauce for the final product, BUT I am a sucker for a good sauce, so I like to have it available on the side for dipping.
Favorite grill/smoker? The Yoder because it’s a challenge. Every cook on it is different, and we’re still learning its ins and outs.
Do you wrap your brisket in foil or paper? You know we’ve always used foil until just recently. We just bought a 40-lb package of peach butcher paper to play around with.
Favorite wood to smoke with? Living in the Northwest, we love apple and cherry. It’s where most U.S. based cherries are grown. The sweet flavor it adds and color is amazing, followed by Oregon oak.