Most everyone who heads out into a blustery Minnesota winter night to fire up the grill is seeking flavors that can't be duplicated indoors. For many, it's also a chance to shake their fists at Old Man Winter. But for some, like Marc Kotsonas, the motivation is more practical than culinary or philosophical.
"We had just had our first child, and my wife [Dimitria] was looking for ways for me to help with the cooking," he said. "And it turned out we ended up really enjoying grilled food in the winter."
Others, such as year-round griller Jon Reedy of Vadnais Heights, also have pragmatic reasons for firing up the coals or gas on winter nights.
"There are some foods that I've been grilling so long that I wouldn't know how to cook them in the oven," he said.
But a big reason that winter grilling is on the rise is almost certainly the increasing popularity of the Big Green Egg, whose kiln-like structure keeps the heat sealed in and the chill wind out. Chuck Bulson, manager of the Warners' Stellian store in Edina, said sales of the Eggs and their specially made charcoal have climbed steadily in recent winters.
"I'm surprised that we sell anything in the winter, but people with the Eggs really want to grill in winter," he said.
Among the hardiest devotees are Becky and Frank Hauer of Lindstrom, Minn. Two or three times a week, they schlep about 30 yards to the barn and light some coals in their extra-large Green Egg. On the menu: "Anything from crab legs to our home-grown chickens, which we actually smoke," Becky Hauer said.
It's not the same as "a great summer's evening, when we can sit out and enjoy nature," she admitted. "In the winter, it is more 'run out, do what you have to and run back in to warm up by the fire.'"
If the wind is blowing from the south through the overhead door, the semi-insulated barn gets frigid and the Egg takes longer to reach cooking temperature, Hauer said. And if there's no wind at all, the barn can get smoky. But neither snow nor smoke nor gloom of night stays these outdoor chefs from their self-appointed duties.
"We grew up here in Minnesota, and we just do things outside when it is not the warmest," she said. "We probably grill a little more in the winter than the summer. It makes it seem like even the coldest days are just a little bit warmer."
Steve Krikava of Edina has a shorter hike to his Weber kettle grill, via a path he has to shovel after every snowfall. "December was really a challenge with all that snow," he said.
Most winter grillers do their work closer to the house -- sometimes too close. Reedy has a gas grill set up "just outside the sliding door," he said. "I used to put it about 4 inches away from the door, and all of a sudden one time [the heat] hit the soffit and it started raining on me."
Aside from severe cold, certain elements of a Minnesota winter serve, surprisingly, as grilling aids.
"The best part about winter grilling," Kotsonas said, "is that because it is so dry out, the charcoal lights up really, really fast." Not only that, but, as Krikava noted, "a little bit of wind actually helps the chimney" get going.
Krikava added that he can't imagine winter life without a grill.
"Salmon, chicken, turkey, steaks, burgers -- I like how cooking them on the grill allows the fat to drip off and I get this nice, lean, smoky flavor," he said. "I grill them in the spring, summer and fall, so why not also winter?"
The Reedy family diet also would change markedly if grilling were not an option, for at least one practical reason.
"We eat a lot of salmon," he said. "When I've tried to [cook] that inside, it really stinks up the house. You pay for it for about two days."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643