MILTON-FREEWATER - The trick to grilling salmon, Jim Kessler says, is to brush it with a good sauce, turn it frequently and take it off the grill while it's still nice and moist.
He should know. Kessler Katering grills hundreds of salmon each year, sometimes serving 4,000 people at a single event. Their barbecue pits can handle 350 steaks or 600 pounds of prime rib. In the course of a year they burn 15 tons of charcoal briquettes.
Jim and Carol Kessler have been running Kessler Katering in Milton-Freewater for almost half a century. It all started when Jim, a member of the Milton-Freewater Jaycees, helped out with a barbecue fundraiser during the Pea Festival. When the Jaycees stopped doing the barbecue, Jim built some pits and grills and took it on.
The Kesslers' first venture was grilling chicken for an open house at Meadowood Springs Speech and Hearing Camp near Tollgate. That led to a private party, which led to a barbecue stand at the Pendleton Round-Up. The Kesslers also have catered the Pendleton Round-Up Wagon Train since it started 26 years ago.
"It's been a very interesting 48 years," Carol says. "We been to a lot of places, sort of 'Have pits, will travel.' "
The pits are eight-foot long metal boxes mounted on trailers. With three trailers and help from family members, the Kesslers can cater up to five different events at once. For smaller parties, they prepare the beef or chicken ahead of time and keep it hot in foil-lined, insulated containers.
Jim starts with briquettes laid along the edges of the pits, then lights them with a propane weed burner. The heat sweeps into the center of the grill and as soon as the briquettes are glowing red, he scatters them with a shovel and starts cooking.
Lying across each pit, about three feet above the briquettes, are hinged stainless-steel grills with handles, each big enough for 30 chicken halves. Chicken and steaks are laid on one side of the grill and the other side is snapped shut.
"We keep turning it back and forth so it cooks nice on each side," Carol says. "Chicken takes about an hour and a half."
The only flavoring the Kesslers use on chicken is a rub of curing salt and a little garlic. When the leg turns easily in the joint, they know the chicken is ready.
For salmon, Jim lines the grill with aluminum foil. He lays the opened and boned whole fish skin-side down on the foil and brushes the top with a sauce of Dijon mustard, lemon, butter and other ingredients. He closes the grill and cooks the fish for about 12 minutes, turning it three or four times until done.
"Any kind of salmon is good this way," Jim says.
Tri-tip steak, which Jim describes as being like a little two-to-three-pound roast, is another favorite. He recommends grilling, then slicing it into eight to 10 servings. Because the steak is roughly wedge-shaped, it will be medium well on one end and rare on the other.
"Tri-tip should be brown on the outer edges and nice and red inside," Jim says. "You can take your pick when you're serving."
There's more to a good barbecue than just meat, of course. A typical Kessler Katering dinner includes barbecued beans, three salads, a relish tray of pickles and olives, bread and dessert.
Carol makes a variety of salads, including pasta, coleslaw, green, Caesar, potato, fresh fruit and broccoli-cauliflower. One of her specialties during the Walla Walla sweet season is sweet onion salad.
"Take the Walla Walla sweets, slice them and separate into rings," Carol says. "Add some sour cream, sprinkle with granulated sugar and sesame seeds, and toss until everything is coated. It's simple but very good."
Presentation matters, Carol says. "I always say, you've got to eat it with your eyes first. A good plate of chicken should be golden brown, moist and succulent. If it looks good you're going to eat it."