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In Season: GRILLING OUT!

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Summer 1997

A glowing cook fire acts as a magnet, pulling us forward to savor its warmth and liveliness, and summer is the quintessential season to enjoy this oldest form of cooking.

Call it grilling or call it barbecuing, cooking over hot coals creates finger-licking-good summer meals. Whether you opt for an ordinary wiener stuck on the end of a stick, sumptuously thick chateaubriand, or plump, marinated game hens sizzling in all their glory, grilling is a fragrant, happy way to cook.

Ever since my son-in-law installed a cast iron wood-burning stove in our garden, the entire family has enjoyed hours sitting in quiet contemplation, mesmerized by the flames lighting up late summer nights. We’ve watched many a pot of chili or fragrant apple butter simmer to a soft, mellow consistency. I’ve often risen before 6 a.m. to light a fire using the hot coals from the previous night and keep my morning mug of steaming coffee warm on the stovetop. A grid for the stove will let us cook meat and veggies right over the smoldering coals, but for now we accomplish this by lighting up our trusty outdoor Weber, with great results.

Although many of us have enjoyed meals produced by the traditional prolonged slow cooking of barbecue, what I’m talking about here is the instant gratification of grilling. Meats, seafood, and vegetables quickly sear on the outside and take in the fragrance of the fire to entice many a sleepy summer appetite.

Grilling is easily the most festive way to entertain outdoors. Most of the meal can be prepared ahead of time, so you have a chance to be a guest at your own party. Most of the mess stays outside, and guests can enjoy cool beverages and before-supper snacks while they take in the smoky aromas and sizzling sounds from the grill.

tips for grilling

The Fire

Use good charcoal briquettes or hardwood briquettes. Mesquite wood is my favorite. Although it may seem pricey, charred mesquite wood burns hot and long and produces a subtle fragrance. Try adding some dampened fruit wood clippings or shavings to the hot fire: cherry, apple, hickory, and grapevine cuttings all exude a sweet, spicy aroma that permeates the meat.

As for starters, ignore lighter fuels. Lighter fluid is not only extremely flammable, but it produces a chemical odor and taste.

I use a metal chimney to start my coals. Weber makes a large model. The one I use is made by Ace Hardware. Another popular brand is Charcoal Companion. Look for starter chimneys at your local supermarket or hardware store. To use, place a couple of pieces of crumpled newspaper in the bottom, fill the top section with briquettes or mesquite, light the newsprint, and in ten to fifteen minutes you’ll have a chimney of fully ignited coals. Dump the hot coals out cautiously and wait until nearly all of them are fully covered in white ash and the centers are a softly glowing red. Spread them out in a layer, and place the grill on top so that it will begin heating. You want the grill clean and very hot before you begin to cook. You may also want to lightly oil the grill by rubbing it with a piece of paper toweling moistened with some cooking oil.

Don’t hurry the fire. Allow enough time for the coals to become fully ignited and blazing hot before you begin to grill. Until I became comfortable with the process, I can’t tell you how many times we would finish our meal, only to find a mass of vibrant coals still glowing.

Enjoy the last of the fire. Kids and adults love to linger over the coals. Have a few (or many!) marshmallows handy for toasting. I often lay some kindling and an oak log on the hot coals after removing the grill from our Weber so that we can enjoy a small bonfire in the lengthening shadows of evening.

Marinades and Basting Sauces

Marinades are used to flavor or tenderize meats and poultry. They usually consist of such aromatics as garlic, onions, herbs or citrus zest, along with something to carry those flavors, such as oil, vinegar, beer, wine, citrus juice, or even buttermilk. I usually marinate seafood or fish fillets for no more than half an hour because of their delicate flesh. Feel free to marinate meat and poultry much longer if you have time. Anywhere from one to four hours is effective, or even leave your meat to marinate in the refrigerator overnight. If I am using lemon juice as part of my marinade, I also squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the meat or chops just before I’m about to remove them from the grill. This produces a lively and fresh finish that is especially tasty on chicken and lamb. If you are using a marinade, when the grill is hot and ready, pat the food gently with a paper towel just to remove excess moisture, and brush on a tiny amount of oil before placing it on the hot grill.

Basting sauces add flavor by creating more caramelization on the meat’s surface. Basting sauces usually contain both a sweetener and peppery spices to add fire and kick. Sugar burns easily, so apply sugar-based sauces during the last quarter of the cooking process. Before the food is fully cooked, begin basting to develop the thick caramelization we find so desirable—that sticky-finger effect we all love! My dad loved to barbecue ribs, but he didn’t know about waiting until the ribs were nearly done to baste them. Basting too early results in "petrified ribs"—meat so charred by the sauce it is difficult to separate from the bone. The ribs we love today are slow cooked and sweetly sloppy to eat. Follow my suggestion and you’ll have great success.

Safety

The first rule is to serve hot foods hot and cold foods cold. When the meal is over, refrigerate leftover cooked food. Let it cool uncovered in a shallow dish on the top shelf of the fridge and then cover it when cool. Microorganisms develop quickly when foods are allowed to sit at room temperature (even when they are fully cooked) for more than an hour. Even a pot of cooked rice sitting on the stove for a couple of hours after a meal will begin to develop harmful bacteria. "Cool, cover, and refrigerate" is a good motto to remember.

Do not put cooked food on the same plate that held it raw. The primary concern here is that any harmful bacteria or microorganisms (E. coli, salmonella, and so on.) that are present in uncooked meat, poultry, or seafood could easily land back on the same food after it is cooked. To avoid such contamination, thoroughly wash your hands with hot water and an antibacterial soap after touching raw meats, and wash all cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and tongs used for raw meat, poultry, or seafood before handling the cooked product.

Do not reuse marinades to baste or moisten the cooked meat. I did this once,without knowing the danger, and ended up critically ill in the hospital. What landed me in the hospital, close to shock, was the campylobacter bacteria (often called campy), which is found in raw meat and poultry. An innocent act on my part preceded this terrible adventure. After removing some beautiful citrusy chicken from the grill, I noticed some of the marinade left in the dish. Figuring it would taste good to have more of that garlic lemon taste on the grilled chicken, I proceeded to baste the cooked meat with the marinade. An emergency room visit and hospital stay were the dramatic beginning of my education in food preparation safety.

Thaw any frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter. There are times when I want to defrost chicken breasts or thighs in a hurry, and in that case, I put a large pan of ice water in my kitchen sink and submerge a Ziploc bag of chicken pieces in the icy water. I keep adding cold water every half hour or so, and the meat defrosts within about an hour without any danger. I am wary of using the microwave to defrost meat and chicken due to its irregularity in defrosting (the outside of the product begins to warm and cook before the inner meat begins to thaw).

More Tips

Don’t use a fork. A fork pierces the meat and allows the juices to run. You want those juices in the meat, not dribbling onto the coals, so use tongs to shift food on the grill. Invest in good tongs. (The ones sold in a grill accessories pack are often useless and clumsy.) You want spring-loaded, V-shaped, tapered tongs for easy manipulation. Get a long pair, about sixteen inches long, and a short pair. Any good cookware store has just what you need. (By the way, these, along with a pair of mitts for a favorite outdoor cook, make dandy host gifts.) For flipping burgers, fish fillets, or vegetables, get a sturdy wide metal spatula.

Don’t cut meats as soon as they come off the grill. During cooking, the meat juices are drawn toward the outer surface, toward the heat source. If you cut the meat immediately, those juices will cover your cutting board, and the meat will turn a dull gray color. Let the meat rest, to give its juices time to redistribute themselves back into the center of the meat. Five to fifteen minutes, depending on the cut, should do it. For more tender slices, hold your knife at a slight angle, and cut the meat across the grain, on the diagonal.

Recipes

Long ago, as a young newlywed, the only marinade I knew came from my mother’s recipe box. It was a simple combination of soy sauce and Milani’s 1890 French dressing. When I remembered this recently, I went looking for a bottle of Milani’s 1890 French dressing, and was told it’s been out of production for ages. The closest I could come to approximating Mom’s marinade today is to use Kraft Catalina style dressing and soy sauce in equal amounts. In the old days, we used this exclusively for marinating a chuck roast. I laugh now at the fact that I didn’t think to try it on anything else, nor did I expand my barbecue sights beyond that chuck roast! I’m telling you, it was succulent, if full of sodium. But today I’d use a low-salt soy sauce to create this marinade for chicken.

My all-time-favorite marinade is made by combining fresh minced herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, basil, or cilantro, with chopped garlic, kosher salt, and pepper. I add the juice and zest of a lemon or two, some red pepper flakes, and a bit of oil. This seems to enhance anything I grill, from meat to seafood to vegetables. Try some of the many ready-made marinades on the market, too. Some delightful Asian ones are full of ginger, sesame oil, and soy, which work especially well with pork and seafood.

I’ve had great response to a marinade I shared with you several years ago. I developed it for thick swordfish steaks, and I have also used it for shrimp, salmon, boned trout, and chicken. I combine two cloves chopped garlic, two teaspoons minced fresh ginger root, one-fourth cup chopped cilantro or basil, one minced jalapeno or serrano chili, salt, pepper, the juice of two lemons (or limes), and four tablespoons oil. I put this into a plastic Ziploc bag with the items to be grilled, gently massage this marinade into the flesh, and marinate for twenty minutes to thirty minutes. Remove the fish from the bag, and gently pat away excess moisture before grilling over a hot fire.

In the 1950s, I never thought of adding vegetables to my grilling repertoire. Vegetables make a colorful and succulent addition to the menu and provide many options for those of us who are eating less meat. The heat from the grill transforms the natural sugars contained in vegetables into a caramelized sweetness that is a perfect counterpoint to spicy hot marinades.

To prepare vegetables for grilling, just wash them. Don’t peel them, as their colorful skins add to their appeal. Gather several colors of bell peppers, remove the seeds, and slice or quarter them. Cut a large globe eggplant into one-fourth-inch slices, or slice small, thin Italian or Japanese eggplants in half. Cut golden or green zucchini and red or white sweet onions into one-fourth-inch slices (do the same with the huge Portobello mushrooms when they are in season). Leave white or brown regular-sized mushrooms whole. I lightly brush all these vegetables with a bit of marinade or olive oil and then sprinkle them with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Place the vegetables on the hot grill to sear the surface, and leave them long enough so that they begin to soften and moisture appears on their surface. Peppers, onions, and eggplants take the longest; mushrooms take the least time to cook. As they grill, the vegetables’ cellular structures begin to soften, releasing some of their moisture, and their sugars begin to caramelize and brown. Flip the veggies over and grill for a few minutes longer. Remove to a platter and serve as is, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, or use your favorite dipping sauces. I make up a sauce that varies with my mood or what I’m cooking. The base is half yogurt, half nonfat sour cream, a spoon or two of mayonnaise, some minced garlic, herbs, cayenne pepper, minced scallions, a dash of vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Use the grill to explore vegetables you may not have thought of before. If you are one who hates the thought of eggplant, please give it another try: cut into one-fourth-inch slices, lightly oiled and grilled, eggplant becomes softly sweet and mellow, a taste that just might surprise you.

While you are in the vegetable bin, don’t overlook the potatoes. Choose small, red new potatoes, leave them whole or cut in half, and steam them until just barely tender when pierced with a fork. Dry off the steamed potatoes and baste them lightly with olive oil. Add a sprinkling of salt and pepper or some minced fresh herbs. Place them on the grill, and keep them moving until they become golden brown and crispy. I’d recommend the same process for grilling yams. Cut them into two- or three-inch-thick "coins" after steaming, and then place these on the grill. These are good with ribs and slaw.

Some of the more exotic vegetables we previously may not have considered suitable for the grill are now making an appearance. Try radicchio, asparagus, fennel, leeks, and scallions. Blanch them quickly in boiling water (two or three minutes), and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Pat dry, oil lightly, and place them on the hot grill and grill until crispy tender.

Dessert from the Grill

Put a fine and unexpected finish to your meal by grilling your dessert. How about fresh, perfectly ripe fruit? I’ve grilled slices of pineapple, apples, halved ripe peaches, thick slices of Bosc pear, and even halved fresh figs. I "baste" the cut surface of the fruit with a bit of honey mixed with lemon juice before grilling. Clean your grill with a wire brush before cooking fruit to avoid confusing the delicate taste of the fruit with residual flavors of food grilled before. In grilling fruit, the point is not necessarily to cook it, but to give it a caramelized surface and warm it through. Grilled fruit is marvelous served alone, or with a creamy blue cheese, a fine aged Stilton, some salty toasted almonds or hazelnuts, and crispy crackers. Add a fine piece of bittersweet chocolate to munch along with it, and you’ve got dessert with a European flair.

I hope these ideas will encourage you to gather round the fire this summer, and, whether your meal is grand or simple, to enjoy the conviviality of sharing a grilled supper. (Don’t forget the marshmallows!) Happy summer.

LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that will become part of the California schools curriculum.

 

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