It’s almost summer and the cookin’ is easy-especially if you’ve readied your outside grill for one of the simplest and fastest cooking methods around (whether it’s cooking over hot coals or gas or electric elements). Most smaller cuts of meat, poultry, and fish are perfect for grilling. In past times, no one thought of preparing vegetables on the grill, with the exception of roasted potatoes or ears of corn on the cob.
Nowadays, everything from asparagus to zucchini are being grilled by the backyard cook. Special wire racks are available in the barbecue section of grocery stores and discount houses to keep your slices of eggplant, zucchini, etc. from falling through to the coals.
But, before you start grilling, you need to make sure your grill is clean from last year’s barbecues. Use a stiff wire brush to remove any black residue or carbon left on the grill. This carbon buildup carries the burned bitter flavors of the foods previously cooked and will transfer to what you’re cooking today. If you can find your owner’s manual, it’s a good idea to consult it first, as some surfaces need special attention when cleaning.
If you’re using charcoal, start the fire 30 to 45 minutes before you want to start grilling. Most gas and electric grills have a start-up heat position that takes about 5 to 10 minutes before you lower the heat for grilling.
Before you start grilling, allow the charcoal flames to die down completely and the coals to burn to an even light gray color with glowing red centers. Spread the coals into a single layer with a long fork or tongs. Hold the palm of your hand at grill level above the coals. If you can take the heat for only 2 or 3 seconds, the fire temperature is right for hot searing; 4 seconds indicates a medium-hot fire. You can control the temperature by using the grill vents-opening the vents will increase the heat and closing them will decrease it. Another way to control the temperature is to lower or raise the grill rack.
Supplemental “musts” for the grill chef are a pair of insulated kitchen gloves, a plastic spray bottle filled with water for use in case of a flare-up, and a long-handled tongs, spatula, and fork.
The Flavor Behind the Smoke
It’s fun to experiment with chips of different woods to produce flavoring smoke. There are some hard-and-fast rules about what woods are appropriate for grilling. Only use hardwoods such as hickory, mesquite, oak, pear, apple, cherry, or peach. Never use soft woods like pine or spruce as they have noxious resins and pitch that will ruin the flavor or your food.
Dried grapevines are also excellent for grilling, but the flavor is too intense for lamb. Wood chips should be soaked in water for an hour before spreading them over the ready coals. When using a gas grill, spread the chips directly over the lava rocks.
Herbs can also do great things on the barbecue. At gourmet shops you can buy bundles of dried basil stalks to use for grilling, but if your basil is lush in your garden, you can save lots of money by drying your own stalks. Fresh herbs can also be used. Use fresh rosemary to skewer scallops. Wrap a beef tenderloin in fresh fennel or sprigs of rosemary and thyme (tied in place with kitchen string) or fish can be wrapped in fresh dill or fennel (again using kitchen string).
Weave sprigs of fresh thyme into a London broil steak or lay fresh sage leaves on top of pork chops. Herbs that drop onto the coals, accidentally or intentionally, will give a lovely aroma to the cooking area as well as to the food. Make a brush out of a tied bunch of parsley sprigs or rosemary to brush marinade or sauce onto the food as it’s grilling.
When your grill’s not in use, store it in a fairly dry sheltered area and cover it with an all-weather cover that’s available for most models. Good grilling!