Take Your Grilling to the Next Level
Posted By Daniel Duane On September 1, 2011 @ 2:50 pm In Cover Stories,Features,Food & Drink
Every man hits the same inevitable plateau: You’ve got burgers and dogs down; you’re rock solid searing a rib eye; and you’re a backyard Da Vinci with that barbecue brush. But you’re over that limited repertoire, and you’re just not sure how to elevate your grilling beyond the obvious. Well, consider this: Every great American chef keeps a hot grill raging inside his restaurant kitchen. Chefs depend on grills because direct flame has a unique power to put a fierce sear on almost any food, adding char and wood-smoke flavor, along with crunchy caramelized textures that are impossible to duplicate with conventional burners.
Your own backyard grill plays other roles, of course — a reason to get outside, a place to gather and drink — but all that stuff gets even better when you learn to approach the grill as a versatile culinary tool instead of a dedicated barbecue appliance. Plus, the techniques you pick up while grilling things like whole fish, suckling pig, and peaches transcend specific recipes and will make you a true master of the open flame.
CHEF: Chris Hastings, owner of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama
Chris Hastings grew up vacationing on the South Carolina coast — helping Mom and Dad dig for oysters and clams, netting wild shrimp, and surf-casting for grouper. His free time still tends toward hunting, fishing, and grilling, so he knows better than anybody that fish fillets challenge even a veteran grillmaster: Fish flesh clings to the grate, and all that heat, smoke, and flame dry out a pricey piece of seafood. The solution? Grill the whole thing. Like chicken or beef, fish tastes best cooked on the bone: When you leave the creature intact, you keep all the moisture inside. Plus, a whole fish can easily feed a big crowd and makes for a terrific presentation.
1 whole striped bass (2–3 pounds), gutted, scaled, and fins trimmed off
8 large sprigs of fresh basil, coarsely chopped
2 lemons, sliced thin
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. An hour before cooking, take the fish out of the refrigerator to let it reach room temperature. Salt and pepper the interior of the fish, then put basil and lemon inside, and tie twine around to close it up.
2. Start the grill; clean and oil the grate. Right before cooking, salt and pepper the outside of the bass. (Doing this too early draws moisture from the skin, causing it to stick to the grill.) Drizzle olive oil into one hand, and rub over the fish.
3. Place the fish over medium-hot embers, and don’t move it for 5–7 minutes. (The skin will stick at first, so fussing with it too soon will tear it.) Watch for flare-ups; if you see any, knock them down with water from a squirt bottle.
4. Carefully probe the underside of the fish with a spatula to make sure the skin isn’t sticking. Then, with a spatula in each hand, carefully flip the fish over. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a metal skewer into the thickest part of the bass; hold for 5 seconds, then touch it to your lip. If it’s slightly warm, the fish is done.
5. Remove basil and lemon; set on a platter. Make a light cut along the length of the fish, from gills to tail fin. With your knife, lift meat away from the middle out. Once the top flesh is removed, wriggle and pull the backbone away from the rest of the flesh left on the platter.
BETTER THAN BBQ SAUCE: CHIMICHURRI
This chimichurri comes from Argentina’s most famous chef, Francis Mallmann, author of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. It takes minutes to make, keeps for weeks, and goes great on everything from roast chicken to scrambled eggs. Make it one day in advance, to let the flavors develop.
INGREDIENTS: 1 cup water • 1 tbsp coarse salt • 12 peeled garlic cloves • 1 cup packed flat-leaf parsley •1 cup fresh oreg- ano leaves • 2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes •1/4 cup red wine vinegar • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Simmer water in a small pot, add salt, stir to dissolve, and remove from heat.
2. Mince garlic, parsley, and oregano. Stir in a bowl with red pepper, vinegar, olive oil, and water-salt mixture.
CHEF: Frank Stitt, undisputed dean of southern cuisine and owner of the legendary Highlands Bar and Grill, in Birmingham
Back in the 1970s, Frank Stitt traveled to Provence, France, to study with an underground American-expat culinary hero named Richard Olney. While there, Stitt mastered a brilliant solution for the age-old grilled-chicken dilemma: the challenge of taking a bird with a lean breast, fatty legs, and a big empty cavity, and somehow getting crisp skin, juicy meat, and succulent thighs. Here in the States, we typically punt on the issue, cutting our birds into pieces and grilling each separately, then making up for the loss of moisture and shriveled skin by slathering on barbecue sauce. Stitt’s Provence-by-way-of-Birmingham method — spatchcocking (British for flattening) the whole bird, trussing it tight, and stuffing the skin with minced garlic and fresh herbs — transforms that humble chicken into a party dish of unparalleled juiciness and flavor.
1 whole chicken
1 cup parsley
Handful fresh basil leaves
3 cloves garlic
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tbsp salt
Fresh black pepper
1/2 stick softened unsalted butter
Butcher’s twine (optional)
1. Start with a good product, Stitt says, “ideally a bird raised naturally on a local farm. Set the chicken on paper towels over a pan, and store in the fridge for at least a day. This dries out the skin, helping it get crispy later.” If you don’t have time for that, at least blot it dry with paper towels inside and out, and be sure to take it out of the fridge for 1–2 hours before cooking, allowing the meat to come to room temperature.
2. Cut out the backbone with kitchen shears or a sturdy knife. Turn the chicken onto its back, and, starting at the tail end, where it’s easier to find the bone, cut first along one side of the backbone, then along the other, until you’ve removed the entire thing.
3. Laying the chicken breast-side up, smash down on the middle of the breast with the palm of your hand, breaking the breastbone and forcing the chicken flat.
4. With the bird breast-side up, gently rotate the legs out and away from the body until they, too, are skin-side up. Now make a 1-inch incision in the skin, at the bottom of each breast, and tuck the knobby end of each drumstick into these slits. This will hold the bird in a fixed shape that gives it a more even thickness. “A little string probably isn’t a bad idea either,” Stitt says. Use a 2-foot length of kitchen twine or unflavored dental floss to bind the ends of the leg bones tightly together.
5. Mince the parsley, basil, garlic, and lemon zest. Blend with salt, a few grinds of fresh black pepper, and the softened butter. Then stuff under the skin, smearing it around in there for even distribution. Finally, season the chicken’s exterior with more salt and pepper.
6. Over the low-heat side of your grill, start the chicken skin-side up, and cover with grill vents open. “This will get some heat going toward the bones without burning the skin,” Stitt says, “and it’s going to take a while, 30–45 minutes.” Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. When the breast meat is about 145 degrees and the thighs are passing 160 degrees, give the chicken a final 5 minutes, skin-side down, directly over your hottest coals, watching carefully to make sure the skin turns a crisp golden-brown without burning.
7. Serve: Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, and let rest for 15 minutes. Cut apart the skin or twine holding the legs together, and then carve the chicken into two drumsticks, two thighs, and four breast halves.
EXPERT RIBS: Trap the Moisture
Ribs need long, slow cooking to break down their connective tissue, so there’s a constant risk that they’ll dry out. Here are two great moisture-saving tricks: First, a 6-hour immersion in a mixture of salt and water (1/2 cup salt per gallon of water). Second, when you pull the ribs off the grill — after 2–3 hours over medium heat — wrap them tightly in foil, then stuff them into a paper bag for a half hour before serving.
BETTER THAN BBQ SAUCE: GRILLED VEGETABLE SALSA
Make a quick topping for whole fish by halving a red onion and a mango, brushing the cut sides with olive oil, and seasoning with salt and pepper. • Set cut-side down on grill long enough for a deep sear. • Dice onion and mango, and add 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 3 tbsp olive oil, salt, pepper, cilantro or parsley, and minced serrano pepper.
ADVANCED TECHNIQUE: TWO-LEVEL COOKING
Whole chickens, like any large piece of meat, need two different heat levels on the same grill: a high-heat zone, for crisping the exterior, and a lower-heat zone for slow cooking, to make sure the interior is done before the exterior burns. You can do this on a gas grill by simply setting different burners to different heat levels. With charcoal, you’ll need to pile the embers deep and high on one side to create an area of intense heat, and spread the embers thin and low on the other side for an area of gentle heat.
Michael Tusk fell in love with spit roasting while bouncing around kitchens in Europe. When he opened Cotogna last year, he focused the entire dining room around a wood-fired grill and rotisserie. “Spit roasting gives you that perfect combination of outer crispy skin, smoke and fire flavors, and great moisture inside the meat,” Tusk says. “You just can’t replicate that inside an oven.”
Nor can you replicate that on a standard barbecue rig: Grilling’s number one limitation, after all, is the way food heats from only one direction at a time. Grills are fine for meat small enough to be flipped a few times, but it’s a nightmare with big cuts. These days it’s easy to transform your simple home grill into a spit roast with specialty attachments available online at sites like Amazon.com.
As for the meat, any good butcher can special-order a whole suckling pig. McReynolds Farms sells them frozen (mcreynoldsfarms.com), and they generally start at about 10 pounds. Figure on 1 pound per person, and make sure the pig you’re getting fits on your grill: A 10–15 pounder fits a 24-inch grill; a 30-inch grill can handle up to 25 pounds.
1 suckling pig
2 cups lard
2 sprigs rosemary, minced
12 cloves garlic, minced
1. Bring pig to room temperature before cooking. Dry with paper towels, and season all over with salt and pepper. Combine rosemary and garlic with lard, and chill briefly to make a thick spread. Rub all over the inner cavity of the pig, and into every nook and cranny.
2. Push the end of the rotisserie shaft into the pig’s backside, through its body cavity, and out its mouth. Standard spits have prongs at each end that stick into the meat and stabilize it. Use an apple (or wad of foil) to prop open the pig’s mouth, which lets air escape during cooking.
3. Make sure the bed of embers is a little longer than the pig, and get your grill hot enough so you can hold your hand at pig level for only 5 seconds. Calculate 20 minutes of cooking time per pound.
4. Position the pig so the flames can’t touch it. (You don’t want any searing until later.) Set a drippings pan under it, and periodically scoop fat out and baste with it. When the meat thermometer reads 160 degrees, test the meat’s tenderness: It’s done when it pulls easily away from the bone with a fork. Finally, bring the animal right down near the coals, rolling it slowly to let the flame sear the skin. Cook slow over low heat, until meat turns falling-off-the-bone tender.
5. Don’t carve; just remove foil, set the pig on a platter with a knife and carving fork, and have at it. Use leftovers for pork and beans. (For recipe, go to mensjournal.com/pork-and-beans.)
CHEF: Greg Hinds, assistant manager at Hog Island Oyster Co., in San Francisco.
An hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the pristine Pacific waters of Tomales Bay, the Hog Island Oyster Co. farms shellfish fine enough for the raw bars of California’s classiest restaurants. But Hog Island itself has on-site picnic tables with little hibachis, where savvy picnickers give oysters a quick hit on the grill, turning them into luxury party food. “Some people let the heat steam them open,” says Hinds. “Personally, I think that dries out the oyster because you have to wait for the heat to break down the ligaments holding the shell closed.” Instead, Hinds says, shuck the oysters first (go to mensjournal.com/the-right-way-to-shuck-an-oyster), pour off their excess liquid, and then set them on the grill on the half shell, uncovered. “Once the oyster meat looks a little cooked, a little opaque,” he says, “hit it with your favorite sauce and you’re good to go.”
EXPERT STEAKS: Don’t Touch Them
Everybody feels tempted to fuss with a steak on the grill, but steaks only develop a crispy outside crust, with intense char flavor, if you leave them completely alone until they’re ready to flip (4–9 minutes, depending on the cut). Salt aggressively right before cooking, not during.
ADVANCED TECHNIQUE: USING SMOKE CHIPS
Many experienced grillers use hardwood charcoals exclusively, but you can still get great wood-smoke flavors with regular charcoal. Plus, smoke chips are the only way to get wood-smoke flavors out of a gas grill. Oak, hickory, mesquite, and fruitwood all work great, with slightly different flavor profiles. Soak the chips in water for 30 minutes before using, then wrap them up in a tight foil package, pierce the package all over with a fork, and set over hot embers or on the gas burners. Quick-cooking foods like fish and steak will pick up only a touch of the flavor, but longer-cooking foods like a whole suckling pig get smoke deep into the meat.
BETTER THAN BBQ SAUCE: HOG ISLAND CASINO BUTTER
Slow-cook a pound of bacon, pouring off the extra fat. • Chop the bacon into small bits, and add them into about 1 pound of soft butter. • Add 2 minced shallots and a dash of Spanish paprika. • Whisk the mixture enough to melt, and then drizzle about 1 tbsp onto each oyster.
CHEF: Jean-Pierre Moullé, co-head chef at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California
Jean-Pierre Moullé, a French native and California surfer, spends six months a year in Paris, hardly working, and the other six in Berkeley, running the kitchen at Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse was among the very first American restaurants to install a wood- fired grill, in the 1970s, and it kicked off the craze for fresh, local, seasonal produce. Summer vegetables have plenty of mois- ture to handle the grill’s high heat. They sing with the grill’s deep char flavors, and they cook quickly. “Think of vegetables for grilling in two categories,” says Moullé. “Vegetables you have to cook a little before you grill them, and vegetables you do not have to cook before you grill them.”
VEGETABLES THAT NEED PREP
When grilling vegetables like onions, leeks, or asparagus, the outside burns long before the inside becomes tender, which is why Moullé blanches them first:
1. Bring a huge pot of water to a boil; add 1 cup of salt per gallon. (Bigger pots prevent water from cooling once cold vegetables are dropped in.)
2. All but the very thinnest of asparagus should be peeled first, and all but the smallest leeks and onions should have their tough outer layers peeled off.
3. Add vegetables to the water in small batches so your water never dips below the boiling point. Cook just until the tip of a sharp paring knife slips into the center without much resistance.
4. Remove vegetables to paper towels, let them cool and dry, and then toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Shortly before serving, place directly over very hot coals, just long enough to get good sear marks and a wisp of smoke.
VEGETABLES THAT ARE GRILL-READY
Eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, and peppers: All these high-summer classics can go straight onto a hot grill, but slicing them in flat pieces helps. (Keep slices big and long, so they don’t fall between the grill bars.) Tomatoes shouldn’t be sliced at all, but just halved crosswise, along their equator. Then, simply toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and lay them flesh-side down on a medium-hot grill, long enough to soften up and sear.
BETTER THAN BBQ SAUCE: GRILLED VEGETABLE VINAIGRETTE
Something Light, But With a Kick
Mash 1 peeled garlic clove to a smooth paste, and whisk together with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. • Arrange grilled vegetables on a platter, and drizzle the vinaigrette over the top. • Season with salt and pepper.
CHEF: Stephen Collucci, head pastry chef at Colicchio & Sons, in New York City
Sweet stuff loves the sear every bit as much as savory: Think of classic French crème brûlée and the secret blowtorch kept in every restaurant kitchen precisely to caramelize that sweet, crispy-brown crust. Stephen Collucci, head pastry chef for Tom Colicchio first at Craft, then at Craft- steak, and now at Colicchio & Sons, keeps his grilled dessert even simpler, highlighting the combination of hot fire and a little seasonal fruit. It’s the kind of summer dessert you’ll make over and over again, until it becomes a natural part of your repertoire.
1 peach per person
2 cups white wine
2 cups sugar
2 sprigs mint (or chamomile) per person
1 vanilla bean per person
1/2 pint vanilla ice cream per person
1. The night before you’re going to grill, set out your peaches. Use a clean vegetable peeler or sharp knife to skin them. Then cut in half and discard the pits.
2. To make a simple syrup, combine white wine, sugar, mint, and vanilla bean in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stir to dissolve the sugar, remove from heat, and chill. (The chilling is critical: If you add raw peaches to hot liquid, they’ll start cooking and get mushy before they ever reach the grill.)
3. Immerse the peaches in the chilled syrup overnight in the refrigerator. (You can do this step several days in advance.)
4. Set each peach half cut-side down onto a medium-hot grill, watch for flare-ups, and grill for about three minutes, or until the bottom is well seared and the top has begun to soften.
5. Serve with vanilla ice cream and fresh berries.
EXPERT FIRE: BUY A BLOWTORCH
Even in a good chimney starter, hardwood charcoal can take up to 30 minutes from the time you light that match to the moment it’s all hot enough to use. But you can easily halve that time by waving a blowtorch over all the charcoal for a few minutes, making sure to hit each one. Any $20 hardware-store propane torch will do the trick, quickly igniting a whole evening’s worth of coals.
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