Grilling Outside the Box

I’m sure I’m not the only one excited about the gorgeous, sunny days we’ve been having this summer, and my grill especially loves all the attention. It gets so lonely by itself in the corner of my garage, covered in an old tarp and collecting dust during those seven months I don’t dare leave my cocoon of blankets, snuggies, slippers, and gas fireplaces. But there’s nothing I love more than sitting on my front porch or poking around in my garden while I wait for my meat to cook, the air filling with pungent smoke.

When I worked at a restaurant, I would drop all sorts of food into the deep fryer to see how it would taste. I use that same method when playing with my grill every year, and I’ve come across some awesome and unexpected meals that way. I worry that people view the grill only as a way to cook hearty, heavy meats. Yes, it’s great for burgers, hot dogs, and steaks, but with a little finesse, you can use the grill to cook even the most delicate of foods, imbuing them with that awesome grilled flavor. I urge you to experiment this summer.

Grilling Tips:

Invest in a good grill brush. Soft bristles won’t cut it when scraping off the grease and gunk, especially after cooking a juicy piece of meat.

Thoroughly clean your grill at least twice this summer, preferably when you take it out of the garage, and right before you put it away for the winter. It doesn’t hurt to clean it in the middle, too.

Tongs. Tongs, tongs, tongs. I watched my father attempt to use two forks to rotate burgers and hot dogs last night, cringing every time the flames would lick his hand. I’m amazed he has any hair left on his arm. Invest in several pairs of tongs.

Oiling the grate: Take a paper towel, fold it up several times, and grip it with the tongs you just bought because you hate the smell of burning hair, and drizzle a liberal amount of vegetable oil on the paper towel. Right before you place anything on the grill grates, rub them down with the oil. This keeps your food from sticking too much.

Grill baskets are your friend. They are metal trays and baskets you place on the grill, and are perfect for more delicate food (fish) or smaller vegetables that would fall through the cracks.

Summer is the perfect time to jazz up your salad. Not only can you get fresh, just-picked lettuce for the base, but everything else is in season, too. Challenge your taste buds by mixing sweet with spicy, mild with tangy, crunchy with soft. Try a salad with feta cheese, sunflower seeds, cubes of fresh avocado, blackberries, and raspberries, all served over field mix with a honey balsamic vinaigrette. My other go-to summer salad is strawberries, goat cheese, and red onions with a lemon vinaigrette. By mixing ingredients in unexpected ways, you amplify the sweetness of one thing while intensifying the bitterness or saltiness of another. Flavors play off of each other in the same way that the colors of the salad draw you in. But since this is an article about grilling, I’ve included a recipe from the NY Times for a Grilled Caesar Salad.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore grilling salmon on a cedar plank, or even directly on the grill grates, but sometimes the fish will dry out that way if you’re not paying attention. Throwing the salmon into a foil packet, along with something to keep it moist and add flavor works perfectly, and is more forgiving of a little negligence. My favorite for years has been to make Cajun rubbed salmon, but just as often I’ll throw some garlic, lemon slices, and basil on top. Experiment with some flavor combinations and find one you and your family will love!

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Stack two pieces of aluminum foil (shiny side up) and drizzle with a little bit of olive oil, which will help the fish from sticking. I usually use frozen salmon filets but a more cost effective method would be to buy a large filet of fresh salmon and cut it into filets yourself. Set the fish on top of the oil and rub with Cajun seasoning. If you don’t have any, you can quickly make some with a combination of salt, cayenne, paprika, pepper, oregano, and garlic powder. Thinly slice a stick of butter, and place 3 slices on top of the salmon. Fold the foil up around the fish, and roll it down to seal it. It doesn’t have to be a perfect seal, since we won’t be flipping it over, but you don’t want moisture escaping. Place on preheated grill and cook for 10-15 minutes. When you’re ready to check for doneness, carefully open one of the packets and spear the fish. It should flake easily and be pink (not red) inside. Alternatively, use an instant-read meat thermometer. It will be done at 145°. Take off of the heat and let sit for a few minutes.

Desserts are one of the most neglected uses for the grill, I’ve found. After grilling their meat, veggies, and seafood, people turn off the grill, which is a damn shame, in my opinion. Grilled fruit topped with vanilla ice cream is the perfect way to end a hot, summer day. Try pineapple for a tangy flavor, or grilled peaches for something sweeter.

While the grill is still hot, scrape it down to get rid of any meaty crud that will ruin the sweetness of your fruit. Lightly oil the grates again if you’re worried about your fruit sticking, though it should be fine, and use a grill plate if you don’t want to lose your fruit into the bowels of the grill. For this recipe, I took bananas that were just past the point of being ripe. I peeled them and sliced them in half, down the center. Then I placed them directly on the grill grates, which, in hindsight, was silly. I was ambitious and wanted sexy sear marks on the bananas, and I paid the price by losing 2 or 3 into the flames.

The trick to grilling fruit is high heat. You want to get them on and off quickly; any longer and you end up with mush. Serve with a scoop of ice cream, and whatever toppings strike your fancy, and enjoy your hard earned reward for thinking outside the box!