I was born into a grilling family. My father actually built his own grill, out of a bunch of pipes and an unused oil drum. (At least, I hope it was unused – with my dad, you never knew.) He started every Saturday night standing beside it, raising the lid to taunt our neighbor with smoke, occasionally turning things, timing his cooking by how long it took to drink a can of beer.
Even growing up with all that, I was still an amateur when I got my own grill. I made every mistake you can make: Fought coals that wouldn’t light. Scorched things when I did get a fire started. Threw dry wood chips on the coals thinking they’d produce smoke. (You have to soak them if you want smoke. With dry wood, you just get more fire.)
Slowly, through a lot of trial by fire, I learned, at least enough to make my dad proud. Since then, I’ve written a lot of grilling stories and taught a lot of novices how to reach backyard nirvana. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything left to learn. But when I looked through this year’s crop of new grilling books, I still found new ideas, new recipes and a few new tricks.
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Before Memorial Day kicks off the official start of summer grilling season, let’s go over the basics and the new ideas.
The 3 things every grill needs
I’ve got a whole chest full of grilling equipment – rib racks, fish baskets, rack lifters. But I could get rid of it all as long as I have these:
1. A charcoal chimney, for lighting charcoal. (Use a gas grill if you must, but it only takes 20 minutes to light charcoal.)
2. A pair of tongs. Get a pair that are long enough to keep your hands away from the heat and sturdy enough to handle something heavy and bulky, like a rack of ribs.
3. A heavy-duty grill brush. If you get in the habit of scrubbing down the grill as soon as you take the food off, you’ll thank yourself the next time. When it gets worn out, get a new one so you don’t risk having a metal wire fall out and get in your food.
7 rules for better grilling
1. Preheat the grill: Just like an oven, a grill works best if you start it, then cover it and let the rack get hot. Food won’t stick as easily.
2. Oil the food, not the rack: If you rub oil on the grate or rack, you can get flare-ups. It’s better to brush or spray the food, then put it on the grill.
3. Take the chill off: If you’re marinating something longer than 1 hour in the summer, refrigerate it. But take it out about 30 minutes before you put it on the grill and let it warm to room temperature so it cooks more evenly.
4. Understand the two-zone fire: Whether it’s coals or gas jets, set up your grill with heat on one side and no heat on the other. Sear a thin cut of meat directly over the heat, then move it away from the heat to finish. Or start thick cuts and bone-in chicken pieces on the cool side, then move them directly over the heat to finish browning at the very end.
5. Reverse the sear: Conventional wisdom says you cook thick steaks (more than 1 1/2 inches thick) over direct heat for several minutes per side, then move it to the cooler side of the grill to finish. But if you want a juicy steak that’s rare in the middle, switch that around: Cook it for about 20 minutes on the cool side of the grill, then pull it over the hot coals and finish it, turning every couple of minutes until it has a nice, browned crust.
6. Plan your fire: Charcoal briquettes usually last about an hour. If you’re cooking something that takes longer, set up a few rows of unlit briquettes on one side of the grate, touching each other. After you light the coals, pile them next to the unlit coals. They’ll light slowly and keep the heat going longer.
7. Keep it safe: Never put cooked food back on the same platter you used for raw food.
3 new books for grilling fans
“Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades,” by Steven Raichlen (Workman, $17.95). He’s written dozens of books on outdoor cooking, but he still has new tricks. His sections on flavored salts and butters are loaded with good ideas.
“Weber’s Greatest Hits,” by Jamie Purviance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.95). If you need a gift for a beginning griller, this is perfect. It rounds up dozens of best recipes and tips from Purviance’s other books.
“Grill Fire,” by Lex Taylor (Sterling Epicure, $24.95). For serious fire lovers who want to get beyond the basics and into more challenging cooking.
Tagliata of Flank Steak
From “Weber’s Greatest Hits,” by Jamie Purviance. “Tagliata” is an Italian word that means “to cut.” Here, the flank steak is grilled, then sliced and topped with arugula, balsamic vinegar and shaved Parmesan.
1 flank steak, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds and about 3/4-inch thick
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
6 cups loosely packed baby arugula
1 cup (about 3 ounces) shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
Lightly brush the steak on both sides with oil and then season with salt and pepper. Let stand for 15 to 30 minutes at room temperature.
Prepare a grill for direct cooking over hot coals.
In a small saucepan over medium-heat heat on the stove, combine the vinegar and sugar, bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cool.
Brush the grilling rack clean. Grill the steak over direct heat with the lid closed, 6 to 8 minutes for medium rare, turning once or twice. Transfer to a cutting board and let stand 3 to 5 minutes.
Cut the steak in half lengthwise, then cut each half across the grain into thin slices. Pile on a warm platter. Pour any juices from the cutting board over it, then pile the arugula on top. Drizzle with the balsamic reduction, season with salt and pepper and top with the cheese.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
From “Weber’s Greatest Hits.”
4 russet potatoes, about 2 1/2 pounds total, cut in half lengthwise
About 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup minced cooked ham (or diced cooked bacon)
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 6 ounces), divided
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives (optional)
Prepare the grill for direct cooking. Brush the potato halves with oil. Grill over direct medium heat with the lid closed, turning several times, until potato halves are tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from grill and cool slightly.
Use a small knife to cut around the cut side of each potato half, about 1/4 inch from the edge. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Set the potato shells outside.
Mash the potato until smooth. Mix in the sour cream and milk. Stir in the ham or bacon, half the cheese and the mustard and season with salt and pepper. Divide between the potato shells. Top with remaining cheese.
Return to the grill over direct medium heat, with the lid closed. Grill until the cheese melts and the potatoes are heated through, about 10 minutes. Garnish with chives, if using.
Yield: 8 servings.
Grilled Corn With Sesame Soy Butter
From “Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades,” by Steven Raichlen. You can use the butter as a baste for seafood, any vegetables, chicken or tofu.
Sesame Soy Butter:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 green onions (white and green parts), trimmed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 ears of corn, unhusked
3 tablespoons black or toasted sesame seeds
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the sesame seeds, garlic and green onions and cook about 3 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce and pepper. Simmer about 2 minutes. (Can be made in advance and refrigerated up to a week. Rewarm before using.)
Set up grill for direct grilling over high heat. Shuck the corn, pulling the husks back and leaving them attached at the base. Tie the corn to make a handle, using string or a strip of husk. (Or shuck it completely and stick a bamboo skewer through each ear.)
Lightly brush the corn with the soy butter. Grill until browned on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side, about 8 to 12 minutes in all, rotating the ears so they grill evenly and basting with more butter as they cook. (Position the corn so the tied husks hang over the edge of the grill, or slide a folded sheet of foil under them so they don’t burn.)
Transfer corn to a platter and sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds.
Yield: 2 to 4 servings.
Chicken Breasts With Lemonata Sauce and Michelada Salt
From “Grill Fire,” by Lex Taylor.
Green Michelada Salt:
1 tablespoon fresh lime zest (from about 5 limes
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons dried cilantro or ground coriander
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 small serrano chile, very finely diced
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/4 cup peanut oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the Michelada Salt: Combine all the ingredients. Set aside.
Prepare the Lemonato Sauce: Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, serrano chile and a little salt and pepper. Set side.
Bring the chicken breasts to room temperature and pat dry. Set up grill for medium-high heat. Soak a paper towel with the peanut oil and rub all over the chicken. Sprinkle with the Michelada Salt. (If you don’t use all the salt, refrigerate it for another use.)
Place the chicken over direct heat and grill about 7 minutes per side, until cooked through.
Remove from heat and let rest for 2 minutes, then drizzle with the Lemonata sauce.
Yield: 4 servings.