Food & Drink

Mixed grill, American style

A mixed grill during a cookout in July of 2015. From sausages, chicken and ribs to romaine lettuce and corn, the American grill is a melting pot in summer.
A mixed grill during a cookout in July of 2015. From sausages, chicken and ribs to romaine lettuce and corn, the American grill is a melting pot in summer. NYT

“Gotta save room for mixed grill,” a character says in Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a little ominously.

The meal stood then as a kind of metaphor for American ennui, a groaning board of fire-roasted meats that was delicious until it was not. “Browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals,” Franzen writes. “The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned.”

We can do better than that.

The Brazilians have churrasco, a mixed grill of chicken and beef, heavy on hearts and other small parts. The Argentines have asado, fire-kissed beef and kidneys and liver and sausages tied together with chimichurri sauce. Italians grill chicken marinated hard in olive oil and garlic, lemon and rosemary, join it with pork and beef, then eat in the shade.

And Americans? “Mixed grill is the way we grill here,” said chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill. “We just don’t call it that.”

We call it a cookout; sometimes, erroneously, a barbecue: hot dogs and brats, sauce-darkened chicken and ribs, corn, salads. Sometimes we work the mixed grill as a potluck affair, with some bringing meats, others slaws or potato salads, fruit salads, cornbread wrapped loosely in foil.

Often, mixed grills don’t work out the way we want them to. (Here’s Cousin Billy suddenly at the grill, beer sweat running down his back, turning our ruby-red meat into blackened bricks.) What follows are some simple advisories for cooking the meal. They form an argument for cooking them well.

“Start with sausages,” said Adam Perry Lang, a chef who put aside his beurre blancs and perfect brunoise to open Daisy May’s BBQ on the West Side of Manhattan in 2003. “We’re talking about these events where the grilling is an all-day affair. And sausages are the perfect first course, a powerful nod to what’s yet to come.”

Second, Lang said, thin your barbecue sauce before applying it to grill-bound chicken, pork or beef. “Barbecue sauce is not really a sauce but a condiment,” he said.

But the often-high sugar content turns quickly to carbon on the grill, he explained: “It’s better to thin the stuff out with water and allow it to reduce on the meat, time after time, so you don’t end up with one layer of heavy caramelization but five lighter, more concentrated ones.”

Just as important, do not worry about cooking everything at once. All the food doesn’t need to be hot, whatever you’re cooking.

“It’s impossible,” said Bobby Flay, the celebrity restaurateur and chef whose first television hit was the show “Grillin’ & Chillin’.” “It never happens. I don’t care who you are. You think you can serve 25 people hot food at once?” He paused: “It’s never going to happen.”

As Reusing noted rhetorically: “Is anything ever hot at the Brazilian steak place? No. Things sit, and they’re still going to be good in a couple hours.”

Flay’s advice: After sausages, put the chicken on “because it’s going to take the longest time to get right,” he said. “Blanch some corn. Cook burgers or steaks. And take your time.”

And don’t forget vegetables. “You’re going to want to use them to help minimize the meat hangover,” Reusing said.

Lang is best known for cooking meat. “But grilled vegetables, especially the lettuces, introduce a degree of bitterness that is hugely important,” he said. “The bitter greens work well on the grill and enhance the flavors of what might otherwise just be a big pile of meat.” Cook them early, he said, and serve at room temperature.

Flay put in a word for corn. His method for grilling it is folk-tale simple, and in contravention of popular technique. He strips the cobs naked, he said, blanches them in hot water for three minutes, then grills them straight on the grill. “Sometimes I put milk in the water,” he said. “I have no idea why. But I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and it’s foolproof.”

Sausages, grilled chicken, ribs, torched romaine, blackened corn: That’s summer in America, smoky and fine.

Simple Barbecue Sauce

2/3 cup ketchup

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.

Grilled Corn

10 ears fresh corn

1 cup whole milk, optional

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

Kosher salt, to taste

Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds), you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium.)

Meanwhile, shuck the corn, removing both husks and silks.

Fill a large pot halfway with water and set over high heat to come to a simmer. Add the milk, if using.

Blanch the corn in the pot for about 3 minutes, then stack on a platter.

Apply just a little butter to each ear of corn, then place on grill. Cook, turning often, until the corn is tender and some of the kernels are beginning to darken, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with remaining butter and salt.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Grilled Romaine

For the dressing:

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

6 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced

2 teaspoons mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

For the salad:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 heads romaine lettuce, tops and bottoms trimmed neatly, heads cut lengthwise into quarters

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds), you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium.)

Meanwhile, make the dressing: Put the minced garlic into a bowl, and add the minced anchovies. Using a whisk, mix and mash these ingredients into a paste. Add the mayonnaise and the mustard and whisk. Add the olive oil, whisking all the while, and then the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Make the salad: Drizzle the olive oil over the quartered heads of lettuce. Lightly grill these directly over the hot coals for 15 to 20 seconds on each side, until they are lightly golden, then remove to the cool side of the grill. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, paint the dressing over the lettuce, making sure to get dressing between the leaves. Sprinkle the lettuce with Parmesan and cover the grill for 1 or 2 minutes to allow the cheese to melt and the lettuce to soften further. Remove lettuce to a platter and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Barbecued Chicken

1 cup barbecue sauce (your choice)

6 to 8 chicken legs, or drumsticks and thighs, skin-on, bone-in, about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium, you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium.)

Meanwhile, combine barbecue sauce with 1 cup water and stir to combine. Set aside.

Sprinkle the chicken pieces generously with salt and pepper, then put them on the grill directly over the coals and cook for about 15 minutes, turning once every 5 minutes or so, and brushing with the thinned barbecue sauce. When the chicken skin starts to crisp and darken, move the pieces to the cooler side of the grill and let them cook for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until a peek inside shows that the meat no longer has any red at the center.

Move the chicken back onto the hot side of the grill and baste with sauce again, turning the meat a few times. Remove to a warmed platter and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Grilled Baby Back Ribs

1 cup barbecue sauce (your pick)

2 racks baby back ribs, about 2 1/4 pounds each

Salt and pepper, to taste

Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium.)

Meanwhile, combine barbecue sauce with 1 cup water and stir to combine. Set aside.

Sprinkle the ribs generously with salt and pepper, put them on the grill directly over the coals and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, turning once every 5 minutes or so, and basting with the thinned barbecue sauce, until a peek inside shows that the meat no longer has any pink at the center.

Take the racks of ribs off the grill, cut them into individual ribs and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Grilled Sausages, Onions and Peppers

1 pound sweet peppers (green, red and yellow, if available) seeded and cut into eighths

2 large yellow onions, peeled and cut into large coins

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste

2 pounds sweet or hot Italian sausages, or bratwurst or other fresh sausage

Build a fire in your grill, leaving one side free of coals. When coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds), you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium.)

Meanwhile, toss peppers and onions with oil and sprinkle with salt. Lightly prick sausages all over so they do not burst.

Put peppers and onions in a grill basket or directly on the grill, turning occasionally until they are softened and dark at the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Move them to the side of the grill without coals.

Place the sausages on the hot side of the grill, cover and cook, turning occasionally until they are cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.

Transfer the peppers and onions to a platter and top with the sausages. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

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