A guy and his grill—it’s a beautiful thing. But just because you’re eating healthier
doesn’t mean you have to give up that primal call of the flame.
Ever since the first nomadic hunter accidentally dropped a hunk of meat into a campfire and thought, “Say, this doesn’t taste half bad,” men have been drawn to flame-kissed cooking in the outdoors.
Today, wielding the tongs has become an American male rite of summer (as outdoor chef extraordinaire Steven Raichlen puts it, “Women are way too smart to stand downwind of a hot, smoky grill”). And for at least 40 years, that has translated into family cookouts featuring burgers, chicken and hot dogs, supplemented by the occasional rib rack or steak.
But the all-American barbeque is expanding in scope: “Now it’s vegetables and fruit, the whole meal on the grill,” says Raichlen, host of television’s Barbecue University and author of How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbecue Techniques (Workman). One reason is what he calls “the globalization of the American grill—people are comfortable with Indian tandoori, Indonesian saté.” Your average tube steak pales by comparison.
Another agent of grill cuisine change is the push to improve men’s diets, which clashes with, say, ground chuck topped by processed cheese. Happily, a man doesn’t have to give up his Kiss the Cook apron to eat right. “Grilling is an inherently healthy cooking method,” Raichlen points out. “For example, people are now entertaining the possibility of grilling tofu, which is Japan’s national barbeque.”
Before taking on tofu or anything else, a grill needs to be properly prepared. And that preparation depends on the equipment, i.e., charcoal versus gas. Charcoal connoisseurs say their choice burns hotter and that it’s easier to add flavor-enhancing herbs or hardwood chips to the fire, although charcoal does require greater attention during the cooking process. Gas grillers point out that their preferred gear is easier to start and cleaner to use, and that heat control is fairly easy.
Before firing up, be sure to have everything you need on hand. That includes extra fuel, gloves or potholders, long-handled tongs, spatulas and forks, basting brushes and heavy-duty aluminum pans to catch drips. Nice extras include various baskets to hold kebobs and delicate items like fish fillets, digital meat thermometers and spray bottles to hold such taste enhancers as apple cider vinegar.
For most models of gas grills, starting is pretty simple—just follow the manufacturer’s instructions (and open the lid first; nothing ruins a get-together like an exploding grill). Preheat for roughly a half-hour before cooking.
When grilling over charcoal, ditch the lighter fluid and self-starting briquets—no petroleum in the food, please. An electric starter, a heating element you place under the coals, is one easy option. Or you can use a metal cylinder called a chimney starter: Place the starter upright in the grill pan, line the bottom with a piece or two of crumpled newsprint and fill with charcoal. Light the newspaper at the bottom and you’ll be good to go in about 30 minutes.
For heat over the whole grill, rake the coals into one even layer. But to create several cooking zones, from hot to medium to cool, Raichlen suggests putting a double layer of coals on one side, a single layer in the middle and no coals on the other side. (By the way, “grilling” technically refers to cooking food directly over hot coals, “barbequing” to an indirect method that involves a cooker with a firebox at one end and a smoking chamber at the other. Now that you know, go back to using the terms interchangeably.) For a similar setup on a gas grill, Raichlen says to set one burner on high, two on medium and keep one off. While heat control is easier with gas, each grill has its own hot and cold spots. Learning your equipment’s idiosyncrasies is part of becoming one with the grill.
No matter what cooking method you use, oil the grate (the part that holds the food) to avoid a sticky, burned-on mess; a well-oiled cloth or paper towel works nicely. For safety’s sake never leave a grill unattended, and keep a dry-chemical fire extinguisher nearby.
What’s for Dinner?
So everyone’s getting hungry and the grill is hot. Question is, what do you put on it?
If you’re a burger-and-dogs kind of guy, “the first transition you’re going to make is from a beef steak to a tuna steak, skinless chicken breast or pork tenderloin,” says Raichlen; oil-based marinades can infuse these naturally low-fat options with all the flavor you can handle. (Since raw meat can contain bacteria, don’t serve the marinade at the table; use it for basting only after boiling it for three minutes.) While such firm-fleshed fish as tuna and salmon are naturals for the grill, feel free to expand your fishy repertoire to include such tasty treats as bluefish fillets (that’s when those special food baskets will come in handy) and even whole fish. Don’t forget shellfish: Shrimp make great kebobs when teamed with cherry tomatoes, pearl onions and even pineapple chunks.
For those times when you just gotta have a steak, go organic. Grass-fed, organically produced beef, pork and other meats are a hot commodity, and for good reason: They not only give you less of the antibiotics, hormones and who-knows-what that goes into conventional meat production, but they also taste better and contain more of the healthy fats you should be eating. (When grilling, reduce the formation of potentially harmful substances by keeping fat from dripping into the fire by using a drip pan; you can also pile the coals into the middle and cook food around the edges, stopping before it’s deeply charred.)
Vegetables are a vital part of the new American grill. “It used to be that vegetarian barbeque meant an empty hamburger bun with potato salad,” Raichlen says. “People are a lot more savvy about vegetarian grilling now.” Many vegetables take beautifully to the grill, including corn in the husk (soak in water for about a half-hour first), eggplant, peppers, potatoes, zucchini, garlic, onions, tomatoes and asparagus (see the recipe above). For best results cut your veggies into equal slices so they cook evenly, and lightly brush them with oil to lock in the flavor. Raw vegetables with a light dip also make a great side dish instead of been-there, done-that coleslaw or macaroni salad.
It’s summertime, and a newer, healthier grill is calling to you. Get going, guy!
Basil-Grilled Tuna with Arugula Salad
4 tuna steaks (3/4” to 1” thick, 6 to 8 ounces each)
1 bunch fresh basil, washed and stemmed
4 cloves garlic, cut in half
3 strips lemon zest
1 lemon, juice of
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1. Trim any skin or dark or bloody spots off the tuna. Rinse the tuna under cold running water and blot dry with paper towels. Arrange the steaks in a nonreactive baking dish.
2. Purée the remaining ingredients until smooth. Pour over the tuna and marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 30 minutes to 2 hours, turning the steaks several times.
3. Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high, using wood chips if desired. Drain the tuna steaks and arrange on the grill. Grill until cooked to taste, 2 to 3 minutes per side for rare (quite soft, with just a little surface resistance), 4 to 6 minutes per side for medium (quite firm); rotate the steaks 45 degrees after 2 minutes to create an attractive crosshatch. The steaks should be nicely browned on the outside. Transfer to plates or a platter and let rest for 3 minutes. Yields 4 servings.
1 bunch arugula, washed and spun dry
1 pint yellow (or red) cherry tomatoes, cut in half
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
coarse salt and black pepper
Combine the arugula, tomatoes, onion, lemon juice and oil in a nonreactive bowl and gently toss to mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.
1 pound asparagus (the stalks shouldn’t be too thin)
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
coarse salt and black pepper
1. Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.
2. Snap off the woody bases of the asparagus and discard. Skewer 4 or 5 asparagus spears together, using toothpicks or bamboo skewers.
3. In a small bowl, combine the sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic, and stir with a fork to mix. Brush this mixture on the asparagus rafts on both sides. Season the asparagus with a little salt and lots of pepper.
4. Place the asparagus rafts on the hot grate and grill until nicely browned on both sides, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds while grilling. Yields 4 servings.
Source for tuna and asparagus recipes:
How to Grill by Steven Raichlen (Workman)
The Fruited Grill
Fruit on the grill? You bet! Steve Raichlen says that coconut milk and palm sugar-dipped bananas searing over hibachis is a common sight in many parts of southeast Asia, and that grilled dessert is growing in popularity here in the US. Fruit also makes a hearty accompaniment for the main meal—especially when sweet meets culinary heat, as in this Smoked Fruit Salsa from Barbeque Inferno by Dave DeWitt & Nancy Gerlach (Ten Speed Press).
1 fresh pineapple, cut into wedges
2 large oranges, cut into wedges
1 red onion, halved widthwise
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 teaspoons red chile powder (chile de árbol is the best)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
fresh cilantro, chopped
1. Brush fruit and onion with 2 tablespoons of oil and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of chile powder. Smoke the fruits over a low fire for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they start to soften. Remove, dice and place in a bowl.
2. Whisk the remaining oil and chile powder together with the fruit juices and vinegar. Toss with the fruit and garnish with the cilantro. Yields 3 cups.