by Greg Patent
Warm weather and firing up my grill tell me summer has arrived. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to cook with hardwood charcoal instead of a gas grill.
Lighting my chimney starter that I’ve filled with a few quarts of charcoal briquettes and watching them slowly turn gray and hot lets me know exactly when to add them to my grill and begin cooking.
Man’s first cooking was over an open fire, and it remains a favorite method to this day. There’s nothing like the aroma of a piece of meat as it sears and develops a crust. The heat of a grill causes the formation of literally hundreds of flavor compounds on the surface of the meat and these in turn recombine to form even more tasty molecules.
Aside from taste, grilling is quick, lasting usually no more than a few minutes. You put the food within a few inches of the heat source and it’s cooked by conduction, searing the outside and sealing in the juices.
Barbecuing, on the other hand, is long and slow and can take many hours. For example, you can grill a steak, burger, shrimp, salmon or chicken breast and relatively small pieces of meat –but you barbecue a roast, a whole beef brisket or whole pig.
In barbecuing, the meat is cooked indirectly by smoke from a hardwood fire in a closed container (sometimes a pit) at a low temperature (180 to 220 degrees) for many hours and during this time the connective tissue breaks down and the meat becomes incredibly tender. The kind of wood used in barbecuing flavors the meat. But in grilling, the fuel (charcoal) does not.
When grilling, you’ll most likely be using charcoal briquettes or hardwood lump charcoal as your fuel. Do not use presoaked charcoal briquettes because they release chemical fumes throughout the cooking and will spoil the flavor of what you’re grilling.
Before grilling, assemble everything you’ll need ahead of time. The prep work getting your food ready, setting up the grill, etc., will take more time than the actual cooking of the food. You’ll enjoy the whole process when everything is in its place and ready to go.
The mantra of any grill cook is: Be organized.
Have all tools in place-tongs, wire brush, meat fork, wide metal spatula. Also have a few towels handy for cleaning up spills and wiping your hands, small bowls of salt and freshly ground black pepper, disposable aluminum plates for transporting the cooked food to the table, a pan with oil to rub over the food you’re grilling or to rub on the grill itself with wadded paper towels, a cutting board and a sharp chef’s knife, and, of course, all the ingredients for whatever you’ll be grilling.
Pile the charcoal you’re using into a chimney starter or into the grill kettle. If using a chimney starter, set it on the grill grate and stuff newspapers under the section that contains the coals. Light the paper. The coals will ignite and burn and in about 20 minutes or so they’ll turn an ashy gray and will be ready to cook with. If you pile your coals into the kettle, you can spritz them with lighter fluid. Wait a few minutes for the fluid to be absorbed by the coals, and then light them with a match. Once the coals are gray you’re ready to cook. (Note: using lighter fluid to start your fire is okay; the fumes burn off within a few minutes and, unlike presoaked briquettes, will not affect the taste of the food.)
Another option to firing up coals is a Looftlighter, a powerful electric gadget that ignites coals within a minute.
Once the coals are ready, spread them in the kettle –piling some on one side for direct heat cooking and fewer coals on the other side for indirect heat cooking. Replace the grill grate, and cover the grill. In a few minutes, use a wire grill brush to scrub the grill clean of any cooked- on particles of food. Now you’re ready to cook.
Grilling is a great way to cook burgers, steaks, kebabs, lamb or pork chops, sausages, chicken breasts, shrimp, fish fillets, and all sorts of vegetables.
Here are two recipes to fire up your imagination.
Grilled Salmon Fillets
The trick to this recipe is getting the grill grate super hot, then brushing it very clean, and finally coating it well with oil to prevent sticking. It’s best to use fillets with the skin on. But, if the fish is skinless, imagine the skinned side as if it had skin. An instant read digital thermometer is very handy for taking the internal temperature of the cooked fish. I’ve adapted this recipe from Cooks Illustrated magazine.
4 skin-on salmon fillets, 3/4 to 1 inch thick (6 to 8 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• Place the fillets skin-side up on a large plate lined with a clean kitchen towel. Put another clean kitchen towel on top of fillets and press down to blot. Refrigerate while preparing the grill, at least 20 minutes.
• While the fish chills, light a large chimney starter filled two-thirds with charcoal (4 quarts, about 65 briquettes) and allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with thick layer of ash, 15 to 20 minutes. With the grill grate removed, empty the coals into the kettle and arrange them to cover half of the grill, leaving the other half empty. Replace the grill grate.
• Lightly dip a wad of paper towels into a small pan of oil. Holding the wad with tongs, wipe the grate. Repeat the wiping with oiled paper towels, re-dipping the towels in oil between applications, until the grate is black and glossy, 5 to 10 times.
• Brush both sides of each fillet with a thin coating of oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the fish directly over the coals skin-side down. Cover the grill, and cook without moving until the skin side is brown, well marked, and crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. (Try lifting the fish gently with a metal spatula after 3 minutes; if it doesn’t cleanly lift off grill, continue to cook, checking at 30-second intervals until it releases.)
• Using two metal spatulas, carefully turn the fillets over onto their second side and cook, covered, until the centers of the fillets are opaque and register 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 6 minutes longer. Serve immediately with lemon wedges or your any sauce you like.
Makes 4 servings.
Buffalo Burgers with Shiitake Mushrooms and Onion-Cilantro Relish
Because buffalo is so lean, care must be taken during cooking to keep it moist. In these burgers, hydrated shiitake mushrooms, vermouth, and oyster sauce all contribute moisture as well as flavor to the buffalo. The Onion-Cilantro relish adds acidity to complement the sweetness of the meat.
1/2 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
1 pound ground buffalo
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup dry white French vermouth
1 English cucumber, washed and unpeeled
2 large sweet yellow onions
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for grilling or sautéing
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
4 sesame-seed hamburger buns
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
• In a small bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1 cup warm water until softened, about 30 minutes. Squeeze out the excess moisture, and trim away and discard stems. Chop the mushrooms finely.
• In a large bowl, combine the buffalo, mushrooms, 3 tablespoons of the oyster sauce, and 1/4 cup of the vermouth. Mix well, taking care not to compact the meat. Divide the meat mixture into 4 equal portions, form the portions into round patties to fit the buns, and refrigerate.
• Cut the cucumber into thin slices and refrigerate. Slice the onions crosswise about 1/4 inch thick. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, add the onions, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently until the onions are browned and slightly tender. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, 1/4 cup vermouth, and the sherry wine vinegar. Stir and cook several minutes until the onions are tender and the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Add the cilantro and remove pan from the heat.
• Prepare a hot fire. Light a large chimney starter filled two-thirds with charcoal (4 quarts, about 65 briquettes) and allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with thick layer of ash, 15 to 20 minutes. With the grill grate removed, empty the coals into the kettle and arrange them evenly over the bottom of the kettle. Replace the grill grate.
• Scrub the grate with the grill brush to remove any cooked on food particles. Lightly dip a wad of paper towels into a small pan of oil. Holding the wad with tongs, wipe the grate and place the patties on the grill. Cook until browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. With a wide metal spatula, turn the patties and cook to desired doneness, about 3 minutes more for medium-rare to medium burgers.
• After turning the patties to cook on the second side toast the buns cut side down.
• To assemble the burgers, spread 1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise on each bun half. Arrange about 8 cucumber slices on the bottoms of the buns. Place the patties over the cucumbers and spoon the onion and cilantro mixture on top. Cover with the bun tops and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Greg Patent is a columnist for the Missoulian. Please visit his blog at www.thebakingwizard.com. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.