Playing With Fire: Al Fresco Feasting Tip Sheet
Do you have ants in your woolies, too? With a three-day weekend around the corner, I’m champing at the bit to shed the socks, bury my pasty-white feet into the sand and get this summer party started. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the breezes are hardly sultry at the moment, but that won’t stop my neighbors from firing up their grills and wishfully thinking the sun is gonna come out.
So get out dem white shoes; the unofficial beginning of summer is so close I can almost taste the charcoal. Since it’s been a while since we fired up those grills and moved our kitchens outdoors, I sought out tips and tricks from some of the savviest edible-minded folks I know. Feast your eyes on their greatest hits – and let’s get cooking!
Getting a Grip on the Grill
First thing’s first: Let’s clean up the grill, no matter the menu. This little, often-forgotten step is the secret to “superior grilling,” according to Seattle-based culinary minx Nicole Aloni.
“Heat the empty grill to very hot and let it burn off the residue from previous Q’s.,” advises Aloni. “Brush with a stiff brush to loosen the charred remains. Voila, you’re ready to grill.”
If meat’s on the menu, says Aloni, bring up to room temperature while you’re cleaning the grill. “If it goes on the grill directly from the fridge, particularly a thick steak or roast, it will often burn on the outside before the center is cooked.”
Are you planning to show off this weekend? Aloni’s tips for getting beautiful grill marks:
Place room temperature steaks or chops on a very hot grill. Let the steak rest in that position for at least 4 to 5 minutes before flipping. Do not move the meat around while the grill marks are being set. If it must be flipped back onto the first side to finish cooking, use your grill tongs to place the steak so that the lines of the grill are at right angles to the original marks. This way you can create an attractive windowpane grill mark.
She’s got thoughts on skewered goodies too:
For a brochette of large chunks (like a lamb and vegetable kebab), use two skewers side by side (parallel) through the entire kebab. This will give you a secure lock on the food and ensure that it won’t spin around when lifted from the grill. You can pick up the ends of both skewers and use them to flip the skewer like a solid piece of meat.
Grilling: The Flip Side
Over in Toronto, Carrie Oliver, an impassioned advocate of artisan beef, suggests not worrying yourself over the details:
Five years ago, I discovered that I had been grilling meat with all the wrong techniques for the past 30 years (or more). So I tried the chefs’ technique (e.g. for beef start on very high heat, create cross marks by shifting xyz angle after abc minutes, flip… you get the picture…) and I failed every time.
So my two cents would be to just do your best, learn the basics and not obsess over it. Most people who are new to grilling will be very successful if they actually stand by the grill while they cook. Do not worry about presentation, grilling is about creating a fun, meaningful experience with your family and friends.
From Boston, food writer Jacqueline Church shares a trick that bears repeating:
I like to marinate things to keep them tastier during grilling. You can do inexpensive cuts, then wrap sliced meat into rice paper wrappers with lots of great julienned veg. You can do all the julienning ahead, and guests can take a rice paper sheet, dip in bowl of warm water then wrap their own veg or with meat as it’s done.
Atlanta-spiced chef/cookbook author Virginia Willis, whipped out this little ditty from her chef’s coat:
I love this pungent combination of vinegar and aromatics; it’s great for grilling chicken and fish.
Miss Virgina’s Quickie Marinade
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup peanut, canola, or grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon coarse salt
Make it and store it in a spray bottle in the fridge and its always good to go!
For Kat Kinsman, editor of the soon-to-be launched Eatocracy, CNN.com’s new food site, an al fresco feast is incomplete without proper liquid nourishment:
Pitcher drinks, pitcher drinks, pitcher drinks! Mix a big batch of your favorite adult (or not) beverage in a freezer-friendly, lidded container and chill as solidly as it will allow (depends on the alcohol content). Tote it in a cooler to your destination. Not only will it help you keep your other dishes cold – it’ll still be deliciously chilly by the time you get around to sipping.
Setting the Table
Cooking doyenne Nathalie Dupree, who’s based in Charleston, S.C. has a picnic on her mind:
When I’m lugging china as to a fancy symphony in the park or something, I pack the china in those plastic-ish zipper cases, with paper towel between each one. Then when it is time to put them away, I have a clean towel to wipe each plate as I put it in the case. I wash the plates etc. when I get home. Or not. Its hidden until the next day (wink). There are also beautiful tin plates out now that look like china, are prettier and easier to handle than paper.
Seattle forager Langdon Cook, who’s gearing up for some time out of the city, reports that he likes “to cut down on the amount of ingredients I haul into the back-country on by making use of whatever wild foods are in season. For instance, this Memorial Day weekend we’ll be holed up somewhere on the east slope of the Cascades (the sunny side!) cooking up camp meals with morels, fiddle heads, and spring porcini, with maybe a side salad of miner’s lettuce. Not a bad way to gussy up the typical fireside plate of franks and beans!”
Nutritionist Julie Negrin has a yen for getting out of the city, too. Her go-to item for the campfire: A cast-iron skillet:
Bring along a large skillet – preferably iron, since it’s heavy enough to not be destroyed by the hot flames and will cook food evenly. You can cook pretty much anything you’d cook at home – but note how much more flavorful it tastes. My friend Elana loves to make fajitas for dinner and then in the morning, prepares breakfast burritos. She scrambles eggs in the pan and then wraps them in tortillas with cheese and tops it with guacamole. That way, they have enough sustenance to go hiking all day with only a light lunch on the trail.
San Jose, Calif.-based food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule reminds us not to forget dessert:
Grilled apricots are, bar none, the ideal summer dessert. Split them in half, dislodge the pit, rub them with oil, and toss cut side down on a hot grill for a minute or two. Then flip them over and fill the hollows with a square of dark chocolate. Let it melt, and serve with a drizzle of very cold cream. Insanely good.
Last, but certainly not least, Miami based author Diana Abu-Jaber serves up a poem that’s good enough to eat:
Marinade everything in loads of garlic, olive oil, vinegar and rosemary the night before grilling.
Salt and pepper your grillables heartily.
A dusting of turmeric is also nice.
Get the grill as hot as you can.
Better charcoal than gas.
Use a coal chimney to get it going.
Make sangria, load it with fruit, after you make your marinade, and let that steep.
Sprinkle a mix of chopped mint, sugar, and lime juice over your melon salad.
Eat outside as often as possible: it improves the appetite.
If you pick your own corn, it’s always better.
But don’t be shy about the butter.