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Hot Off the Grill

Posted: June 30, 2000

The Grill | On The Grill

Hot Off the Grill

Grilling is about summer, and summer is about the savory scents and tastes of grilling, so join us as we explore the options and put together a meal. And, of course, choose the proper wine matches.

First of all, we need to point out that grilling is not barbecuing. Barbecue, according to Wine Spectator Tastes columnist Sam Gugino, is a noun, and it's all about meat cooked long and slow over hardwood. That's all well and good -- we'd never turn down an offer to eat some -- but grilling is the verb that's available to most of us, whether we have a city balcony, a suburban backyard or a couple of acres somewhere out in the country.

Following are some tips for using the grill, plus general hints on cooking different types of food and recipes for grilling tuna, steak and portobello mushrooms. Much of this information comes from Sam's complete guide to grilling, which we urge you to read, especially if you're new to grilling (he tells you all about choosing a grill and how to use it safely).

The Grill | On The Grill | Recipes

The Grill -- Some Preparation

  • Plan on 30 to 40 minutes from the time the charcoal is lit until you can put food on the grill. Gas grills should be preheated for about 15 minutes.
  • Allow food to come to room temperature before it goes on the grill, about 30 minutes out of the refrigerator.
  • Don't put cooked food back onto platters that held raw meat, especially poultry.
  • Marinades, especially for poultry and pork, should only be applied during the first half of cooking. If marinades are to be used for later basting or as serving sauces, boil them five to 10 minutes first to destroy any bacteria.
  • If a charcoal fire burns too hot, spread out the coals. To keep a fire going, add some fresh charcoal to one end of the heated coals just before you put the food on the grill.
  • Flare-ups can be doused with the well-directed stream from a spray bottle. But use this judiciously. Put the cover on the grill and close the vents for serious flames.
  • No need to replace lava rocks because you think they're getting old. The older they are, the more flavor they retain and give to the food you cook.
  • Weber, a grill manufacturer, now has a hotline run by "certified barbecue experts." Call 1-800-GRILL OUT (474-5568) Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, plus July 4 and Labor Day, for answers to questions, tips, a videotape and/or a recipe booklet.

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What's on the Grill?

Red Meat | Game | Poultry | Seafood | Fruits & Vegetables

Red Meats: Despite all the talk about fat, Americans still love their steaks and hamburgers on the grill. However, if you're considering smaller portions, share a large steak of, say, 20 ounces or more among four people rather than grilling four six-ounce steaks that could easily overcook and dry out.

One of my favorites on the grill is a butterflied leg of lamb. Have your butcher remove the bones from a full or partial leg of lamb and spread the meat out flat as if it were a large steak. This can be then marinated with seasonings from the Mediterranean (garlic, rosemary, thyme and olive oil); the Middle East (cumin, garlic and olive oil); India (yogurt, turmeric, ginger, garlic and fresh chiles); or the American Southwest (ground chiles, cumin and cilantro). Grill as you would a steak. The uneven thickness of the meat is actually a benefit because someone at the table will invariably want his or her lamb well-done while others will want theirs medium-rare to medium.

No matter what the recipe (or the butcher) tells you, stay away from tougher cuts such as ribs, shoulders and the like. These cuts need long, slow cooking with indirect heat. A good rule of thumb is that anything that you can broil or pan fry, you can grill.

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Game: Game is an underutilized meat on the grill. Quail is excellent when first split, then lightly marinated. Venison is wonderful as long as you cook it no more than medium-rare. Beyond that, the lack of fat will render it tough.

Poultry: Poultry is a real bugaboo on the grill because it always seems to burn on the outside before the inside is fully cooked. And the idea of precooking in the microwave is as appealing as parboiling a slab of ribs.

The best way to approach cooking poultry is the indirect method of heating, which is best done with a covered grill. For example, if you're using a charcoal grill, build a fire to one side of the grill. When the fire is ready, put the chicken everywhere except directly over the coals. Then cover the grill. If necessary, adjust the temperature during cooking by opening and closing the vents.

You can cook indirectly with a gas grill if you have more than one burner. Turn one burner off and put the chicken on the grate over that burner. Then close the lid and adjust the heat with the controls on the other burner.

If you're grilling a cut-up chicken, put the dark meat on the grill about 20 minutes before the light meat.

Cooking chicken -- or anything else -- with indirect heat minimizes flare-ups caused by the fat hitting the coals. (You can put an aluminum pan under the chicken to catch the fat as it drips down.) Cooking indirectly also allays some fears of carcinogens that form during direct cooking on the grill, though frankly, you'd have to eat a whole lot of grilled food to really worry.

You can cook smaller birds, such as Cornish hens, on direct heat as long as the heat is fairly low and the bird is split and flattened so it cooks evenly and as quickly as possible.

Don't add any sauce or marinade -- especially ones that contain sugars or other sweeteners -- until the very end of the cooking process. Sugars caramelize and burn easily. If you can get an accurate reading, poultry should be at least 160° F internally before it is removed from the grill.

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Seafood: (Also see our special fish report) Fish -- whether whole or cut into fillets -- is becoming popular on the grill. But not every fish is a good candidate for the coals. Meaty fish such as swordfish, tuna, shark and monkfish are best, followed by grouper, halibut, mahi-mahi and salmon. Fish bones keep the meat moist, so choose steaks over fillets. And with fillets, keep the skin on.

Since fish has less fat than red meat, it's essential that the grill surface be lubricated or the fish brushed with oil, or both, before grilling, to prevent sticking. But don't overdo it or you'll cause flare-ups. Putting the fillet down skin-side first also helps to develop a firm outside crust.

Strong marinades obscure the delicate nature of fish, so steer clear of seasonings such as sesame oil, garlic and rosemary. (Keep seafood marinades light and short. Fish should sit no more than 30 minutes\.) Heavy charring also masks the subtle flavor of fish. Therefore, you should cook fish at a lower temperature than red meat.

Knowing when fish is done is almost as tricky as getting poultry just right, though underdone salmon is less hazardous than rare chicken legs. For fillets or steaks use the finger-poking method. When pressed with your index finger, the fish should spring back. If the flesh is mushy or leaves a permanent indentation, it's not yet done. If it flakes, it's overdone.

Whole fish are a little trickier, though the finger-poking method still works. You can also "cut and peek" by slicing into the thickest part of the fish and taking a look. Fish is done when it's just beginning to become opaque rather than translucent.

Shellfish, with their delicate meat, require even more care on the grill. Shrimp are a natural, the larger the better. Ditto for large scallops and soft-shell crabs. A few minutes on either side is all you'll need for any of them, unless the shrimp are unusually large. Mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels are fun on the grill. Just scrub the shells and put them on the grate. Remove them when they open, discarding any that don't.

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Vegetables and Fruits: In general, dense vegetables such as potatoes should be grilled at lower heat or they'll char too fast on the outside before they're done inside. Softer vegetables can tolerate higher heat because they'll cook through quickly. Here are some ideas:

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Also check editor at large Harvey Steiman's wine-matching menus

Charcoal-Grilled Steak
6 strip or rib eye steaks, 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Optional: Pinch of dried thyme or basil, olive oil or butter

Build as hot a fire as your grilling unit will permit, using hardwood charcoal such as mesquite or hickory. When the coals are very hot, spread them evenly and replace the grill. Brush the grill lightly with oil and let it get hot before putting the meat on. Have a spray bottle of water ready to extinguish any grease flare-ups as the steaks cook.

Arrange the steaks on the grill without letting them touch (air must circulate to brown them evenly) after sprinkling them lightly with salt and pepper and any other optional seasonings. Watch the top surface carefully. After 5 to 7 minutes, little drops of red juice will start to bead on the surface. This is the signal to turn the steak.

Turn the steaks using tongs. Season them lightly on the uncooked side. Watch for the telltale beading again. This signals a rare to medium rare steak. Allow another 1 to 2 minutes for medium, and another 2 to 3 minutes for well-done, turning again halfway through the additional time. Serve the steaks on hot plates. Serves 6.

Peppery Tuna Semi-Sashimi
Serve with red Burgundy or Sauvignon Blanc

Peppery Tuna Semi-Sashimi
1 1/2 pounds fresh ahi or other dark tuna, finest quality
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons finely ground coriander
1 teaspoon very finely chopped lemon peel
1 teaspoon wasabi (Japanese green mustard powder)
1/2 cup Japanese soy sauce
1 small head of frisee or other savory salad greens
2 or 3 tablespoons walnut oil or mustard-flavored oil

Heat a charcoal grill or gas grill.

Cut the tuna into four equal-size pieces at least 1 1/2 inches thick. Brush the surfaces of the tuna with the sesame oil, then sprinkle it evenly with a mixture of the pepper, coriander and lemon peel.

Add just enough water to the wasabi to make a thick paste. Let it stand until just before serving, then whisk it into the soy sauce.

When the grill is hot, quickly sear the tuna on all sides (including the edges) just to brown the exterior, about 2 minutes on each side. The interior should remain raw. Cut each piece of tuna into several thick slices. Arrange the slices on a plate and garnish with a handful of salad made from frisee, arugula or other "bitter" greens dressed simply with walnut oil. Serve the wasabi-soy mixture in small bowls for dipping, or spoon a little on the plate opposite the salad. Serves 4.

Note: Half portions of this recipe make an excellent appetizer, in which case the Sauvignon Blanc becomes the preferred wine.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom
From JJ's restaurant, Kansas City, Mo.
Serve with Sangiovese

Grilled Portobello Mushroom
For each serving:
1 medium to large portobello mushroom
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 ounces fresh spinach leaves
1 ounce Montrachet goat cheese, crumbled
1 teaspoon lightly toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons Montrachet Cheese Sauce (recipe follows)

Remove the stem from the mushroom, taking care not to bruise or break the cap. Using a sharp knife, trim the black ribs from the underside of the mushroom, leaving it whole and about 3/4 inch thick.

Mix the balsamic vinegar and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil. Brush the mushroom with this marinade on both sides and season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill the mushroom on a charbroiler 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer it to an oven-suitable dish, cap down.

While the mushroom is grilling, sauté the spinach in the remaining olive oil until it just wilts, about 30 seconds, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange the spinach inside the mushroom cap and top it with the crumbled cheese and the pine nuts. Bake at 350 degrees F for 4 minutes, or until the cheese is heated through.

Spoon the warm cheese sauce onto a medium plate and place the mushroom on top. This recipe can be multiplied indefinitely.

Montrachet Cheese Sauce
1 ounce Montrachet goat cheese
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons whipping cream
Pinch of garlic salt

Combine the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir gently over low heat until mixture reaches a smooth consistency. Makes about 1/3 cup sauce, enough for 4 to 6 servings.

P.S. If you're still hankering for some good ol' BBQ, check out Sam's story to find out more.

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