Some of us grill throughout the year, happily tending to the flames and the food as flakes of snow fall from the night sky and sizzle on the grate.
For people who are slightly more sane, though, the grilling season began this weekend. As of 2012, some 71 percent of all Americans who own grills (and 80 percent of us do) were expected to use them on Memorial Day, according to the folks at Weber Grills.
There is something primal about grilling, the combination of flame and raw meat (or vegetable or fruit or even pizza) that tugs at the caveman within and makes us feel unified with our wild ancestors. It awakens inside us the satisfaction felt by early man after a successful hunt, knowing they would be well fed for several days.
And not to belabor the point, but grilling also happens to be delicious.
Flame, fat and food. It is cooking at its most elemental. It’s easy, and it’s a simple way to get big flavors out of food. And that may explain why, when we grill, we tend to grill foods that are easy and require little preparation.
The most commonly grilled foods are hot dogs, hamburgers and steak, in that order. Each is easy, none requires much work or thought at all. Each is adequate in its own way, but nothing special. That’s why we’re not going to talk about any of them.
Except steak. We’re going to talk about steak.
Before that, though, let’s begin with chicken. Throughout the South is a fast-food chain called Pollo Tropical. With its Cuban-inspired flavors, it may be my favorite fast food anywhere.
Grilled chicken, which is served with rice and beans, is the signature dish. The chicken is clearly marinated in some combination of citrus juices, but after eating it several times I still didn’t know what they were.
That was before the invention of the Internet. I know now, or at least suspect, that they marinate their chicken in a combination of pineapple juice and bitter orange juice. And therein lay a problem. Bitter orange juice is not impossible to find here, but it isn’t easy, either. So we simply substituted two parts of lime juice and one part of orange juice for the bitter orange.
That may sound like an awful lot of lime juice, but apparently bitter orange juice is, in fact, quite bitter. I made it, and I grilled it, and you cannot argue with the result, a bright and lively citrus flavor that perfectly accompanies the chicken and the light char from the grill. And it is not bitter at all.
One of the meats that best takes to grilling is lamb; it is hugely popular around much of the world. Basically, any countries that have lambs grill them. So knowing how much lamb is grilled all around the Mediterranean Sea, a couple of years ago I created a dish using primarily Mediterranean flavors that I (not very creatively) called Mediterranean Lamb.
Olive oil, of course, formed the base, and because onions go well with lamb, I sliced an entire onion. Garlic was a given, and I added cumin, which is frequently used along the eastern part of the Mediterranean. And then, for a bit of a bite, I added a bit of unMediterranean ginger.
I marinated the lamb in this mixture overnight, though you could marinate it for as little as two hours and it would still be great. The spices remain subtle, serving only to highlight the flavor of the grilled lamb.
About that steak: My favorite way of making steak in the whole world comes from a cookbook put out by the San Francisco restaurant Rose Pistola. It’s called Terrorized Steak, and it involves creating a paste of fresh rosemary, fresh marjoram, plenty of garlic, olive oil, salt, two kinds of pepper and cognac. You have to respect any recipe that uses a splash or two of cognac.
This recipe is sublime; you get a powerfully flavorful piece of meat with a superb outer char and a hearty, perfectly cooked interior. I have made the dish many times to wonderful effect, so naturally on my last trip to San Francisco I stopped in at Rose Pistola specifically to try its own version of Terrorized Steak.
It wasn’t terrible. It was just disappointing. I’ve had worse steaks, though not many. Whatever they did to it, they didn’t follow the recipe in their own cookbook, because that stuff is awesome.
A well-grilled piece of meat, of course, deserves a well-grilled vegetable. Asparagus is always appropriate, but I have been eating so much asparagus lately that I reached instead for the old reliable, grilled corn.
Grilling corn is ridiculously easy. Soak corn, still in its husk, in water for at least 15 minutes. Place on a grill. Cook until done. Eat carefully – it’s hot – and savor the deep, nutty flavor that comes from the grill.
And because the grill was still hot, I decided to grill a dessert. I don’t think I made up the idea of a grilled chocolate-and-marmalade sandwich, I believe I read about it some years ago, but I had wanted to make one for some time.
Simply spread marmalade liberally on one slice of bread, and cover with an ounce or so of chocolate. Top with another slice of bread, brush both sides with a little melted butter, and place on the grill. Cook on both sides until you get lovely grill marks on the bread and the melted chocolate starts oozing out from the center.
The melted chocolate blends with the marmalade – it is not unlike a chocolate-covered orange peel, but a little sweeter – and it all mixes with the unmistakably toasty flavor of grilled bread.
It is so good, you just might want to skip the meat and the vegetables altogether.
Yields: 2 to 4 servings
2 pounds cut-up chicken, your favorite pieces
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
4 cups sour orange juice (or 2 1/2 cups lime juice and 1 1/2 cups orange juice), see note
1 cup pineapple juice
Note: Sour orange juice is also called bitter orange juice and is often available at Hispanic food markets.
1. Pat chicken dry. With edge of knife or mortar and pestle, mash together garlic, cilantro, jalapeño, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper until it forms a coarse paste. A sprinkling of kosher salt will help it form a paste, if necessary. Spread paste evenly over chicken.
2. Mix together sour orange juice and pineapple juice in a large bowl. Add chicken to the juices, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.
3. Arrange grill for indirect cooking and heat to medium hot. Place chicken on the side of the grill away from the heat, and cover. Cook 40 to 50 minutes for white meat, 1 hour for dark meat, turning once.
4. Serve with rice and black beans.
Per serving (based on 4): 135 calories; 5g fat; 1g saturated fat; 45mg cholesterol; 17g protein; 5g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 1g fiber; 345mg sodium; 30mg calcium.
– Recipe adapted from notmakeuprecipes.blogspot.com
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 (4-pound) boneless leg of lamb
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1. Unroll and pat dry the leg of lamb. Season generously on both sides with salt and pepper.
2. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, onion, garlic, cumin and ginger. Roll the lamb in the bowl to coat all sides, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight.
3. Prepare a hot grill for indirect heat. Cook on the part of the grill away from the heat, covered, for 1 hour or until cooked medium rare or medium (140 to 160 degrees). Remove from heat and cover loosely with foil and allow to rest at least 20 to 30 minutes before carving and serving.
Per serving (based on 10): 360 calories; 23g fat; 7.5g saturated fat; 120mg cholesterol; 36g protein; 1g carbohydrate; 0.5g sugar; no fiber; 90mg sodium; 20mg calcium.
– Recipe by Daniel Neman
Grilled Corn on the Cob
Yield: 1 serving
1 ear corn in the husk
1. Soak corn, still in the husk, in water at least 15 minutes.
2. Set on grate over medium-high fire. Cook 15 minutes, turning occasionally, or until you smell corn cooking. Shuck before serving with butter and salt.
Per serving: 100 calories; 1.5g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4g protein; 21g carbohydrate; 5g sugar; 2.5g fiber; 1mg sodium; 3mg calcium.
– Recipe by Daniel Neman
Yield: 4 servings
Leaves from 6 sprigs marjoram, about 5 inches long
Leaves from 6 sprigs rosemary, about 5 inches long
8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons cognac
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
4 strip steaks, 1 1/2 inches thick, about 8 ounces each
1. In a mortar or mini food processor, pound or process the marjoram, rosemary, garlic, salt, red pepper flakes, cognac, olive oil and black pepper into a coarse paste. Rub paste evenly on both sides of the steaks. Allow the steaks to rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 1½ hours before grilling.
2. Grill directly over a medium-hot fire, turning occasionally, until crusty on the outside, about 5 minutes on each side for medium rare. Allow to rest briefly before serving.
Per serving: 467 calories; 18g fat; 5g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 67g protein; 5g carbohydrate; no sugar; 0.5g fiber; 825mg sodium; 40mg calcium.
– Recipe from “The Rose Pistola Cookbook,” by Reed Hearon and Peggy Knickerbocker
Grilled Chocolate and Marmalade Sandwich
Yield: 1 sandwich
2 slices white bread
1 ounce chocolate
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1/2 tablespoon butter, melted
1. Place chocolate on 1 slice of bread, covering as much of the bread as you can. You may have to break or chop the chocolate to do so. Spread the marmalade on the other slice, and put the slices together as a sandwich. Brush melted butter on both sides of the sandwich.
2. Place on a medium hot grill and cook until both pieces of bread are toasted and have grill marks and the chocolate is melted, turning once. Covering the grill will help it cook faster.
Per sandwich: 415 calories; 16g fat; 4g saturated fat; 15mg cholesterol; 5g protein; 65g carbohydrate; 40g sugar; 3g fiber; 220mg sodium; 130mg calcium.
– Recipe by Daniel Neman