Culinate 8: The Universal Grill

It's good for much more than hamburgers

Published August 1, 2008
Culinate.com



Summer is full of familiar sounds: the growl of lawn mowers, the tinkling of the ice-cream truck, the hiss of food sizzling over gas or charcoal. Burgers, dogs, chicken breasts, corn on the cob, veggie kabobs — that’s what you grill, right?

Well, think outside the grill box and consider barbecuing foods that you’d normally cook in an oven or not at all. Here’s our list of unusual-but-worthwhile foods to sling on the grill.

1. Smoky and chewy, its edges lightly charred and insides moist, the crust of a grilled pizza is reminiscent of naan. A combination of direct and indirect heat makes for the textural yin-yang.

Begin by preheating half of the grill to high heat (500 degrees) and the other side to medium-high heat (350 to 400 degrees). Form and flatten the pizza dough on a square of parchment paper so that it holds its shape until it meets the grill. Lightly brush the dough with oil before flipping it onto the grate over the hottest part of the grill. The dough will harden and darken immediately on its underside, while the top will begin to puff.

Brush the disk with some olive oil, turn it over and slide it onto the cooler side of the grill, and begin to add the toppings, building backwards. Start with the cheese on the bottom, followed by the toppings. Finish with something saucy — a generous drizzle of olive oil, large teaspoonfuls of tomato sauce or pesto — and a light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Slide the pizza back over to the hotter side of the grill to finish. Lightly brush the hot crust with olive oil and serve immediately. I guarantee love at first bite.

2. Swordfish steaks and entire salmon cooked on the grill, sure. But mussels and clams? Well, over hot coals was probably the first way humans cooked bivalves. If they’re big enough, put them directly on the grate of a hot grill, close the lid until they open, and toss them with a buttery concoction of garlic and herbs. Or arrange them in a perforated pan and spray them with beer to steam them open.

Serve the bivalves with thick slices of coarse-textured, chewy bread (like ciabatta) toasted on the grill. When it’s golden brown, rub the toast with a clove of garlic, drizzle generously with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. Open another beer and sip, dip, and slurp.

3. I love the kitschy concept and delicious taste of beer-can chicken, but the method can take up to two hours. That doesn’t mean the grill isn’t the perfect choice for cooking a whole chicken, though. To develop the same smoky flavor and fall-off-the-bone tenderness of a bird perched atop a Budweiser, I like to spatchcock it, a method far less salacious than it sounds.

A spatchcocked chicken is partially boned (its backbone is removed) and butterflied, allowing it to be grilled flat. Exposing more of the meat’s surface to the flames speeds up the cooking process and makes for more crispy, crunchy bits of skin and meat. To ensure even cooking, position the leg end of the chicken toward an indirect fire so the dark meat cooks at a higher temperature than the light meat.

4. My version of salad on the grill is a cross between pan tomaca, the deliciously garlicky tomato-smeared “toast” enjoyed by Castilians, and panzanella, the Tuscan bread salad.

Toss 1-inch-square cubes of chewy artisanal bread with garlic, olive oil, and salt. Do the same with an equal number of cherry tomatoes. Thread the bread and tomatoes onto separate bamboo skewers and grill over high heat until the bread cubes are lightly toasty and the tomatoes blister, char, and come close to bursting.

Remove the bread and tomatoes from the skewers into a large bowl and toss with several tablespoons of a simple vinaigrette made with olive oil, red-wine vinegar, and shallots. Continue adding vinaigrette until the items are sufficiently moistened. Add a few large handfuls of mixed greens, spinach or arugula leaves, and some torn basil. Presto: grilled salad.

5. There are a few terrific ways to prepare potatoes on a grill — wrapped in foil and shoved into the coals, or boiled and then charred on a grill — but my favorite method is grill-roasted. Slice small fingerling or new potatoes into halves and larger potatoes into spears, like steak fries. Toss the potatoes with olive oil and kosher salt, a smashed garlic clove, and some rosemary.

Preheat the grill to high and place the potatoes directly on the grate, cut sides down. Cook, turning as needed, until the potatoes are crisp and tender, about 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the size and variety used.

Enjoy grill-roasted potatoes like French fries (plain, with ketchup, or dipped in a garlicky aïoli) or as baked potatoes, with a fat dollop of herb-speckled sour cream or Greek yogurt. Sweet potato spears roasted on the grill and smothered in red-pepper rouille should also not be missed.

6. Fresh fruit is delicious by itself, but the heat of the grill extracts the fruit’s natural sugar while warming it through and the fire caramelizes the surface, creating luscious, sweet brown syrup. What you’re left with just tastes better — better than what you started with, better than what you’d imagined it could be. It’s fruit, after all.

Put a little butter on quartered peaches and halved plums or, in the off season, pineapple chunks and whole peeled bananas. The slight grill marks and blackened crispness provide the sweetness without adding sugar. Serve the fruit with crème fraîche, Greek yogurt and honey, or ice cream.

7. When they’re in season, I like my strawberries roasted. I’ve never found a better way to enjoy their intense concentrated flavors.

Toss 2 pints strawberries with 3 or 4 tablespoons of sugar and a modest glug of wine or liqueur, or some water and lemon juice. Use soft butter to generously coat the bottom and sides of a nonreactive, ovenproof baking pan just large enough to hold the berries in a single layer with their sides almost touching. Fit the berries snugly, pointing up, and pour the juices from the bowl over them.

Grill over high heat until they’re bubbly and begin to collapse. Cooking times will vary greatly depending on the variety, size, and ripeness of the strawberries, anywhere from 3 to 8 minutes.

Spoon the pan juices over the berries to moisten them, then ladle the roasted berries over cake or ice cream, or serve them in a bowl with simple shortbread cookies and lightly sweetened cream.

8. Once a Girl Scout and an avid camper still, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that s’mores are my favorite grilled dessert. Easier and very satisfying, however, are baked goods warmed on a grill. Pound cake, sponge cake, and biscuits stay delicate and tender even as they’re soaking up the tasty, toasty notes that come with cooking over an open flame.

Use the grill to spruce up the last few slices of pound cake or the biscuits left over from the previous day’s strawberry shortcake. Finish with fruit, ice cream, a squeeze of caramel, or a simple custard sauce.

Recipes for Basic Pizza Dough for the Grill
Grilled Mussels and Clams
Panzanella Skewers with Parmesan Vinaigrette
Roasted Strawberries