There’s nothing better than the flavor and presentation of food cooked on a grill.
The slightly smoky flavor and ease of preparation makes grilling one of the top cooking methods any time of the year. Even when there is a chill in the air, stepping outside to grill a meal is quick and easy.
Now that summer is around the corner, many of us are dining al fresco, and that often includes a grilled dish. Almost any food can be grilled, from steak to portobello mushrooms, and occasionally a food that you wouldn’t imagine, such as thickly cut Greek cheese (Halloumi), which grills perfectly.
For those who don’t have access to an outdoor grill, I’ve had success with cast-iron indoor grilling pans. Indoor grilling pans, which can be found in any cookware store, add a depth of flavor similar to outdoor gas grilling. I own two square ones that fit over a burner and can accommodate two servings of protein or four pieces of fresh corn or sliced eggplant.
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Here are some of my tips to make the most of your grilling.
What to grill?
Most important, you need to know which foods are best grilled. Any cut of meat or chicken is ideal for grilling.
For dark-meat chicken, I recommend cooking it first in the oven to get it about three quarters done and then finishing it on the grill to avoid overly dark or blackened skin. Chicken breasts cook quickly – about 3 minutes per side. I recommend you pound the chicken to an even thickness to assure perfect doneness.
Fish is best if you choose steak fish (such as tuna, salmon, swordfish or shark) or whole fish (such as snapper or bass). Shellfish, including shrimp, scallops, clams and lobster, are wonderful on the grill and can be served room temperature or as part of a salad. I tend to avoid thin fish fillets for grilling as they are too delicate for the high heat and difficult to move off the grill.
All kinds of grilled vegetables are wonderful. My personal favorites are asparagus, mushrooms, onions, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, unripe tomatoes and corn. Consider buying a grill basket for smaller veggies to avoid them falling into the grill. For the vegetarians among us, both tofu and tempeh are delicious in their grilled form, especially paired with a flavorful marinade.
Get the grill ready
To prepare the grill, heat is of utmost importance for a guaranteed non-stick surface. If your food is not ready to turn easily, simply leave it another minute to insure the proper sear. If you are grilling something with little to no marinade, be sure to spray the grill lightly with vegetable cooking spray or brush lightly with olive oil.
My favorite element in grilling is the marinade. A marinade can be as simple as vinaigrette with a few fresh herbs mixed in, and sauces such as salsas, pestos and reserved boiled marinades add a ton of flavor to just about any grilled food.
Because there’s no sauce or fat in the pan, and most grilled foods cook fairly quickly, a marinade not only tenderizes but adds flavor. I usually marinate dishes for at least two hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator, depending on what you’re preparing.
I recommend reserving the leftover marinade and bringing it to a boil in a small saucepan for four or five minutes, to kill any bacteria, along with a little red wine, if desired, and you have an amazing sauce to drizzle over your grilled dish.
There’s the rub
Fish is one exception where the marinade can actually cook the fish, so don’t marinate fish and shellfish for more than an hour. This is where a spice rub can be the perfect flavor enhancer. I often use spice rubs for tuna, salmon or shrimp.
Simply toast a few of your favorite spices, such as cumin, mustard seeds, peppercorns and coriander. Grind them in a coffee or spice grinder, coat the fish lightly with olive oil, then sprinkle the spices and a pinch of sea salt. You’ve now elevated your fish to another level.
I love the taste of grilled bread and often serve it lightly brushed with extra virgin olive oil and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic, as you might enjoy in Tuscany. Grill the bread for three or four minutes on each side and serve with chopped tomatoes, olives, mushrooms. Or, serve it plain, with a few shavings of Parmesan Reggiano. I often make hummus or a spread, such as a white bean puree, to serve guests while they are having a chilled glass of wine.
Amanda Cushman is a culinary instructor, food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at chapelhillcookingclasses.com.
Grilled Shrimp with Heirloom Tomato Salad
Shrimp is marinated for an hour and then grilled and served on top of a bed of mixed greens. Scallops can be used in place of the shrimp if desired. Recipe by Amanda Cushman.
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
5 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
6 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large Heirloom tomatoes of mixed colors, large dice
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup basil, chopped
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup virgin olive oil
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
4 cups mixed salad greens
1 half of a small ripe papaya, peeled, diced, garnish
Combine the shrimp with the lime, olive oil, cumin, jalapeno, cilantro and salt in a medium bowl. Toss and allow to sit at room temperature for one hour.
Combine the tomatoes, shallot, basil, balsamic, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Toss well and set aside.
Turn the grill to high and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the marinade and place on the grill, discarding the marinade. Lower the heat to medium and cook the shrimp until pink and slightly curled, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate.
Add the mixed greens to the tomatoes. Taste for seasoning.
Divide the greens between four serving plates, top with the shrimp, and garnish each serving with the diced papaya.
Yield: 4 servings.
Grilled Skirt Steak with Balsamic, Dijon and Soy Marinade
This marinade can be used with lamb chops, pork tenderloin, chicken or salmon. It is best to marinate overnight for steak. Recipe by Amanda Cushman.
1 1/2 pounds skirt, flank or hanger steak, scored
3 shallots, minced
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
Fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 scallions, julienne, garnish
Place the steak in a shallow baking dish.
Combine marinade ingredients in a medium bowl. Pour over steak and marinate about 2 hours or overnight, refrigerated.
Half an hour before grilling, remove the steak from the refrigerator. Heat the grill on high for about 5 minutes. Grill the steak for about 7 to 8 minutes on each side for medium-rare meat. Reserve the leftover marinade. Place cooked meat on a cutting board and set aside loosely covered with foil.
Bring the leftover marinade to a boil in a small saucepan with the red wine. Boil for 4 to 5 minutes. Set aside. Meanwhile, slice the meat thinly against the grain. Place on a serving platter and pour the marinade over the meat. Garnish with the julienne scallions and serve.
Yield: 6 servings.
Grilled Bread with Rosemary-Scented White Bean Puree
This is a perfect dish to make ahead, as it can be served room temperature. Feel free to substitute chick peas for the white beans and add other herbs such as thyme or Italian parsley. Recipe by Amanda Cushman.
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 16 ounce cans Cannellini beans, rinsed, drained
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded, chopped
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 loaf crusty Tuscan bread, sliced in 1/2-inch slices
Virgin olive oil for brushing
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and sauté the shallots and garlic for 1 minute. Add the beans and salt, pepper and rosemary, cover the pan and reduce the heat to low and cook for about 7 minutes.
Using a fork, mash up the beans in the skillet to form a rough paste. Add water as needed when the beans become too thick. Set aside.
Combine the tomato with the olive oil and minced garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Heat the grill over high heat. Brush the bread with a little olive oil and grill on both sides until toasted and charred slightly, about 4 minutes per side. Remove the bread to a serving platter. Spoon the puree on top of the bread and garnish with the tomato.
Yield: Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer