Getting grill marks on your lettuce adds a nice, smoky element to a classic salad.
WITH THE TEMPERATURES SET TO soar this season, savvy home cooks will head to the grill to avoid firing up the oven or stove. The variety of grills and accessories for sale means you needn’t limit the types of dishes you create from a trip over glowing coals or searing flames. It’s time to think outside the (fire) box.
First, though, some history. Grilling really got going in the 17th century with Caribbean tribespeople. They called the cooking technique of grilling meats over an open flame barbacoa, from which we get the word “barbecue.” The tribes used a lot of spices, which Spanish conquerors sampled, loved, and adopted, eventually bringing them to America.
With the advent of Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer’s patent for charcoal briquettes in 1897, the process of preparing the fire accelerated, giving grillers more time to focus on marinades and rubs to flavor the meat. By 1920, Henry Ford, in collaboration with Thomas Edison and E.B. Kingsford, began making briquettes from sawdust and wood scraps from Ford’s Detroit auto plants. Out in the New Mexico desert, I imagine cowboys and Indigenous peoples were still stoking a roaring wood fire to cook the catches of the day while a cast-iron kettle simmered chile and beans.
During the suburban sprawl of the 1950s, backyard grills became popular thanks in part to a welder named George Stephen, who designed a dome-shaped metal contraption that held the coals and a lid that could be closed to capture the heat. Propane grills hit the market in the 1960s. Inventors still fiddle with the vessel design, introducing ceramic Green Egg and kamado-style grills, along with ones that boast side burners or built-in smokers and fryers, pellet-fueled models, hybrids that offer both gas and coal gratings, and infrared versions that heat up instantly and retard flare-ups. What’s next? Laser beam searing? Solar flare BBQ?
Let’s assume you possess the grill of your dreams. What exotic dishes might you play with this summer? Admittedly, I’m not the most adventuresome griller. To see what my fellow New Mexicans toy with, I posted a query on social media.
Responses included pizza, oysters, and vegetables like asparagus, peppers, and onions. Among the ones I hadn’t considered were purple potatoes, artichokes, elephant garlic, jicama with lime and chile, Brussels sprouts, bok choy with a red miso glaze, kohlrabi, and carrots served with a tahini sauce. One cook studs a whole eggplant with garlic and grills it until it collapses, then turns it into a smoky baba ghanoush, while another grills kimchi to garnish Korean barbecue.
Fruit lovers listed grapefruit, apples, watermelon served with feta, strawberries for a unique shortcake, grilled lemon halves with thyme to squeeze over fish, grapes to accompany a gourmet cheese plate, pine-apple glazed with brown sugar, peaches for salads and desserts, plantains, and bananas. (I toss banana slices in lime juice, sugar, rum, cinnamon, and crushed peanuts, grill them, then serve them with pineapple-rum ice cream.)
Other suggestions included garlic bread, firm tofu with a spicy, nutty salsa macha, broccolini, halloumi cheese, foil packets containing everything for a Cajun seafood boil, paella, squid, and sponge cake for strawberries. I clearly need to up my grilling game!
Before you start, if you’re using a gas grill, make sure you have a standby tank, just in case the first one runs out. A sturdy brush makes it easy to clean the grate, but a wadded-up sheet of aluminum foil will do. Lightly oil both the grate and the food you are about to cook to avoid sticking—especially with fish.
Let the grill get nice and hot. Allow meats to warm up slightly before they hit that hot grill, to reduce the chances of over-blackened surfaces with underdone interiors. If you’re cooking to a specific temperature, take that item off the heat before it hits its final temp; it will continue to cook on its own.
Have a spray bottle close by to douse flare-ups. Any marinade that has had raw meat in it can be used as a serving sauce but must be brought to a boil for a few minutes.
With that, have fun, be brave and creative, and let me know about the recipes you invent.