At the Table / Fire it up!
A round-up of grilling wisdom from four Spree food writers
Illustrations by Josh Flanigan
Here’s a round-up of grilling wisdom from four Spree food writers who also happen to be serious cooks and year-round grillers.
What’s your favorite outdoor cooking method (charcoal grill, gas grill, smoker, fireplace, etc.) and why?
Nick Guy: I tend to prefer propane just because it’s so much faster to get going, and I’m usually only cooking for one or two people. I love the flavor that charcoal gives, and will pull the charcoal grill out for projects when I’ve planned in advance.
Lizz Schumer: I love cooking over a campfire while traveling, just like my family did at least a few weeks each summer when I was a kid. There’s just nothing like cozying up to a crackling fire pit and really getting back to my roots. I use some of the same camping methods on our charcoal grill and in our home fire pit as well, to get that same outdoorsy experience in the comfort of our own backyard.
Jeff Biesinger: I have all kinds of various charcoal and gas grills and smokers (last count was ten), but, given the chance, I’ll choose to cook over an open campfire any chance I get. It’s completely caveman, yet takes a lot of fire-management skill and provides an unrivaled sense of satisfaction when you pull off an amazing meal.
Nina Barone: I love the occasional smoker-cooked meat, but I’m not adept at using anything beyond a charcoal or gas grill. We use a gas grill for our daily grilling needs. My father-in-law was a wonderful grill master, so we took some cues from him, including which Weber gas grill is best.
Do you see outdoor cooking as a regular strategy on the rotation in good weather, or is it just a family gathering/holiday event? Do you turn to it out of season?
NG: I’ll usually fire up the grill on the first unseasonably warm day and then put it back in the shed when the late season snowstorm hits. We have such short summers that I try to grill as often as possible, even if it’s just hamburgers or hot dogs.
LS: We cook outdoors at least a few times a week in the nice weather, since it’s such a great way to enjoy Buffalo’s beautiful summers. You know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen and fire up the grill! While we don’t grill outside when it’s snowing, we have been known to grill on our stove inside in the dead of winter, to enjoy those nice, smoky summer flavors even with snow on the ground.
JB: I used to spend a lot of time on a grilling forum, and there was a running joke regarding members who would make a big deal about wheeling out their grill out for “grilling season.” The rest of us never put ours away. My grills migrate from the back patio to the garage over the year, but they are always in use. There are some things that just can’t be done inside, and I’m not going to let weather limit my cooking options.
NB: We cook and dine outdoors as much as possible when the weather turns nice. We have been known to get out there with an umbrella if it’s rainy and go as far into the fall with grilling as we can. I like that we can start a piece of meat or fish with a marinade, rub, or brine, and then transform it on an outdoor grill in a way we can’t indoors. We do have wonderful cast iron grill pans to use when we want to make these dishes and the weather is no longer cooperative.
What are your secrets for outdoor cooking: what meals/types of food do you find yourself making repeatedly, do you have some go-to tricks/implements that you really rely on, what are the must-haves?
NG: I’m big into sous vide cooking–cooking in a water bath at a set temperature. I love to do this with sausages because it cooks them through all the way, and then just a few minutes on the grill gives them a nice char without worry about under- or overcooking.
LS: I love to make foil packet meals in the summer, in which protein and veggies get steamed in foil for a campfire version of en cocotte. The technique lends itself to everything from fish to tofu to chicken, and can be as simple or as fancy as you like. Simply layer protein and sliced vegetables (peppers and onions work well, but you can also use thinly sliced potatoes) in about twelve inches of foil, squeeze a little citrus juice over it all, grab a handful of fresh herbs from the garden and sprinkle evenly. Wrap up the foil packet and place it directly on the fire (coals work better than leaping flames for safety and consistency). Depending on the protein, these take about twenty minutes to half an hour on a fire, and can go right on the grill, too. Keeping it all wrapped up in foil lets the flavors steam together, which creates a deliciously fragrant, beautifully moist meal.
JB: One word: thermopen. I am completely fearless when cooking outside because of my trusty thermopen. Give me any cut of meat, a desired finished temperature, and whether it should be cooked fast or slow, and I can get it done. The thermopen is a little pricey but it’s worth every penny due to its measuring speed. You can insert it into a steak and watch the temps drop as you reach the center and rise as you go out towards the bottom, and know exactly how it’s cooking.
NB: I love to make a high quality piece of fish or meat special with fresh toppings. If you start with a great piece of protein to begin with, you should not have to camouflage and cover it with heavy seasoning or sauces to make it taste better. Fish such as mahi mahi, swordfish, grouper, and snapper hold up well when grilled, as do shrimp and scallops, and, topped with a fresh salsa, it’s a fantastic no-fuss meal. I like to use whatever fruit is seasonal, and then add avocado, jalapeno pepper, lime juice or other citrus (orange, lemon, whatever is on hand), and cilantro. Peaches in the summer make a wonderful complement. I have grown to adore a great piece of grilled pork over the years. We like to grill pork tenderloin or pork shoulder, rubbed with spices and herbs like ancho chili powder, chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, and a healthy amount of sea salt. I also like to cut slits into thicker cuts of meat and stuff with garlic cloves and/or fruit to help penetrate the flavors into the meat more deeply. It adds moisture and helps the meat to stay juicy. We also love to grill marinated vegetables, such as zucchini, squash, eggplant, and more.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever made on the grill or other outdoor cooking device?
NG: I bought a turkey fryer a few years back, and after the turkey was done, it was on to dessert. It was around Easter and we tried to fry all sorts of candy, including Peeps. Unfortunately, they just melted into sugary puddles and ruined the oil.
LS: I don’t know if it qualifies as “strange,” but I love placing whole vegetables like eggplant or bell peppers right on the grill to get a good, flaky char. There’s nothing like that smoky flavor. I’ve also been known to tuck marshmallows and chocolate chips right into a sliced-open peel-on banana, wrapping that in foil and warming it in a fire for a quick, portable dessert. With a scoop of vanilla gelato, it’s heaven.
NB: My father-in-law was skilled at making pizza on a grill, and it was always delicious, topped with an array of Italian treats such as olive tapenade and caponata, soft and hard cheeses, fresh and marinated vegetables, cured meats and more. My husband and I like to experiment, so we will throw on any combination of vegetables and fruit we have on hand; sometimes they come out beautifully, and, other times, we decide that’s the last time we’ll make it that way. You have to keep a bit of a sense of humor and adventure when you cook, and grilling is no different. There was a bit of a grilled stone fruit craze we explored for a while. I don’t know that it was the tastiest on its own, but a bit of mascarpone or ricotta cheese in the middle of a piece of grilled fruit, drizzled with nice raw honey, and topped with nuts still sounds delightful today.
JB: I precooked a giant octopus and finished it over a few hours of smoldering alder on a smoker. I served it with a bright green chimichurri for a pretty epic appetizer.
Favorite beverage while grilling?
NG: Grilling and beer go hand in hand for me. I’ll usually go with a session ale, something I can drink all day without ending up too far gone. And then there’s my secret shame: Blue Light Lime. I know it’s terrible, but it’s refreshing as heck on really hot days.
LS: I love a good Negroni in the summer. One part each Campari and sweet Vermouth, two parts gin (Tommyrotter is my favorite for this drink), and a slice of orange to garnish. It’s a great summer sipper that pairs well with pretty much everything.
NB: I love to enjoy a glass of wine or an Aperol Spritz while I’m grilling. It’s a refreshing cocktail that’s simple to make and always makes me feel like I’m in Italy when it’s warm out.
JB: My barbecue team is usually cooking at contests under tents during some pretty awful weather, so we adopted the dark and stormy as our team drink. I like it mixed with Goslings overproof dark rum, really spicy ginger beer like Barritt’s or Gosling’s, and a slice of lime. It’s really refreshing, holds its own against bold, grilled flavors, and pairs well with licking wounds from occasionally disappointing contest results.
Recipe for Aperol Spritz
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash of soda water
Start by adding ice into a wine glass then pour in the Prosecco and the Aperol; add a splash of soda and top with a slice of orange.
Garnish with a Luxardo cherry.
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