Grills have become commonplace fixtures in backyards and on balconies everywhere, and grilling seems naturally to evoke a festive air. For some unexplainable reason, food always tastes better outdoors. The cook gets out of the kitchen, and there’s no heating up the house with the oven. Delectable, smoky flavors and succulent sealed-in juices are surefire results of good grilling. Who can resist?
Grilled foods can go straight from the grill to the mouth, or they can become part of a fancier dish. Toss them with grains or pasta for a wonderful array of salads. Top a pizza or a tossed salad, or add them to a pasta sauce. Mound them in a split baguette or on focaccia topped with crisp lettuce and drizzled with herbed vinaigrette, or tuck them into a pita.
Charcoal braziers, kettles, and hibachis all make good grills that heat up in about 45 minutes. Wood will impart a genuine smoky taste, and aromatic chips such as mesquite give a good consistent burn. Hickory, fruitwood (apple, plum, pear), maple, and sprigs of rosemary infuse the food with some of our favorite, distinctive flavors. After adding twigs, wood chips, or sprigs to the charcoal, wait until the flames burn out and coals form before putting foods on the grill. Alternatively, soak wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling time: The wet chips will make aromatic smoke but no flames.
Self-lighting briquettes and starter fluids make fires that leave nasty-smelling petroleum residues, so we avoid them. Instead, we use a “chimney”—a cylinder about the size of a large coffee can—to facilitate good air flow and get briquettes burning with just a couple of pieces of newspaper. Chimneys are readily available where grilling supplies are sold and are worth the small investment.
If you intend to do a lot of grilling, you’re probably more likely to do it with a gas grill. After a quick twist of the wrist, most grills heat up in just 10 minutes.
Lava or ceramic elements radiate the heat, which can be adjusted by dials. Charcoal and gas grills both provide ample dry heat to give food a distinctive grilled quality, but a gas grill won’t produce any smoked flavor without the addition of wood chips. For this reason, many gas grills come with a chip-box holder or smoker pouch. If yours didn’t, you can place a perforated metal pie plate filled with soaked wood chips directly on the elements.
We think a portable grill rack, which sits right on the grill, is an indispensable accessory. Its enamel-coated metal surface has a grid of small openings that keep cut foods from falling into the fire. Tofu, tempeh, fish fillets, and smaller cut vegetables are almost impossible to cook on a conventional grill without a rack. Preheat the rack on the grill for 10 minutes, lightly oil it to prevent sticking, then grill to your heart’s content. If you are preparing a modest amount of food, the entire rack can be lifted and brought to the table.
Marinades, Rubs & Basting
Because vegetables have little or no fat, they must be “slicked up” before grilling. Oil promotes browning and prevents drying out, charring, and sticking. Most vegetables are quite tasty when simply brushed with oil and grilled, but the additional flavor of an oil-based rub, basting mixture, or marinade can be even better. Herbs used in basting mixtures and marinades should be assertive enough to withstand the high heat of the grill. Resinous, woody herbs like rosemary, oregano, savory, thyme, sage, and marjoram work best. Leafy green herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, dill, tarragon, and basil, are better for dressings, sauces, or salsas that are added at the completion of grilling.
About an hour of marinating is a good average. However, mushrooms, eggplant, and bland foods such as tofu and tempeh can benefit from 2 to 3 hours of marinating, if you have the time. Always marinate perishable foods such as fish, seafood, tofu, or tempeh in the refrigerator.
Charcoal-grilled foods, cooked properly, will have a natural smoky quality. Overcooked, they’ll be worse than burnt toast. If oil or other fat drips onto live coals or heating elements, flames shoot up, resulting in a bitter, black char. To avoid charred food, be sure to brush only lightly with oil and thoroughly drain marinated items before placing them on the grill.