Grilling Dinner – A Culinary Pastime
In New Hampshire, the temperature climbs to record highs in the summer. The long, dark winter months are a distant memory, and people start complaining about how HOT it is instead of how COLD it is. New Hampshirites, and New Englanders in general, love to complain about the weather no matter how it looks outside, but I digress.
July is one of my favorite months; camping trips, motorcycle rides, amusement parks, zip-lining, and swimming. These activities keep us occupied throughout the long hours of summer sunlight. The sunshine melts us out of our winter blues as our white, pasty skin becomes a healthy-looking golden brown. It’s a great time of year to be alive.
When it comes to the outdoors, nothing excites me more than firing up that old grill and cooking on the deck. It’s just too hot to use the stove or crank up the sauté pans, and, besides, cleaning up all that mess when you’re hot and sweaty is never fun. Grilling keeps us from heating up our already balmy living quarters and cuts the number of dishes we have to wash. And, let us not forget the spirituality of cooking over fire.
I’ve noticed that there are two types of people who grill; one limits their grill usage to burgers, hot dogs, or maybe the occasional chicken breast. Few other things will make their way to those hot, searing grates. The other griller is the hard-core enthusiastic hobbyist. The one who can and will cook anything on the grill. From smoked pork butts to grilled steaks and salads to desserts. Nothing is off-limits. The grill becomes an extension of their culinary talent, a kitchen in and of itself but more versatile.
The sunshine melts us out of our winter blues…
A suitable grill setup is like everything one could ever want in their indoor kitchen but with the added bonus of smoking and charring with wood. The fresh air filled with the mouthwatering smells of grilled food is a bonus! It becomes so easy to impart that great grilled flavor as well as some wafts of smoke, no wonder it is so popular with home cooks and professional chefs. Tossing in a couple handfuls of water-soaked applewood chips onto a pile of white-hot charcoal embers adds a huge amount of nuance, not to mention some envious looks from the neighbors.
For me, nothing fulfills my outdoor cooking food desires better than a whole chicken. Not only can we feed many hungry friends with one bird, but the leftovers, if you are lucky enough to have any, are great for all sorts of things the next day. Add a few types of summer vegetables, and people will sing your praises behind cold beers and sunblock all for around twenty bucks. While others are using the predictable, I like to wow my dining guests with the extraordinary. This meal beats well-done burgers any day.
To start this simple and affordable meal, a trip to the grocery store is in order. For a few extra dollars, you could visit your local farm stand and support your community. Fewer things sing to me better than local chicken, and the freshest produce cooked the day it was picked. Either way, it’s always good to have a plan before making a purchase.
While others are using the predictable, I like to wow my dining guests with the extraordinary.
Let’s start off with the chicken. A nice five to seven pound roaster is a great size to feed about four people. A quick spatchcocking of said bird is the best way to ensure an evenly cooked barnyard fowl. It will also cut the cooking time down considerably. I like a nice dry rub for grilled chicken. The best thing to do is to grab your favorite brand of chicken seasoning and give it a liberal shake on the front and back of the raw chicken. Lay it on a platter, cover it in plastic cling film and let it sit in the fridge for at least an hour– overnight would be ideal.
Then, for the side courses. You may be surprised at what is grillable. Pretty much anything that can be cut into a plank can be grilled. Bell peppers, summer squashes, and cauliflower are all great candidates. The hidden rock stars of the grilling vegetable world, corn on the cob, kale, tomatoes, carrots, and eggplant, are all awesome. With a little willingness and experimentation, almost anything coming out of the ground can benefit from some burning embers and a little smoke.
Charred is good, burned is not.
I love to build flavors wherever possible. Adding a little flavor before cooking will make a huge impact. A great way to do this is the use of marinades, keeping it simple at first. Fresh veggies do not need much to make them taste good. A light toss in your favorite bottled Italian dressing is all that is needed. Cut your vegetables into grill-able pieces about three-inch squares, toss them in a large bowl with the dressing until lightly coated, and let them sit on the counter for about 30 minutes. Corn and kale can be kept as-is and grilled whole.
Now that we have our mise en place at the ready, we can now move on to the cooking element. I have always loved the use of charcoal instead of gas. Yes, it takes a little more time and effort, but well worth it. The difference between wood cooking and gas are phenomenal. You just can’t get the same amount of flavor from a gas flame that coals provide. It’s really hard to beat charred wood from mother nature.
With coals, use a chimney starter. This will get the coals started without the use of chemical combustion. Liquid charcoal starters add a flavor that is just not in keeping with respectful, clean eating. With a chimney starter, all one has to do is use a balled-up piece of newspaper to start a batch of charcoal. Once the coals are started, pour them off to the side of your charcoal grill. This will give you the ability to “offset cook” and create a nice convection of heat for a slower cooking time and reduce the flare-ups of direct cooking. This and the addition of some water-soaked applewood chips, which you should have on the ready at least an hour before starting your coals, will also give it a nice smoke flavor as it roasts above the heat for a longer period of time. I like to call this “smoke-roasting.”
Cooking this beast is a lot easier than you might think. It really boils down to heat control. Before you place anything on the grill, make sure the grill grates are clean. A nice wire brush will get any debris off before cooking. Lightly spray on an oil-based cooking spray over the entire grate using caution about excessive flair up (Watch your eyebrows!). Place the seasoned chicken directly over the coals with the skin-side down to give it a nice sear. Place the lid on and allow to sear for about three to five minutes. You should have a nice crispy color but not burned. Charred is good, burned is not. Carefully flip your bird over onto the flesh side using a sturdy set of tongs. Cover again and allow to sear for yet another three to five minutes. We are building flavors here, my fellow culinarians. Once seared, slide the chicken over to the non-coal area and replace the lid. Now allow the chicken to slowly cook for about 20–30 minutes. This is a great time to toss a handful or two of those soaked wood chips that you had soaking in water earlier. Just place them directly onto your hot white coals. This will create a flavorful smoke that should make your neighbors take note. Try not to disturb the coals or the chicken if you can help yourself. If you notice you are running out of coals, it might be a good idea to start another batch in your chimney just in case.
In about 20 minutes, start checking for doneness with a digital thermometer. Place the probe in the thigh, which generally takes the longest to cook. Once the internal temperature reaches 165F, place the bird on a plate, and allow to rest there while you grill your veggies.
Clean your grates once again with that steel brush. I find it a little easier to move the hot coals over to more center of the grill at this point, adding more hot coals if needed. You will need most/ all of the grilling surface for your vegetables. Also, feel free to add an additional handful of fresh wood chips.
Place your lightly marinated vegetable planks onto the clean grill grates. Depending on the vegetable and how hot your coals are, cook them for about three minutes per side. Place them all nicely on a platter. Place your rested chicken on top of your veggies, pouring any juices that may have seeped out of the chicken during the resting process. This valuable flavor is one we do not want to waste!
Now you can add all sorts of additional flavor components. A squeeze of fresh lime juice over everything is great for a nice burst of acid. Shaking on a few lugs of your favorite hot sauce, maybe even a little balsamic. Crack open a couple cold beers, and everyone will swoon with happiness.
You may find you have a ton of hot coals left over. Just cut open a couple ripe peaches, removing the pits, and grill them up for a few minutes. Chuck them in a bowl and scoop some vanilla ice cream and whipped cream for an awesome grilled dessert!
There is no need to heat up the house with the oven or dirty unnecessary cooking vessels. Just light up your grill and get the best ingredients you can. This will be more enjoyable for everyone, especially those that have to clean up!