Grillin' outside the box

Put a flare-up on summertime cooking

Put a flare-up on summertime cooking

July 01, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Several weeks ago, as I served a dinner I'd grilled, I noticed I was setting on the table the same stuff I usually prepared on the grill - hot Italian sausages, foil-wrapped potatoes, peppers and onions, and grilled pineapple slices.

It was well-prepared, familiar, tasty ... and the same old stuff I always served.

It scorched me like a grilling flare-up: I was in a rut.

Step one: Hit the books

So I decided to try new things. But how do you step out of well-worn habits? Where could I find inspiration?

First, I looked at what I had on hand. One thing we had was vegetables, lots of them. This year, we've enlarged our garden and several things were ready for harvest, including broccoli, beets, potatoes and peas.

We also receive a weekly box of produce from a Clear Spring farmer. So I had kale, scapes (garlic sprouts), carrots and mushrooms.


Then, I talked over ideas with my wife and daughter, both of whom are experienced cooks. We came up with some ideas.

And I looked in cookbooks for ideas. One of my favorite grilling cookbooks is "Patio Daddy-O" by Gideon Bosker, Karen Brooks and Leland and Crystal Payton. The book is a fresh take on the backyard barbecue culture and food of the '50s.

Because I wanted to try many new things all in one go, I decided to follow a recent restaurant trend and prepare a series of tapas - small servings of well-prepared food, artfully plated.

I needed a critical mass of diners to cook for, so we invited friends over for a dinner party.

Step two: Plan a party

I came up with eight recipes. I adapted a Japanese recipe for foil-wrapped packets for the grill. Three recipes came from "Patio Daddy-O" - sugar-charred steak, barbecued bananas and spicy corn on the cob. Another five were family favorites or developed for this article - root veggie hash, cooked greens and salmon, grilled pineapple rings and spicy eggplant "steaks."

I had promised myself I would host a grilling party for friends this summer, and this seemed like a good time to try new things. So we rounded up seven friends for a Monday night get-together.

In retrospect, I have to say that I'm lucky my friends and family are tolerant foodies. Grilling over charcoal is part science, part art - and a lot of luck, at least in my case.

Generally, I don't recommend preparing an all-new menu for a party. Start gradually. Add new dishes one by one to your usual grill mix. Note cooking conditions. If you're as forgetful as I am, write down cooking times and heat levels for future fine-tuning.

Repeat the new dishes you like and eventually you'll master them.

And have back-up in case something flops. I grilled some foil-wrapped peppers, just in case I ruined something else.

Step three: Learn from experience

I helped a little with food prep -- slicing and dicing - but most of that was handled by my wife and my daughter and her friends.

During most of the party, I was at the grill. The dinner party was intense. I had prepared a schedule of which foods to grill and in which order.

Foil-wrapped peppers and root veggie hash went on the hot charcoal early, followed by the vegetable-tofu packets on the grill. Cooked greens, salmon and grilled pineapple went on next, followed by corn on the cob, sugar-charred steak and roasted peppers. I concluded the evening with brown-sugar-barbecued bananas.

For an hour and a half, I put things on the grill, turned them, took them off and plated dishes. Most things went well. Most comments were positive. I listened to superlatives and constructive criticism equally.

The small dishes held interest. No one went away hungry, but no one was overstuffed.

The kale was overcooked, but the salmon and grilled pineapple worked well together. The root veggies were a bit bland. Some diners liked the garnish of sour cream; others didn't.

The veggie-and-tofu packets were OK. The mushrooms, which had picked up marinade from the tofu, were in particular demand. Fortunately, I had grilled an extra packet of mushrooms.

The spice-and-sugar-rubbed steak was very well received. I had managed to sear the outside, but leave the inside pink. The corn, grilled in foil with lime, butter and chipotle pepper, disappeared. The eggplant steaks were a big hit, even for diners who didn't like eggplant.

And the grilled, caramelized bananas were a great finish.

Overall, I thought the grilling-out-of-the-box exercise went well. I stepped outside my rut and tried new things, such as the smaller portion sizes. I'll keep some of the dishes and ideas in my repertoire, others I'll keep fine-tuning.

So although there's something comforting about being in a cooking rut, it's worth trying new things. It's scary, sometimes, especially if you've got diners depending on you, but it's exciting, too.

And when food prep is exciting, you're no longer in a rut. You're on an adventure.

Eggplant steaks

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch, circular slices
3 tablespoons salt
Olive oil for brushing
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional

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