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Get More from the Grill

Grilled peaches and a sprinkling of blue cheese are the perfect garnishes for succulent grilled lamb chops rubbed with sage and canela. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board. The grill can be one of the most merchandisable pieces of equipment in the kitchen — not to mention one of the most expensive. Shouldn’t you be making the most of it?

By Joan Lang

The grill always has been a source of noteworthy menu trends and imaginative new uses in restaurants. By sparking the use of distinctive ingredients and unusual grilling techniques and lending its cachet to compelling menu descriptions, the grill has won its place in the kitchens of flavor-forward restaurants. It’s also one of those bell-ringers from which you want to get your money’s worth.

Straightforward steaks and fish are one thing, but a grill can be used for so much more: side dishes, appetizers, sandwiches, even desserts, not to mention center-of-plate items or recipe components, alone or as part of a multi-step cooking process.

The grill is a platform for all-American burgers as well as exotic ethnic specialties, reflecting the global nature of this most basic of cooking methods. It can be interpreted as a healthy cooking platform or brought to bear on creating an elaborate, cheesy pizza.

And, while the grill has the reputation of being the station that only the most experienced line cook can master — you know, the guy who can keep track of the temperature of two-dozen individual hunks of meat — it’s also a place where ingredients can be cooked ahead and used in sophisticated menu items like grilled-vegetable lasagna or grilled and chilled shrimp cocktail.

So fire up the grill and get going.

Grills can be fired by everything from prosaic gas or electricity to romantic fruit woods, grapevine cuttings and even fanciful items like whiskey-barrel stays, corn cobs and hay (most often used as a last-minute smoking medium for flavor). Each source of fuel has a different flavor, aroma and even its own marketing message (mesquite says Texas, pecan makes it Southern) and can be a potent source of menu-making inspiration.

A creative grillmeister can enhance the primary fuel by tossing on other flavorings, like herbs, soaked wood chips (dampened in water or something with its own flavor profile, like bourbon or wine), citrus peels — anything that will burn or smoke. In Germany, Coburger Bratwurst is traditionally grilled over a pine-cone fire.

Flavorings also can be mixed.  For instance, sprigs of fresh mint or rosemary can be soaked in Pinot Noir or Cabernet for 24 to 48 hours, then mixed with the charcoal and a few pieces of oak to create a multi-layered source of flavor. And that’s even before you put the food on.

> Wild Alaska Salmon Salad: Wild Alaska salmon applewood-grilled with citrus butter. Finished with citrus-shallot dressing, avocado and caramelized Walla Walla sweet onion and wild huckleberry sauce — Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill, Olympia, Wash.
> Hickory-Grilled Artichoke with Remoulade — Harper’s, Columbia, S.C.
> Lamb Riblets: Mesquite grilled with lemon and oregano — Evvia, Palo Alto, Calif.

Grilled foods don’t have to be served as is; they also can be incorporated into more-complex recipes on either an à la minute basis or assembled and cooked yet again.

Vegetables can be grilled off and used in sandwiches, on pizza and in pasta or in composed dishes such as lasagna. Proteins can be amped up with grill flavor and added to appetizers and salads. Escabeche, for instance, is similar to a ceviche, but the fish is cooked first, a step that could be accomplished on the grill.

Grilling first not only ramps up the flavor, but it also helps create speed of service on items that require longer initial cooking times or need to be chilled after cooking. Grilled items also can be folded still warm into the final presentation, as in  a salad, adding the additional complexity of different temperature.

> Grilled Vegetable Lasagna: Marinara, fried basil — Canary Square, Boston
> Tortilla Soup: Dark broth flavored with pasilla, with grilled chicken, avocado, hand-made Jack cheese, thick cream and crisp tortilla strips — Topolobampo, Chicago
> Greek Octopus Salad: Wood-grilled octopus and bean salad, grape tomatoes, red onion, Mediterranean olives, lemon and oregano vinaigrette — Pizzeria Posto, Somerville, Mass.

It stands to reason that today’s ingredient-driven, produce-happy chefs would be experimenting with putting vegetables on the grill — and that diners would gladly snap them up.

Grilling turns veggie side dishes into something extraordinary, of course, but it also makes them substantial and interesting enough to be the basis for an appetizer or small plate.  Vegetables also can be grilled before being incorporated into recipes, such as a grilled vegetable gazpacho, pizza or pasta topping, or even a salad.

As far as vegetarian items — eggplant, portobello mushrooms, firm tofu or seitan — grilling and the resultant caramelization can add “meaty” flavor, texture and smokiness.

> Grilled Romaine Salad with Green Goddess and Parmesan — Urbane, Seattle
> Grilled Spring Vegetable Pizza: Grilled artichokes, spring onions, oven-dried tomatoes, asparagus, arugula, shaved Parmesan — Weber Grill Restaurant, Palatine, Ill.-based
> Grilled Fava Beans — Comme Ça, Los Angeles

Roasting or grilling food, particularly fish, on an aromatic wooden plank — usually made of cedar, but sometimes alder — is an ancient technique associated with American Indians on the East and West Coasts, as well as events like shad roasts in the Hudson River Valley and Virginia. Now, however, it’s becoming a trendy and delicious restaurant specialty.

Cooking fish like salmon or striped bass on a damp plank not only flavors it with the aromatic wood smoke, but also helps hold the fish together as it cooks. The fish can be served as the main event, or also be used in appetizers, salads and sandwiches, fish cakes and even chowders. Plank grilling imparts a rich, smoky flavor to marinated or glazed chicken pieces and pork as well.

> Cedar-Plank-Grilled Salmon: Balsamic-blackberry glazed, sautéed spinach and arugula, roasted garlic-mushroom risotto and citrus butter — Reflections, Leola, Pa.
> Cedar-Planked Lake Superior Trout: With asparagus, shiitake risotto, vegetable — Chez Jude Restaurant & Wine Café, Grand Marais, Minn.
> Cedar-Planked Bleu Chicken: Chicken breast roasted on a cedar plank and covered with a mushroom-bleu cheese sauce — Cedar Lodge Steakhouse and Grille, Barnes, Wisc.

Kebabs were designed for grilling and offer endless variation both in ingredients — like these grilled grape and shrimp skewers — and in ethnicity, from Asian satays to Greek souvlaki. Photo courtesy of california table grape commission. 5. MULTIPLE METHODS
Very few foods just go on the grill as-is: They’re seasoned, at the very least, but may go through a number of other flavoring or even cooking steps in addition — brined, marinated, rubbed, smoked, seared, roasted or more, either before or after their turn on the grill.

Meats cooked on the grill are often marinated first to keep them moist and juicy (as well as tasty) through the high-heat treatment. Smoking deepens grilled flavors, and glazing provides an added dimension to meats and vegetables on the grill. All of this enhances the marketability and appeal of menu items that come off the grill.

> Grilled Spice-Rubbed Mahimahi (in the style of the Yucatan), with rice and beans, grilled avocado, pineapple salsa and fried plantains — East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Mass.
> Marinated & Grilled Quail: With salad of grilled onion, Parmigiano Reggiano and walnuts — Restaurant Alma, Minneapolis
> Grill-Seared Ahi Tuna “Salad”: Toasted tortilla with sriracha aïoli, rare ahi, fresh greens, vegetables, creamy tahini and lime vinaigrette — The Fisherman, Noank, Conn.

With interest in innards and other “nasty bits” at a fever pitch, it stands to reason that some of this offal stuff would find its way onto the grill. And, sure enough, everything from whole suckling lamb to pig’s ear can and does get cooked on the grill. Although lesser cuts like shanks and brisket need the low-and-slow treatment of oven cooking, smoking or braising, items that cook relatively quickly, such as a liver, sausages, loins and chops are delicious cooked on the grill, where their elemental flavor is amplified and highlighted.

Then again, a product like brisket or pork belly can be finished on the grill, gaining texture, flavor and color after a preliminary braising or roasting; in this case, the grilling gets done on the pick-up, allowing the bulk of the prep to be done ahead.

For inspiration, consider the Japanese teppanyaki or the Korean tradition of “barbecuing” meats on a griddle at the table.  Cuts of meat might include beef short rib, pork belly, brisket, tripe and more.

> Grilled Pork Ear — Raku, Las Vegas
> Argentine Parillada: Two short ribs, two Argentine sausages, skirt steak, blood sausage and sweetbreads served with french fries, mixed green salad and chimichurri sauce — Divino Lounge, Bethesda, Md.
> Rosemary Rack of Lamb: Char-grilled and served with rosemary sauce — The Duck, Lake Ozark, Mo.

Using a grill gives you a great story. Knowing that interesting techniques and carefully written descriptions can make basic items more appealing and special, chefs are firing up their grills and telling customers all about it.

Describing something as “fire grilled” or “wood grilled” adds not only specificity but also marketability to something as familiar as a burger or steak. Adding a further level of detail, such as the type of wood or how the food is treated before it goes on the grill (spice-rubbed, marinated), makes it sound even more delicious.

And, of course, that translates to signature stature for menu items, as well as the ability to charge more and create a more-memorable dining experience. Consumers want to know more about their food anyway — where it comes from, how it’s prepared, what it will taste like — and the lexicon of grilling fits right in.

> Hell-Brined, Smoked and Grilled Jerked Chicken Wings, with Inner Beauty hot sauce and banana-guava ketchup — East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Mass.
> Fire-Grilled Pork Chop: Mashed potatoes, homemade apple sauce — Canary Square, Boston
> Grill-Kissed Chicken Kebabs with tzatziki and lettuce on pita — San Antonio Botanical Garden, Texas

Anything on a skewer just about has to be cooked on a grill; the skewer is there, after all, to keep the pieces of meat and other foods together and aid in the cooking process.

As a subset of grilling, skewered foods exist all over the world, from Asian satays and Russian shashlik to Middle Eastern and Indian kebabs. And while the word “kebab” may smack of backyard American grilling, it’s the newly re-minted popularity of global street food that has helped popularize menu items that traditionally have been skewered and cooked on the grill.

The kinds of food that can be skewered and grilled also auger well for menu variety; not only cubes of meats and vegetables, but items like meatballs, fruit and small, individual vegetables, such as mushrooms or shishito peppers, can be threaded onto a skewer and cooked on the grill.

That makes the field unusually ripe for experimentation. Global Grill Steaks & Satay in Vancouver serves more than a dozen satay appetizers, including prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, panko-crusted ahi tuna with tobiko aïoli and Kobe meatball with tomato fondue.

> Pork Tenderloin Kebab: Skewered all-natural pork tenderloin, with a mustard-paprika-cumin rub, served with tomatoes, portobello and cherry vinaigrette, with olive oil-toasted orzo on mixed greens — Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, Texas-based
> Shrimp & Grits: Grilled skewer of marinated shrimp with coarse grits, smoky bacon, roasted Brussels sprouts and panko-fried egg — Remick’s, Quincy, Mass.
> Chicken Souvlaki: Tender chunks of marinated chicken breast broiled on a skewer with onions and topped with lemon-butter sauce — Kostas Café, Dallas

Grill fruit to top ice cream or pound cake, accompany a cheese plate or simply stand on its own, like this grilled watermelon entrée at High Point in New York. Photo courtesy of high point bistro & bar. 9. FIRE UP ETHNIC FLAVOR
Where there is fire there is grilled food, all over the world. In fact, many cuisines are closely associated with grilling, including the food of Argentina and Brazil (think gaucho steaks and grilled meats from the churrascaria), Japan (with its long tradition of teppanyaki cooking) and the Middle East (where souvlaki and other skewered meats are a way of life).

Many restaurants in these countries specialize in grilled foods. In Japan, for instance, there are restaurants that serve only yakitori, or skewered grilled chicken — in all of its parts, from the wing to the gizzard. Teppanyaki opens up the menu a bit, to include just about anything that can be cooked on the flat, superheated grill, which is the antecedent of American restaurant concepts like Benihana.

Grilling has a special affinity for the bold ingredients and flavor profiles of Asian, Latin and Middle Eastern food: chiles, spices, garlic. And that makes the grilling technique a worthy entry point for exploring these global cuisines. The technique itself is simple; just introduce marinades, sauces and accompaniments that play traditional ethnic motifs.

> Chile a la Mexicana: Ranchero-style chunks of grilled chicken, steak or pork, cooked in special red or green sauce; served with Mexican rice, beans and tortillas — Salsa’s Mexican Restaurants
> Bun Cha Ha Noi: Grilled garlic pork, pork patties, lettuce and pickled papaya on vermicelli noodles — Noodles Ranch, Scottsdale, Ariz.
> Bulgogi: Marinated thin slices or prime rib-eye, grilled at the table and served with steamed rice, side dishes, lettuce wraps and soup of the day — Korea House, Dallas

As with anything on the grill, fruit’s flavor is concentrated when cooked and caramelized, all the better for its natural sweetness and acidity.  Putting fruit on the grill can result in the simplicity of grilled pineapple or apricots to serve over ice cream or a simple pound cake, or in complex sauces, chutneys, relishes and garnishes for savory menu specialties.

Fruit is also extra-talented at taking up the flavors of wood smoke or additions to the fire like cardamom pods or cinnamon sticks. Wood-grilled grapes and pears, for instance, are a wonderful accompaniment to the cheese course. Grilling fruit is also a great way to utilize under-/over-ripe or otherwise imperfect fruit, or for using up an extra case of perfect seasonal peaches.

> Roasted Peach Sangria: Fresh grilled summer peaches, ginger, mint and basil blended with aromatic organic Torrentes white wine with a splash of soda water — Hugo’s Restaurant, West Hollywood, Calif.
> Grilled Banana Split: Banana, lightly grilled, served with coconut ice cream and topped with chocolate syrup, walnuts, whipped cream and a cherry — Sukhothai, Beacon, N.Y.
> Watermelon “Steak” au Poivre: Grilled watermelon, shaved jicama, asparagus, tomato — High Point Bistro & Bar, New York City

There’s a whole category of remarkable foods that combine the flavor of grilling with the comfort factor and great food costs of bread, including crostini and bruschetta and, of course, sandwiches. Brandade, cheeses, pâtés and dips can be served with a side of grilled bread; the heat helps to warm and partially melt the toppings, creating a creamy texture and enhanced flavors.

Many grilled sandwiches are riding the crest of a trend wave right now, including the French croque monsieur (a kind of savory French toast in which egg-dipped bread, filled with ham and cheese, is grilled in a pan) and, of course, grilled cheese in all of its permutations and combinations.

Then there’s the panini and all its kin, including the Cuban sandwich, which gets its over-the-top perfection not just from the combination of filling ingredients, but also from the act of grilling and pressing the sandwich, which creates a hot, melty mélange of goodness.

> Borrego Desfiado: Grilled Broa bread with pulled lamb cooked in honey, apricots, prunes and roasted almonds — Alfama, New York City
> Grilled Cheese Sandwich: On beer bread with chevre, Vyella dry Jack and Gruyère with caramelized mostarda and arugula — Black Rabbit Restaurant & Bar, Troutdale, Ore.
> Grilled Bread: Scrambled eggs, asparagus and black truffle — Restaurant Alma, Minneapolis

What’s more appealing than the notion of gathering around a fire? Following the mantra that everything tastes better cooked outdoors, restaurants are borrowing the spirit, if not the reality, of a summer-camp meal grilled over hot coals at the end of a long, fun day.

Channeling the campfire image reinforces a casual, back-to-basics experience, thus enhancing the draw of simply cooked foods like steaks, chicken, sausages and burgers.

Roaring Fork, a restaurant with four locations in Texas and Arizona, has built its whole personality around a Wild West, open-fire-cooking mythology characterized by wood-grilled salmon and the signature “Big Ass Burger,” creating “flavors that crackle with a rugged edge.”

> Beer Can Chicken: The backyard classic. Weber’s Backyard Brew-marinated, grill-roasted half chicken, garlic-mashed potatoes — Weber Grill Restaurant, Palatine, Ill.-based
> Campfire Grilled Rib-eye: Hardwood smoked with homemade Worcestershire, mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables — The BoatYard Grill, Ithaca, N.Y.
> Tableside S’mores: Make your own hot, fresh S’mores using a tabletop fire pit, chocolate bar, graham crackers & marshmallows — Cosi


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.