Today we will talk about grilling—one of this country’s favorite summertime pastimes. Not just any grilling, however. I mean grilling in the 70s. Not the temperature outdoors, but rather, my learning to grill in my 70s. How has this escaped me? I can’t even say that I have come late to grilling—this is beyond late.
Because of the pandemic we have had to rethink and redesign (and who hasn’t?) our culinary program at Highfield Hall & Gardens. Cooking outdoors is a necessity. That means a grill. And that means that the teaching moves from preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit to turn on the gas, fiddle with some knobs and clean the grates.
I’m not sure how I have avoided grilling all these years. I do remember a small portable grill my parents gave me sometime in the late 1960s. It was electric, but it did a great job on lamb chops. After that, I sort of skirted the grill issue, always making salads and sides and removing myself from conversations about chimneys and coals.
Until now. I have read that grilling allows you to “embrace the primal joy of eating simple meals prepared outdoors, over an open flame.” Did you know that current statistics say that roughly two-thirds of adults who attend a cookout are “unable or unwilling to take charge of the grill”? Is it intimidating? Perhaps.
I’ve been told there’s a special mystique to grilling outside. Having a grill on the humongous Garland gas range I use at Highfield taught me differently. Yes, you need an exhaust fan for grilling indoor—but the basics remain the same. I have been delighted with my crash course in grilling, and especially pleased to be able to say, “So that’s what it’s all about!”
Basically, if you can cook, you can grill. And now, thanks to a generous donation from Eastman’s Hardware in Falmouth, we are “cooking with gas,” as they say, outside on the back porch at Highfield Hall. The gas grill came into its own in the 1980s (though it was invented in the 1930s), with Weber taking the technological lead. They followed the trend toward square stand-up gas grills (which launched their Genesis line). These featured an open cart design, wooden work surfaces, porcelain-enameled grates, flavorizer bars (who knew?), push-button ignition, grease management systems and side burners. Wow.
Over the decades that I have been writing this column, I have interviewed many grilling aficionados. We have talked charcoal and chimneys, green eggs (both little and small), portable kettle grills, make-your-own barbecue pits, and of course the ultimate pizza oven. When instructing people to grill something in a recipe, my standard line has been “cook over moderate heat” or “high heat” or “low heat.”
Now I see an entire new world opening up: flavoring with various wood chips, smoking cheese, playing with cross-hatching. I believe I am getting ahead of myself here. What I am planning for this summer is cooking in the outdoors, out of necessity. But it’s already been a lot of fun. I’m developing menus that offer an appetizer, protein entree and a one-pot grain or pasta dish to make on the side.
Moreover, this summer we are adding another instructor who is very experienced with grilling and has prepared a number of enticing “sizzling summer” dishes. She will be doing more involved dishes such as pizzas.
What I didn’t expect was how easy it is. Years of oven cooking have taught me a lot about heat: holding your hand over the grates can tell you just where you are at or where you need to be. The longer you can hold your hand in place, the lower the heat. Basically, that means 5 seconds equals low heat, 4 seconds equals medium heat, 3 seconds equals medium-high heat, 2 seconds equals high heat and 1 second equals very high heat.
Yes, I know my grill has a thermometer, but can you trust that? My oven has a temperature gauge, but I still use an oven thermometer that I keep inside to check. How it feels is the best measure of all, and I rely mostly on that for both my inside, and now outside, cooking. What I do use, religiously, is my Thermapen—an instant-read digital thermometer that tells me when my bread is done and when my protein is just ready to come off the grill and rest before serving.
I thought Mark Bittman’s book “How to Grill Everything” might be helpful here. I was correct; what follows are a few of the simple ideas that I have experimented with, some from that book. Whenever I preheat the grill, I remind myself that people have been cooking this way for centuries—it’s only me who has just been doing it for the past few months! Maybe in September I will do a followup to this column: sophisticated recipes from a seasoned griller…
Grilled Kale with Lemon
One-and-a-half pounds lacinato kale, stems removed
One-quarter cup good olive oil
Half a lemon, cut into wedges
Heat the grill for medium direct grilling; rip the kale leaves into large pieces and place them in a bowl. Add the oil and massage until completely coated; add salt and pepper to taste and toss. At this point you can refrigerate the kale until grilling time; to grill, place the leaves on the grate directly over the fire (it’s okay if they overlap). Close the lid and cook until the leaves char, 2 to 4 minutes, then turn and cook, until they char and cook on the second side. Immediately transfer them to a platter and serve with the lemon wedges.
Cajun-Style Grilled Shrimp
2 lbs extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp each: salt, paprika, garlic powder and cayenne
One-half tsp each: dried oregano and black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Mix the seasonings together and set aside; in a large bowl, toss the shrimp with the oil, sprinkle with the spice mix and toss until evenly coated. At this point you can refrigerate the shrimp until grilling time; heat the grill for medium-high direct grilling and place the shrimp on the grates. Close the lid and cook, turning once, until the shrimp are cooked through and the spice mix looks crusty, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the shrimp to a serving platter and garnish with lemon wedges.
with Naan Bread Salad
One-and-a-half lbs leg of lamb, in one piece (not butterflied)
One-quarter cup pesto
2 tbsp each: minced garlic, soy sauce and olive oil
1 package naan (two medium flatbreads)
One-half cup soft goat cheese
One-half cup each: chopped cucumber, radishes, tomatoes, bell peppers, scallions, mint and parsley
In the morning, whisk the pesto with the garlic, soy and oil; place the lamb in a shallow dish and cover with the marinade, turning to coat. Refrigerate for 5 to 8 hours; to serve, preheat the grill to medium direct cooking. Meanwhile, toss the vegetables in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside. Grill the lamb, turning a few times, until it reaches a temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit; remove and let stand. Place the naan on the grill, close the top and turn off the heat; check in 2 minutes then turn the naan and spread the top with the goat cheese. Close the top again and remove in a couple of minutes, once the bread is heated through. Top the naan with the vegetables and put on a platter; carve the lamb and serve the slices next to the bread, drizzled with some of the juices, if desired.
with Balsamic Strawberries
3 cups slice hulled strawberries
2 to 3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
One-half cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
4 slices rich bread (challah or brioche)
Put the strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with the sugar, checking for sweetness; toss gently, add the vinegar and toss again. Set aside for a few hours until ready to serve. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl, beat in the milk and 1 tbsp sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Heat the grill for medium direct cooking; give each piece of bread a quick dip in the egg wash, and take them directly to the grill. Put the bread on the grates and close the lid; cook until the bread develops grill marks, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving platter, top with the strawberries and sprinkle with a little freshly ground black pepper before serving.