The joy of outdoor cooking

Published June 27, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

Cooking _ and eating _ outside is one of the joys of summer, and grilling is the cooking method of choice. Fast, easy and infinitely versatile, it is ideal for everything from a quick after-work dinner to a formal garden party.

Here are ideas for making grilling even more enjoyable.

Gas grills are wonderfully convenient. You just turn a dial, and the grill provides continuous, even heat in about 15 minutes, but lighting and maintaining a charcoal fire in a classic kettle grill is a satisfying summer ritual.

If you prefer a charcoal grill, it's worth using lump charcoal, also called hardwood charcoal, instead of the usual briquets. Lump charcoal generates a strong, aromatic heat, sealing in flavor and juices.

Another option is pure hardwood, which creates the most flavorful smoke. Try oak, alder or mesquite. (Never use softwoods, such as pine, since the resin will ruin the food you're grilling.) A wood grill takes an hour or so to heat up, and the fire flares up more than a charcoal one, so it should always be watched closely.

To take advantage of the benefits of charcoal and wood, combine them: Start the grill with lump charcoal and, when the fire is hot, add a few chunks of hardwood or a few handfuls of hardwood chips. Soak the wood in water (chunks for an hour; chips for 15 minutes) before adding it to the fire for a nice, slow burn.

Each wood gives off a unique flavor. Hickory imparts the familiar smoky taste. Apple wood is fruity, cherry is somewhat tart, maple is sweet, and pecan is deliciously nutty. Experiment to find your favorite and try mixing chips for a custom blend.

You will find lump charcoal and hardwoods at hardware and specialty cooking stores.

One of the easiest and safest ways to light a charcoal fire is with a chimney starter, a metal cylinder with a handle. Fill the bottom with crumpled newspaper and the top with charcoal and light the paper. When the charcoal is red-hot, empty it out into the grill. Avoid using lighter fluid, since its chemical odor and flavor can affect your food.

Grilling tips

+ Marinades can pick up harmful bacteria from raw meat, poultry or fish, so, if you want to baste with the marinade, remove the meat and bring the marinade to a boil for several minutes first or increase the recipe and set some marinade aside just for basting.

+ Never place the cooked food on the same platter you used to bring the raw food out to the grill.

+ Marinating in a heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag is convenient. Put the meat in the bag, pour the marinade directly into it, squeeze out most of the air and seal. Instead of turning the meat over, just flip the entire bag.

+ Refrigerate food as it marinates.

+ Before you use them to skewer meat, fish or vegetables, bamboo or wooden skewers should be soaked in cold water for about two hours, which helps prevent them from burning on the grill.

When they're in season, I never tire of juicy, ripe tomatoes and sweet corn on the cob, but I do look for new ways to prepare them. Here are two favorites:

SMOKED TOMATOES: Drizzled with flavorful olive oil and sprinkled with salt, smoked tomatoes are a luscious addition to an antipasto platter. They can also be used on sandwiches and salads or pureed and added to soups and sauces.

With the cover on, a grill becomes a smoker, the perfect place to make them. Here's how:

Light charcoal and let it burn until white. Scatter with a generous handful of mild-flavored wood chips, such as alder, apple or cherry (hickory and mesquite are too strong). Place the rack on the grill at the farthest point from the flame.

When the wood chips begin smoking, place whole, ripe tomatoes _ any variety will be delicious _ on the rack and close the lid. Let the tomatoes smoke for 7 to 10 minutes until slightly cooked.

Let cool before using.

GRILLED CORN: Use the corn husks as handles for ears of corn. Peel the husk back all the way and remove silk. Remove one long piece of husk and use it to cinch the rest of the husk together, leaving kernels exposed.

Brush the corn with melted butter and grill for a few minutes on each side, turning frequently to cook all sides, until some of the kernels start to turn brown. Brush with more melted butter when the ears of corn come off the grill.

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