Six ways to grill smarter for summer (with recipes)

Published June 27 2018

Summer is the season of paradox.

It is lazy, yes. And heaven knows I look forward to some serious indolence, like binge-watching Babylon Berlin till my eyes itch. But summer is also a time to work on things I have been putting off, like walking at least 30 minutes a day, organizing the basement and perfecting my pie crust recipe.

Grilling, I find, brings those two summertime attitudes together. Thereís something both lazy and productive about the endeavor. I can drink a couple of beers and still produce something worthwhile.

This being the start of a long season, Iíd like to make a suggestion to help the twain of sloth and industriousness to meet: Use the whole grill surface to cook a variety of items at one go whenever you prepare a meal.

When grilling, many of us cook only a main dish that we intend to eat right away, such as a steak or hot dogs. Using the grill to cook every element of a meal ó or additional dishes that you can enjoy at a future date ó develops your grilling skills, lends your home a restaurantís mise-en-place approach to meal preparation and inspires spontaneity and creativity, the handmaidens of true laziness.

To achieve whole-grill mastery, begin by forgetting fully a third, maybe more, of the cooking surface. That third is for the entree. You might grill pork chops or classic barbecue chicken or zaíatar-rubbed lamb. Whatever. The point is, you will have a lot of space on the grate left over. Thatís what to focus on.

Using the entire grill surface requires a little barbecue mindfulness. That is, some thinking. But donít worry, not a lot. And besides, Iíve done the thinking for you.

My Six Rules of Summer Grilling show how you, too, can fill that surface and thus lead a happier, more productive and ultimately lazier summer life.

Rule No. 1

Think about the fire

There are several types of fire for grilling and smoking, but to keep things simple, weíre just going with an indirect fire, with the coals distributed on one side and the other side left empty. The reason for an indirect fire is to allow you to either cook hot and fast directly over the coals or low and slow (well, lower and slower) over the cool side.

If, for example, you want to grill a slice of onion, you could set the onion directly over a medium-hot fire for about three minutes, then turn it over for another three. The result would be an onion slice striped with grill marks, or slightly blackened. The texture of the onion would be something akin to al dente.

If you cooked the onion on the cool side, it would be tawny in color, take on more smoke flavor and have a softer texture. Neither is "right." The question is preference.

Another reason for an indirect fire is that it allows you to put the entree on the cool side to slowly cook and leave space on the hot side for grilling all the other foods.

You can do the opposite, but generally that makes the timing trickier. Thatís because if you grill your entree over a direct fire, it cooks fast. If you are slow-roasting or smoking your additional items, youíd want to start and finish those before you even put the entree over the fire so that you avoid having to do a lot of things at the same time.

Rule No. 2

Think 10 minutes for grilling, 20 for smoking

Most side dishes and appetizers, which is what weíre mostly talking about here, are vegetables. Many vegetables are ready after 10 minutes or less over a medium-hot fire, and for a smokier flavor, 20 minutes on the indirect side.

Take the following: slices of zucchini, eggplant, carrots, romaine lettuce (yes, lettuce), lemon and lime halves and my current go-to, shishito peppers. When placed directly over a medium-hot fire, they will all take on a charcoal flavor and be ready to eat in 6 to 10 minutes.

If you want them smokier, simply set them on the cool side of an indirect fire and let them go for about 20 minutes. After they smoke, you might want to place them over the direct fire for a minute or two to give them a little char or some grill lines. You can also do the reverse ó over the fire for a couple of minutes on each side, then move to the cool side.

Denser vegetables, such as beets and potatoes, take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. But if you boil them until just tender before setting on the grill, they too will conform to the 10/20 rule.

Oh, and those shishito peppers? Iíve been making them almost every time I fire up the grill. Theyíre nearly impossible to screw up (Iíve gone beyond charred to downright burned, and they were still good) and I have yet to meet the guest who hasnít marveled over them when I put them out as an appetizer.

Rule No. 3

Think about
what you like to eat

I really like salsa. Two shelves in my refrigerator door, a dorm fridge in the basement and a cabinet shelf are lined with various salsas, and still I make my own at least once a week. I love the freshness. I also love that it is mine.

The best thing about fire-roasting the vegetables is the smoky flavor. The second-best thing about it is how effortless it is. A couple of tomatoes, an onion slice, a serrano pepper (or jalapeno) and half a lime. And presto! I have a robust dip with tostadas for an appetizer when friends drop by, a piquant addition to eggs in the morning and a spicy condiment for tacos (or anything else) in the evening.

Oh, and the third-best thing? All those items easily fit around whatever else youíre cooking on the grill.

Now, take whatever you really like ó gazpacho, say ó and do the same thing.

Rule No. 4

Think about what you are going to eat

When I grill a chicken, I, like you, consider what Iím going to have with it. Maybe asparagus with a squirt of lemon. Perhaps cauliflower with tahini sauce. Then I ask myself: Why dirty a pan when I can achieve better results (and no cleanup) by cooking the veggies over a charcoal fire at the same time that Iím grilling the chicken?

My answer: Whatís the question again?

Rule No. 5

Think about what youíll someday want to eat

Last year, when tomatoes were at their peak, I bought a peck (well, maybe not a peck, since I donít know what a peck is) of really good Roma tomatoes, beefsteaks and Purple Cherokees, all my faves. I grilled some and smoked others.

I would pull this or that container out later in the year to make spaghetti or eggplant Parmesan, or to add to chili, and Iíd enjoy a reminder of summer past. At this writing, I have five containers left. Theyíll be gone by the time tomato season rolls around.

I did the same thing with corn and peaches.

You can and should do the same thing with whatever you like. Not only are the foods cheaper and tastier than what you get in the frozen foods section of your supermarket, but how else can you open a plastic container and enjoy an intoxicating whiff of summer?

Rule No. 6

Donít think, just do

One of the best things about using the entire grill is that you create a sort of restaurant in your kitchen. Youíll end up with foods that you can experiment with. You might grill a red bell pepper, not knowing exactly what you intend to do with it. You only know that you like grilled red bell pepper. Next thing you know, youíre adding half of it to corn and black beans for a salad and the other half to ratatouille.

You will also end up with foods that you can use at a momentís inspiration. Earlier this year, I grilled broccoli rabe while I was cooking other things. I didnít plan on eating it that night. But a day later, I had a friend over for smoked pork ribs and an antipasto composed of the vegetables Iíd grilled the day before, including the rabe. The following morning, I chopped some into an omelet. For lunch two days later, I made one of my favorite sandwiches, broccoli rabe with sharp provolone on hoagie bread.

That multiple use and the ability to improvise makes using the entire grill one of the joys of summer grilling. Or, as the old maxim, sometimes attributed to Picasso, goes, "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."

Even if Picasso didnít say it, that doesnít mean you canít live it. At least in summer.