Editor’s note: This story originally published in The Bee in May 2012.
Ah yes, the savory smoke wafting from backyards and other outdoor environs signals that outdoor grilling season is well underway. And we’re especially spoiled in the Sacramento area, given that we can grill outdoors for more than half the year.
As much as a well-slathered rack of ribs, smoked salmon or beer can chicken sounds great right about now, let’s not limit the grill to items that once walked or swam. From fruits and vegetables to pizzas and even desserts, plenty of foods benefit from outdoor grilling.
Plus, vegetables work especially well to balance a hefty feast of slow-cooked meats and sauces. For Adam Perry Lang, author of “Charred & Scruffed” (Artisan Books, $24.95. 280 pages), bitter greens are a must when it comes to a barbecue meal.
“The traditional style of barbecue tends to be rich in collagen, very rich in fat, and you need contrast,” said Lang, who’s worked at Michelin-starred restaurants and won top honors on the competitive barbecue circuit.
“Otherwise, you’re just eating and filling yourself – what I call ‘no break in the action.’ Bitter accentuates in a positive way. Beer goes well with barbecue because it has that hoppy bitterness.”
Lang likes to complement his barbecues with charred radicchio with sweet-and-sticky balsamic and bacon. The bacon-wrapped radicchio goes directly on the grill, with the resulting char emphasizing the radicchio’s bitter nature. Add the balsamic’s tang and some savory bacon, and you’ll find a wide flavor profile in a small bite.
“It absorbs into those crevices,” Lang said. “This is the seesaw of flavors, and I feel like (bitter greens) also kind of help digestion in a way.”
Other kinds of leafy vegetables work, too. Romaine and iceberg lettuce, endive and even dandelion greens are sturdy enough to hold up on a heated grill.
On the sweeter side, plenty of fruits can benefit from a little charring. Pineapple’s a popular option, along with mango, pear and other fairly sturdy fruits. For Tanya Steel, editor in chief of the popular food and recipe site Epicurious.com, stone fruits are a go-to item for the grill.
“Stone fruits like peaches and plums are generally the best thing to use on the grill,” Steel said. “But with fruits and anything soft, you really have to man the grill. Be on top of things, whether it’s a soft vegetable or fish. It’s about putting it on a medium flame and standing over it, because it can break apart easily. And just like meats, when you take fruit off the grill, let it sit for a few minutes so the juices can re-collect.”
Grilling purists might balk at using any other fuel than wood or charcoal. But with grilled fruits and some vegetables, the goal is to produce char and carmelization rather than soak up a bunch of smoky flavors. In this case, propane grills might be the better option.
“This is the one time when gas is preferable to charcoal,” Steel said. “The bad thing about gas is that it doesn’t impart flavor, but the good thing about gas is that it doesn’t impart flavor. Charcoal is good for meats and gas is perfect for fruits and vegetables. Always make sure your grill grates are really clean. There’s nothing worse than tasting charred burger on peaches.”
For those who crave protein but don’t want to go the meat route, grilled tofu does the trick. First, give your grate a coat of oil before adding tofu. And to ensure your tofu doesn’t end up a goopy mess on the grill, opt for the extra-firm. Giving the tofu a good soak in marinade will also give a much needed flavor. On its own, grilled tofu will taste like a hunk of “blah” with some grill marks.
“I’m all for giving tofu as much flavor as you can,” Steel said. “It’s great to eat, but flavorless without doing anything to it. Marinating with miso is great. One thing we love to do is grill tofu and put it in pita pockets with vegetables. It tastes like a creamy, slightly charred sandwich.”
Or consider popping a pizza on the grill. While controlling temperature can be trickier on a grill than in an oven, with the right oversight you’ll get a crisp crust and pleasing char – not to mention some smoky overtones that’ll go well with meat toppings. If you’re in the market for a quality store-bought pizza that works well on a grill, look for the line of cornmeal crust pizzas from Vicolo.
Either way, don’t be afraid to give the bottom of that pizza a little burn.
“Burnt is good, burnt works,” said Lang about pizza. “When you go into some of the great pizzas, it’s that burn that’s beyond carmelized that just gives it traction.”
And after all those flame-kissed fruits, veggies and pizza, might as well cap the meal with some grilled desserts. How about chocolate sundaes with grilled bananas, or plums with honey-lemon yogurt?
Steel raves over a grilled poundcake recipe by noted barbecue author Steven Raichlen that’s featured on Epicurious, which comes with pineapple salsa and tequila whipped cream.
“It’s incredibly easy,” said Steel. “You just put a little butter on the poundcake and rotate it on the grill, and dollop with the pineapple salsa.”
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253.