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Cooking For Fun
The Essential Grilling Guide
Marlena Spieler (May 13, 1998, San Francisco Chronicle)

Every year I get the same frisson of excitement when the days begin to lengthen and warm. Tender evenings spent outdoors surrounded by friends, with a glass of something refreshing in my hand and lots of enticing food sizzlingover the fire: It's the promise of a delicious summer.

Grilling is our most ancient cooking technique. It's adventurous and fun -- and easy -- but it can also produce wonderfully sophisticated foods. The key ingredient, of course, is smoke. This aromatic, slightly bitter taste adds complexity and a new dimension to whatever cooks within it.

Here's a quick guide to a summer's worth of grilling.

There's no particular technique to master -- just some common sense, mainly about safety and about keeping flavors clear and simple. You should try not to burn things -- but, truth to tell, a little burnt edge here and there is great to nibble on, even if you have to do it secretly. I find there are never quite enough of these little morsels to go around, and of course they're the prerogative of the cook.


Gas grills are easy to use and fast to start -- and the results can be terrific, especially if you use intriguing marinades. But the old-fashioned charcoal grill -- which most of us use -- gives the smokiest, most evocative flavors.


--Open-Top Grills. Hibachis and disposable grills are good for anything that needs quick searing, such as thin cuts of meat, sausages or fish. They're not good for large meats that need long, slow cooking, such as ribs.

--Covered or Kettle Barbecue. These have a domed lid that limits the air supply, so food cooks more slowly. Heat can be controlled by opening and closing the vents in the cover and in the base of the pan.


--Kindling. Twist newspapers into tight rolls; place in the bottom of the fuel grate, then lay dry twigs or sticks on top. Top with a mound of coals, leaving air spaces between coals. Light the newspaper with a long safety match, and add more charcoal, piece by piece, as the fire grows.

--Fire Lighters. These handy little cubes of starter fuel give a quick, hot boost to briquets. Arrange charcoal into a pyramid on the fuel grate, and place fire lighter between the coals. Light with a long safety match.

--Lighter Fluid. Heap the coals into a pyramid and sprinkle a liberal amount of lighter fluid over them. Allow the fluid to soak in for a couple of minutes. Put the fluid away before lighting the coals. Light with a taper or long safety match. NEVER squirt flammable liquid onto an already lit fire.

--Electric Starter. Plug the electric starter into the nearest electrical outlet and set on fuel grid; arrange coals on top in a small heap. Within a few minutes the element will glow red hot and the coals will ignite. Remove starter and let cool before storing.

--Fire Chimney. Pack the base of the fire chimney's cylinder with newspaper, then place on grate. Fill the top section with coals, then light the newspaper through the holes in the bottom of the chimney. Within five to 10 minutes, some coals will glow red; when all are glowing, put on a fireproof glove and carefully pick up the fire chimney by its wooden handle. Tip the coals onto the grate, using tongs to spread them out.


Generally coals are ready 40 to 60 minutes after lighting. To keep it going, add a new handful of charcoal every 20 minutes or so, depending on how long and how much you need to cook.


You've started your fire, your coals are hot. But you need to look closely at those coals to know when to cook what on the grill. Here's what to look for:

--Red-Hot Coals. The flames have subsided, the coals are glowing red with a light dusting of white ash. Foods placed over these coals will cook quickly and can burn on the outside while staying raw inside. Sear meat cuts over red-hot coals to seal in the flavor, or cook lean cuts such as fish fillets.

--Medium-Hot Coals. A thicker white ash now covers the coals, and the intense heat has begun to subside. This temperature suits most foods. If food starts to burn, move it to the outer edges of the grill, which are usually cooler.

--Cool Coals. Coals no longer show any red at all and are covered with a thick layer of ash. Vegetables and fruit can be warmed on the grill with just a light charring of their skin to give them a smoky flavor. If you can hold your hand over the grill for about eight seconds, the coals are cool enough for slow cooking.


Put a foil drip pan in the center of the fuel grid. Arrange coals around the edges of the pan, making sure they aren't stacked higher than its sides. Light coals normally; when ready, put food above drip pan on the grill. This is best for whole poultry or large cuts of meat that you'll be semi-smoking, or cooking with the lid down. Add water, broth or wine to the pan and replenish as necessary during cooking. Skim off fat and serve juices with the bird or roast.


Marinades have a lot of roles: keeping food moist and juicy, tenderizing food and adding extra flavor.

The basic formula: An acidic ingredient (wine, vinegar, citrus or tropical fruit juices, yogurt) for tenderizing; a fat (such as olive oil or Asian sesame oil) to seal in juices and keep the exterior from getting dry; and flavorings (spices,
fresh herbs, chopped onions and/or garlic, plus prepared sauces such as soy, pesto or tandoori) to permeate the food with flavor.

Each of these makes enough for about 2 pounds of food:

--Olive Oil-Rosemary Marinade. Combine 3-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, juice of 1/2 lemon, 3-5 cloves coarsely chopped garlic, 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, salt and black pepper to taste.

Marinate for 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

For zucchini, parboiled potatoes, peppers, artichokes, chicken, fish, pork, veal.

--Mexican Red Chile and Citrus Marinade. Combine 5 chopped garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons ground red chile, 1 teaspoon cumin (or more to taste), large pinch oregano, juice of 1 orange and 1 lime or lemon, the rind of 1/2 orange, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar.

Marinate for at least an hour, up to 2 days.

For whole or large pieces of fish, chicken, pork, lamb, shellfish.

--Red Wine. Red wine brings out the best of lean cuts of beef and lamb, enhancing the meat rather than masking it, and keeping it delightfully juicy. Combine 4 tablespoons wine, 4 tablespoons olive oil, 2 finely chopped shallots, 2finely chopped garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herb of choice (rosemary or thyme is good) and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

--Cilantro-Mint Masala Marinade. Combine cloves from 1 head of garlic, coarsely chopped; 3 tablespoons each of yogurt and lemon or lime juice; 1 teaspoon each of cumin, turmeric, coriander, curry powder or garam masala; seeds of 5 cardamom pods; 1/3 cup olive oil; salt and pepper to taste.

Marinate for 30 minutes to overnight.

Especially good on lamb kebabs, chicken breasts or big shrimp in their shells.

--Teriyaki. A long marinade in a sweetened seasoned soy sauce- based mixture makes almost irresistible noshing. Combine 1/4 cup each of soy sauce, Asian sesame oil, dry sherry or rice wine; 2 tablespoons sugar; 3 green onions, chopped; 3 garlic cloves, chopped; and 1-2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger. Marinate for up to 2 to 3 days.

Use on any meat, poultry or fish, but it's especially good for little chicken drummettes.


Marinades aren't the only way to add flavor to grilled foods. Dry rubs, pastes and glazes all do the same job -- in different ways.

Dry rubs are great for long- cooked foods that are fatty enough to hold in their own moisture. Ribs are terrific with a dry rub: The spices permeate the meat for the long fire- roasting, and the dry spice rub leaves the meat crisp and crusty. Dry rubs can be applied to meats well before cooking, so the flavors can permeate the meat, or they can be added right before grilling.

A dry rub can be turned into a paste with the addition of a small amount of liquid -- oil, yogurt, fruit juice, vinegar or some combination of these.

Glazes are similar to pastes but are sweet, often based on chutneys or jams, combined with tangy ingredients such as mustard or vinegar. They must be used at the very end of cooking because the sugar in the glaze quickly chars and burns.

--Cajun Dry Rub. Combine 2 tablespoons paprika; 1 tablespoon each of cumin, thyme, onion powder, garlic powder, oregano; 1 teaspoon each of black pepper, cayenne pepper; salt to taste.

--Texas Dry Rub. Combine 2 tablespoons paprika; 1 teaspoon each of thyme, mustard powder, garlic pow der, salt, chili powder; pinch powdered ginger, if desired.

--Mediterranean Sage Paste. Blend together 5 chopped garlic cloves, 2-3 tablespoons chopped sage leaves, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar or dry white wine, 1 tablespoon ouzo (optional), and salt and pepper to taste.

--Mexican Chili Paste. Mix together 5 chopped garlic cloves, 4 tablespoons chili powder, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon salt, about 2-3 tablespoons beer and/or orange juice.

--Mango Chutney-Mustard Glaze. Combine 3 tablespoons mango chutney, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon orange marmalade or apricot jam, several drops hot sauce and lemon or lime juice.


--Balsamic Vinegar. Delicious sprinkled judiciously over rich meats such as grilled lamb or duck.

--Salsa. Personalize good storebought salsa with a sprinkling of cilan tro, cumin, chopped onions, or -- my favorite -- nopales.

--Pesto-Tomato Relish. Combine equal parts of a good storebought pesto with diced ripe tomatoes.

--Caper Mayonnaise. Add capers to taste to storebought mayonnaise, with a bit of chopped garlic or green onion if desired. Serve with grilled artichokes and/or fish.

--Tandoori Paste. The Patak brand tandoori paste is marvelous, tangy and flavorful. I use it from the jar, or lightened with a little yogurt, smearing it onto chicken breasts for chicken tikka, tofu for a delicious tofu tikka kebab, or lamb. Grill and serve with yogurt mixed with mint, cilantro and ginger.

-- Hoisin Sauce. Use as a glaze for duck, chicken, lamb or pork, and/or a dipping sauce, accompanied by whole green onions, sprigs of cilantro and mint, and warm flour tortillas to wrap the grilled meats up. A fatty, tough cut of pork, boiled until tender, then basted with hoisin sauce, is delicious cooked on the barbecue.


To add complexity to your barbecue, add these aromatics to the fire:

--Bunches of dried herbs such as bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, sage, fennel or lavender.

--Seaweed and kelp to impart the tang of the sea to seafood or fish.

--Cinnamon sticks, cloves and other sweet whole spices for an exotic, incenselike aroma.

--Grapevine cuttings -- classic in the Wine Country here, as well as in France and much of the Mediterranean.

--Aromatic wood chips, including mesquite and applewood; soak for 30 minutes before placing atop the coals.


Here are the basic tools that will make your barbecue one hot affair:

--A wire brush to scrape the grill clean.

--Long-handled tongs to move coals and turn food.

--Long-handled double-pronged fork to put food on the grill and to test doneness. Don't poke meats too much, as juices leak out.

--Clean platter for finished foods. To ensure food safety, don't return cooked food to the platter it sat on when raw, and don't reuse uncooked marinades.

--Basting brush, either a standard one for kitchen use or a ``disposable'' one that adds flavor: a big bouquet of herbs such as bay leaves or rosemary, tied together with string, or a large leek with its greens cut lengthwise into fronds.

--Hinged basket, invaluable for grilling fish or small vegetables.

--Meat thermometer when you're cooking large roasts in a covered kettle grill.

--Spray bottle to put down flareups.


--Lump charcoal. Made from whole pieces of wood, this is the very best of barbecue fuels: It burns clean and hot, and imparts the scent of the wood it's made from.

-- Briquettes. In addition to wood, briquettes contain sawdust, coal and sand, all bound together in a petroleum base. They burn longer than lump charcoal.

-- Wood. It's not only hard to start (and may be damp) but it also burns more quickly than charcoals. Apple, cherry, maple and hickory all produce a lovely scented smoke, however; for flavor, use a little on a briquette-based fire.


Fish is fragile and can fall apart easily when cooked on the grill. A fish basket is great; it keeps the fish together and you simply turn the whole basket, cooking directly on the grill. But leaves -- such as vine, banana, corn husks or unsprayed citrus leaves -- are good to wrap up fish; they give a lovely, subtle aroma and eliminate the need for a basket.

--Whole Fish or Steaks. Cook over hot coals for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Whole or large pieces of fish should be cooked in a fish basket to keep it intact; turn halfway through cooking. Make several large slashes on theoutside of a whole fish to help the fish cook evenly and to let smoke permeate the flesh.

--Fillets. Cook 2-3 minutes per side (best in a hinged fish basket).

--Kebabs. Cook over medium-hot coals for about 5 minutes per side, depending on the heat of the fire.

--Large Shrimp. Skewer and cook over hot coals for 5-8 minutes per side.

--Clams and Mussels. Cook over hot coals, wrapped in foil or covered so the heat can circulate and pop open the bivalves. Allow 8-10 minutes for mussels, slightly longer for clams.

--Lobster and Crab. Both need to be killed, then split and cleaned prior to grilling. Grill until shells turns bright red and flesh is opaque, about 3-4 minutesper side for crabs, and 6-8 minutes per side for lobster.


-- Loin or Rib Chops. For 1-inch-thick chops, sear both sides, then cook over medium-hot coals for 6-8 minutes per side.

--Spareribs. Cook -- preferably covered, over indirect heat -- over medium-hot coals until tender, about 1 to 2 hours for back ribs. Alternatively, parboil the ribs,then barbecue them over hot coals, covered or uncovered, for about 10 minutes per side.

--Kebabs. Cook for about 5-6 minutes per side over medium coals, covered or uncovered.

--Sausage. Allow about 6 or 7 minutes per side, and check to make sure they'recooked through. (Same for beef and poultry sausage.)


--Hamburgers. Cook over medium-hot coals, allowing about 10 minutes per sidefor well done. (If your family insists on rare, which is no longer considered safe,you can lessen the time.) Initial searing is a good way to get a nice, smoky,crusty exterior.

--Steaks. Sear 1 minute per side, then cook 4 minutes on each side for rare, 6-7for medium and 8 minutes for well done.

--Beef Kebabs. Medium-hot coals for 3-4 minutes per side for rare, up to 6-7 minutes for well done.

--Skirt Steaks (or the original fajita). Cook this cut whole over medium-hot coals for about 4-5 minutes per side, until it is browned on the outside but rare on the  inside.

--Whole Fillet. A 2- to 3-pound fillet should take about 20 minutes total cookingtime, with the barbecue covered; turn now and then. Let rest on a platter about10 minutes before cutting and serving.


-- Chops. For 1 1/2-inch-thick chops, sear and cook over medium-hot coals for  4-5 minutes per side for rare, 5 minutes for medium, and up to 8 for well done.

--Butterflied Leg of Lamb. Indirect cooking is an excellent way to grill this, and  it provides drippings for sauce. Cook over hot coals, covered, about 20 minutes on each side. You want the outside brown and slightly charred, the inside still pink or rosy, according to taste. Cooking time is about 40 minutes total.

--Lamb Breast or Ribs. Best cooked indirectly and covered, over medium or low coals, for about 1-1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is crisply browned on the outside and much of the fat has melted away. Discard drippings.


To test for doneness in poultry, stick a metal skewer or fork with long prongsinto the deepest part of the flesh; the juices should run clear, not pink.

--Mixed Chicken Parts. Sear pieces on both sides over hot coals, then cook over medium coals, turning occasionally. Dark meat takes about 30 minutes,white meat 15. To finish cooking simultaneously, put the dark meat on first, then add the breast meat.

--Boned Chicken Breasts. Cook quickly over medium-hot coals for about 2-3 minutes per side, depending on their size. Test for doneness.

--Chicken Halves. Cook, covered, over medium-hot coals for 30 minutes. It's not necessary to turn the meat.

--Whole Chicken. Cook, covered, over moderate heat for about 1 1/2 hours. A meat thermometer should reach 170 degrees when inserted in the fleshy part ofa thigh (do not let it touch bone).

--Chicken Wings. Cook directly over hot or medium-hot coals for about 10 minutes per side. For the crispiest edges and most delectable eating, cut into 2 pieces -- the little wing part and the tiny drummette -- and discard the third joint.

--Spatchcocked Chicken. Spatchcocking means splitting the bird down its backbone and flattening by pressing on it with the palm of your hand. Thismakes the chicken flat; it can be cooked directly on the barbecue as quickly and evenly as a half chicken.

--Duck Breasts. Sear 1 minute per side, then cook 3-4 minutes on each side for rare, 5-6 for medium and 6-8 minutes for well-done, depending on size. Toserve, slice thinly across the grain; duck breasts can be chewy.

--Duck Halves. Cook, covered, if possible, for about 30 minutes. No need to turn the meat. Indirect heat is an excellent way to cook duck, and you have a nice little sauce for afterward.

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