Grilling is one of those things that everyone tends to like and that many people think they’re experts at. I’ve never purported to be a grill master. I haven’t owned a grill in years, in part due to not living somewhere with an outdoor space. The only grill I’ve ever had has been a classic Weber charcoal type–usually of the smaller, square variety so it can fit on an outdoor deck space in an urban area.
And I’ve definitely been known to make some, what I know now, to be major grilling mistakes in the past, usually in the form of not having enough charcoal to cook large quantities of food for entertaining, which sort of puts a damper on the entertaining. According to Chef O., one batch of charcoal has about 45 minutes of life to give–beyond that, you’ve gotta feed the flame! Which should have seemed like a logical conclusion based on some of the mishaps I’ve had in the past. One time when some former roommates of mine and I had about 10 or 12 people over for a barbecue in Boston, I ended up having to finish a bunch of chicken kebabs on the stove because we didn’t have enough flame to cook enough food for 15 on the 20″ square Weber. Der.
It also had to do with the fact that I’d taken up at least a half hour of my charcoal’s precious, but short, life sweating an eggplant to make baba ganoush. Cook’s Illustrated has a great baba ganoush recipe using grilled eggplant that I simply had to make since we had decided on a kebab-y, Middle Eastern-y theme for the barbecue. Once you have your coals ready, you just put the eggplant, whole, onto the grill and let it sit for 20-30 minutes until it goes from a firm bulb to a wilty mush–like a balloon that’s a couple days past it’s helium fill–wrinkly and pliable. Once cool, break open the skin and scoop out the pulp. Add garlic (good to also roast for more roasty, toasty goodness–can do on said grill in foil with olive oil), tahini, salt, pepper, a little cumin, stir. Yum. Grilling the eggplant gives the baba ganoush a really smoky quality and depth of flavor you just don’t get in regular store-bought baba ganouh or even most resto varieties.
Anyway, as we learned early on in our sauté and stir fry class at KoF, attempts to put too much food volume onto any surface are a recipe for failure, including failure at grilling. That is unless you add more coals along the way or you go the gas route. A good way to remedy this is to have a chimney on hand so if you do have a lot of food to grill, you can be prepping a fresh batch of coals while grilling the first batch of whatever it is you’re cooking. That way you also don’t have to deal with the wait time it would take to pour new coals onto an existing fire, which just sort of makes a mess and still takes a lot of time because you have to attempt to get the new coals to catch some embers from the existing ones, etc., etc., etc. Of course, this was how we attempted to fix our problem of dying embers and heat at our failed barbecue, which just ended in a bunch of people, mostly the guys in attendance, standing around the grill staring at the grill and trying to problem solve. “You have to do this…” “No, you have to do that.” “No, try this…” And then you just feel like a fool for being a woman and having lost the grilling gene somewhere along the evolutionary process because you were a gatherer not a hunter and now even your supposedly inherent hostess gene was giving out, so you just give up and go finish the kebabs by stir frying them on the stove.
Which, I’m pleased to say, was actually the right thing to do! Chef O. suggests that any time you’re grilling in volume, say for entertaining, you grill only enough to get some nice grill marks on your protein source and then finish it off in the oven so you can enjoy your party and not stress about being a bad hostess. I like it! If I’d only known this trick years ago! I could have avoided having my hostess complex rear its ugly head that day. He says that anytime he has a barbecue, he just marks the food in advance and lets it bake to finish–you can even do this earlier in the day. You still get the flavor, but less of the hassle. And you can enjoy your party and not be running around trying to live up to some Martha Stewart ideal of hostess-isicity.
So, it was good to found out I dealt with grill fail the right way and also get some good tips for how to better cook over open flame in the grill class. Chef O. also recommends using indirect heat for many things–particularly veggies, fish, chicken–things with less mass that won’t stand up as well to being directly over a flame. This is because, unlike stoves, the flames can get to temps upwards of 800 degrees or more (even up to like 1300 degrees–ouch!), so things are going to char fast and you have to take care not to overcook and have your protein, especially, seize up and turn into a brick that you wouldn’t want to eat anyway. Direct flame is a bit better for larger cuts of meat–or you can arrange your coals so that you have an area with more coals for marking and less coals for cooking through. You can go halfsies on this on each side of your kettle.
Grilled Romaine Salad
Ever since my work colleagues and I did a team-building cooking class where we smoked romaine lettuce for a salad a couple years ago, I’ve been sort of intrigued by the concept of grilling lettuce.
So it made me pretty happy to see some romaine on the counter in class for grilling. Our text book has a recipe for grilled romaine with a classic 70s green goddess dressing that I’d like to try at some point, but since I want to try to get away from using recipes in class and I tend to never really follow any recipe to a T anyway, I decided to make my own grilled salad for class yesterday. Since I’ve grilled meats plenty of times before, as well as individual veggies like zucchinis and eggplants, I wanted to stick with my mantra of trying things in class I haven’t done before.
Since, unlike meat, veggies don’t have fat, fat does need to be added to them before grilling. This is easily taken care of by brushing them with a little oil. Same goes for a bunch of romaine. To grill romaine, first cut off the top leaves to a point where the lettuce is less likely to fall apart or burn when placed on a grill. Then slice in half lengthwise, leaving the core end in tact. Brush or squirt some oil over the inside of the leaves. Place on the grill–you only need a couple of minutes for them to be done, and you only need to do one side.
Slice some bread and also brush with oil–grill the bread until you get some nice grill marks on them and they toast enough to make for a semi-crunchy crouton. Cut into large crouton chunks.
Once cool, cut the romaine halves into strips and add the grilled croutons. I decided to also add a bit of tomato to the salad, but I suggest going light on the tomato so that the bread doesn’t get soggy from the tomato juice and seeds. Then toss the whole mixture with about a tablespoon of white truffle oil, drizzled over the mixture and a splash of sherry vinegar (not so much as you’d use for a regular salad dressing, very little of both the oil and especially the vinegar will do–you don’t want to lose the truffle flavor from adding too much vinegar). Add salt and pepper. Toss everything together and plate. Shave parmesan on top.
Additional toppers–if you want to make this more of a meal than a side–could include more grilled items. I added some grilled portabello to the plates pictured here. Grilled steak, chicken or even shrimp, I think, would also be excellent.
After grilling lettuce once, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go back to eating it plain. Just think of the possibilities–grilled caesar, grilled baby romaine wedges, that grilled romaine and that green goddess. I could even see a grilled iceberg wedge salad drizzled with blue cheese, tomato and bacon.
I may just become a grill girl after all…