The Grill’s No Thrill

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in: Technique

Unlike most Americans with a deck, yard or ledge on a tall building, I. Don’t. Grill.

The sauté pan is so much more highly evolved. It keeps my beloved butter and sauce right where I put it — no grate for the butter to fall though and drip onto a Dante-esque horror that returns it to my nostrils as acrid smoke.

I consider grilling horribly violent, especially on poor, delicate fish. With a quick sauté, I’m spared even a hint of smoke, char or wood.

“At least you have a good reason for not grilling,” says Stanford-educated Jamie Purviance, whose degree is in economics. For many years, he has freelanced cookbooks for the Weber Corporation. His latest, “Time to Grill,” is his eighth for Weber. Purviance is also a chef — a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley — with a love of all cooking, even sautéing.

“I understand creating the fond in the pan, the deglazing,” he tells me sympathetically, teasing out the possibility I can become a regular griller.

I call myself a non-griller, but of course, every now and then, I drag out the kettle grill — OK, who are we kidding, it’s a Weber — and grill some steaks. It’s always an experience that reminds me to stay indoors.

I reluctantly leave a functioning kitchen and go outside. Outside in Sacramento, Calif., in summer is not a synonym for national park. Flies and 100-degree heat hang in the air long into a Central Valley evening.

I drag a 50-pound bag of filthy charcoal and blacken my hands trying to aim tumbling coals into a chimney-style charcoal starter. I ball up two sheets of the local newspaper, light them under the chimney as instructed, and wait — tum-dee-dee — for their flames to light the coals.

When the coals are white hot, that’s when they want you to start fooling with them. I assign equal piles on opposite sides of the grill as sparks fly and I am mummified in smoke. After I’ve salved my first burn of the evening, I ask my husband, a chef, to finish the job. I already want to wash my hair.

I’m in a minority in a country where 71 percent of Americans own an outdoor grill, according to Weber’s latest survey. Some people even own industrially-vented indoor grills, or they “grill” in cast-iron pans with hot ridges that decorate meat with cross hatches, as if branding cattle. Purviance says America’s love affair with outdoor grilling has spread to Germany, the Netherlands and England.

A carginogenic inferno

What’s wrong with me that I’m not thrilled by the grill?

Could my resistance be a natural defense against polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) lurking in dripped fat hitting the inferno below and reattaching themselves to the food as cancer-causing smoke?

The American Cancer Society says well-done or charred meats pose the highest potential cancer risk. High temperatures break down an amino acid, creatine, found in meats, and form something called heterocyclic amines (HAs).

Purviance is aware of the cancer studies, saying excessive blackening — burning — is undesirable both for health and palate. He takes the long view. The discovery of fire was an advancement that enlarged our food choices. Fire transformed dangerous and inedible raw food into safely cooked things to eat, which sustained the human race — smoke and all.

But I’m not convinced. “Smoke seems like a culinary imperfection to me,” I tell Purviance.

“You must have been subjected to an intense level of barbecue smoke early in life and developed a sensitivity to bitterness,” he suggests.

‘Smoke can change your life’

Indeed, my mother was a griller.

Built into a gas line that ran under our Texas patio rose a tall pipe upon which perched my mother’s chief appliance, a Charmglow gas grill. Next to the grill was her batterie de cuisine de grille — potholders, tongs and a squirt bottle of water.

Just cooking beef to the family’s desired doneness of medium rare, the first drip of fat caused a conflagration. She’d turn down the temperature and close the lid. We could tell by the seeping smoke that our medium-rare meat would be served in a sweater of black char.

Purviance never experienced food engulfed in flames because his mother never grilled. He began to enjoy grilling in his 30s. That’s when he traveled to Indonesia and fell in love with grilling traditions of Southeast Asia. “Grilling was associated with lots of good things, exploring other cultures and flavors,” he says.

Purviance is sticking with smoke and hopes I return to the outdoor grill this summer. He notes that new grill models have a stainless steel bar for fats and juices to drip on. You get a smoke effect without the flare-up.

Other ways to prevent char and overly smoked food are to raise the grate higher above the fuel and to cook at a bit lower temperature.

“Smoke can change your life,” Purviance says. “It’s a distinctive flavor I want again and again. If it’s not there, it’s almost as if the salt is missing.”

As for me, there’s always that sauté pan if too much smoke gets in my eyes.

Asparagus, tomatoes and feta

Here is a recipe from “Time to Grill.” The recipes are organized around the idea of time. The first version is doable in 15 minutes. The second version is more adventurous, takes a bit more time, but with no more than 30 minutes of prep.

Bursting with flavor, this easy asparagus salad with juicy tomatoes and creamy cheese makes a great addition to a weekend brunch with eggs. Although it’s most delicious warm, the salad can be assembled ahead of time and dressed just before serving, which makes it a great choice for a potluck or a picnic. Consider doubling or tripling the recipe for a crowd.

The frittata draws on some of the same ingredients, but they are cooked instead in a nonstick skillet with eggs. This recipe serves as a great template for any grilled frittata. In place of the asparagus or tomatoes, use ready-to-go pantry items such as drained artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes.

Asparagus and Tomato Salad With Feta

Serves 4 to 6

For the vinaigrette

Ingredients

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ pounds asparagus
1 pint cherry tomatoes
3 slices country-style white bread, about 3 ounces total, cut into ½-inch cubes (you should have about 2 cups)
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Directions

  1. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350 F to 450 F) and preheat the grill pan.
  2. In a small bowl whisk the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle and whisk in the oil until it is emulsified.
  3. Remove and discard the tough bottom of each asparagus spear by grasping at each end and bending it gently until it snaps at its natural point of tenderness, usually about two-thirds of the way down the spear.
  4. Spread the asparagus on a large plate. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and turn the spears until they are evenly coated. In a medium bowl toss the tomatoes and bread cubes with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.
  5. Brush the cooking grates clean. Spread the tomatoes and bread cubes in a single layer on the grill pan and lay the asparagus on the cooking grate. Grill over direct medium heat, with the lid closed as much as possible, until the asparagus is tender, the tomatoes begin to soften, and the bread cubes are toasted, turning often. The asparagus will take 6 to 8 minutes and the tomatoes and bread cubes will take 2 to 4 minutes.
  6. Arrange the asparagus on a platter and top with the tomatoes, croutons, feta and chives. Serve with the remaining vinaigrette.

Asparagus, Tomato and Feta Frittata

Serves 6

Ingredients

6 large eggs
¼ cup half-and-half
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano® cheese
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ pound asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
¾ cup crumbled feta cheese

Directions

  1. In a blender whirl the eggs, half-and-half, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper for 10 seconds. Set aside.
  2. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350 F to 450 F) and preheat the skillet on the cooking grate for 3 minutes.
  3. Add the oil to the skillet and then the asparagus; stir briefly. Cook over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, for 2 minutes. Wearing barbecue mitts, remove the skillet from the grill and roll the asparagus around in the skillet so that the oil coats the bottom and sides of the pan evenly.
  4. Place the skillet back on the cooking grate, arrange the asparagus in an even layer, and then scatter the garlic, tomatoes and feta on top of the asparagus.
  5. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet. Grill the frittata over direct medium heat, with the lid closed as much as possible, until the eggs are puffed, browned and firm in the center, about 15 minutes.
  6. Remove from the grill and serve immediately.

Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.

Photo: “Time to Grill.” Credit: Weber Corporation

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