10 Chef-Approved Tricks to Master the Grill This Summer
Coal-roasted oysters, charred corn empanadas and ember-cooked prawns are just some of the mouth-watering summer dishes you'll find in Around the Fire, the new cookbook from Portland, Oregon–based chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton.
On Monday, you'll have a chance to taste those dishes and others when the chefs (best known as the masterminds behind Argentine restaurant Ox) host a pop-up dinner event at Terrine with Kris Morningstar.
Ahead of the event and in celebration of all things summer, L.A. Weekly asked the two chefs to spill their best tip and tricks for producing beautifully grilled creations — even if all you've got is the charcoal grill in your yard.
1. Patience is a virtue — and a culinary weapon.
“Patience is the biggest key when it comes to grilling.” Denton says. “A lot of people want to start it up and throw whatever on the grill and then take it off.” But this hasty kind of grilling can lead to less-than-stellar results: Take the time to prepare, clean, oil and allow your grill to properly heat up before flinging a steak on it, and your tastebuds will thank you for it.
2. Fire it up — but just half of it.
“One important element that we find really lends itself to successful grilling is building a fire off to one side of the grill so you have a really high heat zone," Quiñónez Denton says. This technique of creating varying heat on the grill allows for more control. If something you're cooking flares up, you've got another part of the grill to place it instead. “It also kind of widens your possibilities of items that you can cook on the grill without worrying about over-charing the outside before you’ve cooked the inside," she says.
3. Use your grill like an oven.
So you've mastered the art of creating different heat sections of your grill? Great! Now it's time for the fun stuff. Cover larger items like whole chickens and pork shoulders to insulate them and trap the heat. “And if you don’t have a lid for your grill, you can always use a really large metal bowl," Quiñónez Denton says.
4. Brine and baste with a secret weapon.
The Argentine cooking at OX is always done over a wood-fired grill, but that doesn't mean you can't grill up killer prawns or a rack of lamb even with a simple charcoal or gas grill. You'll get the same grill marks and flavors, but you'll likely miss out on the complex smoky elements. How to make up for it? Try "coaxing out flavor" (yes, coaxing) from your food by basting it with a secret weapon: black gold sauce.
At Ox, the chefs make their secret weapon using the rendered fats and juices that get trapped in the grill — then they add herbs and garlic. Don't have rendered fats and juices? Don't sweat it: Substitute olive oil or butter instead. “Throw your favorite aromatics in there, such as fresh thyme, oregano, basil, green onions and garlic, and then warm it up so that all of those flavors start to release,” says Quiñónez Denton. And that is how you coax the flavor.
5. Make your own sauces.
The very first recipe in Around the Fire is for the black gold sauce; the second is for Ox's chimichurri. If their top billing in the book gives you any indication, sauce is important. And the homemade kind can go a long way toward elevating your grilling game.
6. Think outside the meat.
Grilling is about so much more than just meat, and the recipes in Around the Fire prove it again and again. “There are just as many if not more fish and vegetable dishes from the grill in this cookbook," Quiñónez Denton says. "Vegetables transform beautifully on the grill. Whether you expose them to quick high heat just to get a really nice char or even nestled straight into the coals, it really coaxes out all kinds of greatness, juiciness and flavor." Again with the coaxing. It's important, people.
7. Use lesser-known cuts.
Want to switch up your grilling game? Try using lamb shoulder chops instead of rack of lamb, fish tails instead of filet and spicy morcilla sausage instead of spicy Italian sausage. The chefs aren't just trying to send you on a wild goose (or lamb) chase to every butcher shop in town; they suggest these substitutions simply test better.
"It’s the tastiest parts of fish and meat. Shoulder cuts for meat is generally one of our favorite cuts. When it comes to tails and collars and necks of fish, the more skin-to-bone-to flesh ratio, the more tender and juicy the piece of fish is going to be." Denton explains.
And for anyone who has ever struggled to achieve that perfect medium-rare on the grill, these cuts will be your new best friend. "They’re better cooked medium, medium-well. So the pressure and the stress of nailing a perfect medium-rare or a perfect medium isn’t really there."
But they're not aren't always the easiest to find. Denton suggests seeking out a good butcher — or at least building a relationship with an expert at your local grocery store.
8. Ditch the lighter fluid.
What's the most common mistake grilling novices make? Dousing the whole thing in lighter fluid. “I'm not a huge fan of dousing my food in chemicals," Denton says. "You’re basically spreading that chemical around the fire, the barbecue itself and the grill grates. That flavor is going to come off onto your food."
9. Get salty.
If lighter fluid is something you should shy away from, then salt is the thing you should always add more of. "Generally for larger cuts, you have to be pretty aggressive when it comes to salt," Denton says. Aggression might not be the greatest personality trait, but it can do wonders for your food.
10. Save your veggies.
“You get such great green vegetables in the spring and summertime, all kinds of great snap peas and green beans. I think people are a little reticent to throw them on the grill because they know there’s a good chance they will slip right through the grates," Quiñónez Denton says. Never fear — use a grill basket to sauté your vegetables over the fire, or simply place a metal cooling rack across the grates of the grill to allow items like prawns, scallops, strawberries and raspberries to stay on top.
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton cook from Around the Fire on Monday, June 20, from 5:30 to 11 p.m. $55 prix fixe menu, reservations encouraged. Terrine, 8265 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove; (323) 746-5130, terrinela.com
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