Text by Jennifer Brizzi
As we head into the end of winter, those of us who love to cook and eat outdoors can’t help but get excited about firing up our grills again. Soon the days will stretch longer and fresh breezes will be warm on our skin. The urge to be outdoors means moving the kitchen outside as often as we can. Not only does everything taste better in the fresh air, but food is succulent, smoky and juicy when cooked on the grill.
Luckily, most of the meal can be cooked outdoors, from appetizers to mains to sides, even dessert, since it can be tricky running back and forth from kitchen to grill to put a meal together.
Lots of practice is key to learn how long to cook meat and vegetables until they are perfect, to know when to poke with a finger and when to stab with a knife. And as you grill more and more, you learn tricks for maximizing flavor. Seasoning before cooking is key, even if just salt and pepper. Chef Graziano Tecchio of Graziano’s Mint in Kingston’s Rondout section likes to coat meat before grilling with fine sea salt--“It penetrates better,” he says, plus a “butcher grind” of coarse cracked pepper, and an extra virgin olive oil, just enough to coat, something that “stands up to high heat,” he adds.
With sweet potatoes, which take very well to the smokiness and caramelization of grilling, I add a dusting of Vietnamese cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne to the to the oil, salt and pepper coating.
Brushing food with a marinade or tangy mop improves the flavor even more. In his native Italy, Chef Tecchio remembers brushing flavored oils on meats and vegetables with duck or goose feathers as they sizzled on the grill.
Aromatics in the fire help as well. Big sprays of rosemary and sage grown in your outdoor habitat are not only decorative and evocative, but when thrown on the fire perfume the food. “The oils get released by the heat,” he says.
I like to put special woods in the fire, not just for slow smoking but for quick grilling, too. Generally big chunks are better for low-heat smoldering and smaller chips for quick-cooking items. I use hickory or apple wood under beer-can chicken, hickory, oak or pecan for pork ribs or other pork dishes, cherry for beef or maple for chicken breasts. Some chefs scent grilled foods with hay, grape vine trimmings, wine barrel chips, lemon peels, bay leaves, corncobs or seaweed.
I’m partial to cooking over charcoal in spite of the advance planning and bit of mess required, entirely worth it to me for the fine flavor. Chef Tecchio prefers a charcoal grill, too, uncovered for best air circulation for a quick-cooking dish like his simple, scrumptious rib eyes with Gorgonzola sauce. He sets the grill to cook at medium heat, too low and it won’t get a nice char, he says, too high and it won’t cook right either. In Italy he remembers they didn’t just open a bag of charcoal but would start a few hours ahead, burning their own aromatic woods into carbon.
Fine weather is a great excuse to get out and grill: for flavor, for fun and just for an excuse to be outdoors.
Grilled Rib Eye Steaks with Gorgonzola
Serves 2 hungry steak-lovers
Consider choosing a quality product like local grass-fed beef (don’t overcook), or Angus beef, or even rich-tasting aged steak. Classic blue-veined Gorgonzola from Northern Italy is soft, crumbly, nutty and piquant and stands up beautifully to the hearty beef. Bring steaks and cheese to room temperature before preparing the recipe. Although Graziano prefers a charcoal grill, gas is good too. He serves this luscious dish with grilled baby onions, long peppers and zucchini.
2 10-16 ounce rib eye steaks
¼ cup + 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon coarse-grind black pepper
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 ounces “dolce” Gorgonzola cheese, cut into slices
Trim steaks if necessary. In a small bowl combine ¼ cup olive oil with sliced garlic, bay leaf and ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper. It’s nice if you can do this up to a few hours ahead of time but not necessary. Set aside.
Light coals for grilling. As they heat up, coat steaks with remaining tablespoon of olive oil, remaining ¼ teaspoon of black pepper and sea salt.
When grill is ready, grill steaks on the uncovered grill about three minutes a side for medium rare—this depends on the heat of your grill and how well done you like your steaks. Spray any flare-ups and brush steaks as they cook with the reserved olive oil/garlic mixture.
When done, remove from grill, brush or drizzle with more garlic oil, and top with Gorgonzola slices. Let rest ten minutes and serve, with any remaining garlic oil on the side.
This article is from the Early Summer issue of Outdoor Home Magazine.