Grilling Dinner; A Culinary Pastime

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Here in New Hampshire, the temperature climbs to record highs this time of year. The long, dark winter months are a distant memory, and people start complaining about how HOT it is instead of how COLD it is. New Hampshirites, and New Englanders in general love to complain about the weather no matter how it looks outside, but I digress.

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July is one of my favorite summer months. Camping trips, motorcycle rides, amusement parks, zip-lining and swimming, just to name a few, keep us occupied throughout the long hours of available sunlight. The sunshine breaks us of our winter blues as our once white, pasty skin becomes golden brown and healthy-looking. It’s just a great time of year to be alive. Of course, when it comes to the outdoors, nothing excites me more than firing up the old grill and cooking on my deck. It’s just too hot to use our oven or crank up the saute pans and, besides, cleaning up all that mess when you’re hot and sweaty is never fun. Grilling, not only, keeps us from heating up our already balmy living quarters, but cuts the number of dishes we have to wash! And, let us not forget the spirituality cooking over fire can bring to our lives.

Summer; a great time of year to be alive.

I’ve noticed that there are two types of people who grill; one limits their grill usage to burgers, hot dogs or maybe the occasional chicken breast. Few other things will make their way to those hot grates. The other griller is the hard-core enthusiastic hobbyist. One who can and will cook anything on that thing. From smoked pork butts to grilled steaks and salads to desserts. Nothing is off limits. The grill becomes an extension of their culinary talent, a kitchen in and of itself but more versatile.

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A suitable grill setup is like everything one could ever want in their indoor kitchen but with the added bonus of smoking and charring with wood. The fresh air is a bonus! It becomes so easy to impart that great grilled flavor as well as some wafts of smoke, no wonder it is so popular with home cooks and professional chefs. Tossing in a couple handfuls of water-soaked apple-wood chips onto a pile of white-hot charcoal embers adds a huge amount of nuance, not to mention some envious looks from the neighbors.

…so easy to impart that great grilled flavor as well as some wafts of smoke…

For me, nothing fulfills my outdoor cooking food desires better than a whole chicken. Not only can we feed many hungry friends with one bird, but the leftovers (if you are lucky enough to have any) are great for all sorts of things the next day. Add a few types of summer vegetables, and people will sing your praises behind cold beers and sunblock all for around 20 bucks. While others are using the predictable, I like to wow my dining guests with the extraordinary. This meal beats well-done burgers any day.

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To start off this simple and affordable meal, a trip to the grocery store is in order. But, for a few extra dollars, you could visit your local farm stand and support your area community. Fewer things sing to me better than local chicken and all the freshest produce cooked the day it was picked. Either way, it’s always good to have a plan before making a purchase.

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Let’s start off with the chicken. A nice 5–7 pound roaster is a great size to feed about 4 people. A quick spatchcocking of said bird is the best way to ensure an evenly cooked specimen and will also cut the cook time down considerably. A like a nice dry rub for grilled chicken. The best thing to do in this case is to just grab your favorite brand of “Montreal Chicken Seasoning” and give it a liberal shake front and back. Lay it on a platter, cover it in plastic cling film and let it sit in the fridge for at least an hour, overnight would be ideal.

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Then, let us not forget the side courses. You may be surprised at what is grillable. Pretty much anything that can be cut into a plank can be grilled. Bell peppers, summer squashes and cauliflower are all great candidates. But, let us not forget the hidden rock stars of the grilling vegetable world; corn on the cob, kale, tomatoes, carrots and eggplant are all awesome on the grill. With a little willingness and experimentation, almost anything coming out of the ground in the summer can benefit from some burning embers and a little smoke.

…the hidden rock stars of the grilling vegetables; corn on the cob, kale, tomatoes, carrots and eggplant.

As you may already know, I love to build flavors wherever possible. Adding a little flavor before cooking will make a huge impact. A great way to do this is the use of marinades. Keeping it simple at first is the way to go. Fresh veggies do not need much to make them taste good. A light toss in your favorite bottled Italian dressing is a great start. Cut your vegetables into grill-able pieces about three inch squares, toss them in a large bowl with the dressing until lightly coated and let them sit on the counter for about 30 minutes. Of course, corn and kale can be kept as-is and grilled whole, but let’s focus on these simple planks right now.

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Now that we have our mise en place at the ready, we can now move on to the cooking element. I have always loved and preferred the use of charcoal instead of gas. Yes, it takes a little more time and effort, but well worth it. The difference between wood cooking and gas are phenomenal. You just can’t get the same amount of flavor from a gas flame than you can from coals. “But what about liquid smoke or my favorite “cowboy rub” I bought from my local fishing/ hunting superstore?” you might ask. Well, there may be a use for that in certain places, but for me, it’s really hard to beat charred wood from mother nature.

…it’s really hard to beat charred wood from mother nature.

Starting the coals; using a chimney starter will get the coals started without the use of chemical combustion. Liquid charcoal starters add a flavor that is just not in keeping with respectful, clean eating. With a chimney starter, all one has to do is use a balled up piece of newspaper to start a batch of charcoal. Once the coals are started, pour them off to the side of your charcoal grill. This will give you the ability to “offset cook” and create a nice convection of heat for a slower cooking time and reduce the flare-ups of direct cooking. This and the addition of some water-soaked apple wood chips (which you should have on the ready at least an hour before starting your coals) will also give it a nicer smoke flavor as it will sit above it for a longer period of time. I like to call this “smoke-roasting.”

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Cooking this beast is a lot easier than you might think. It really boils down to heat control. Before you place anything on there to cook, however, make sure your grill grates are clean. A nice wire brush will get any debris off before cooking. Lightly spray on an oil-based cooking spray over the entire grate using caution about excessive flair ups (watch your eyebrows!). Place the seasoned chicken directly over the coals with the skin-side down to give it a nice sear. Place the lid on and allow to sear for about 3–5 minutes. You should have a nice crispy color but not burned. Char is good, burned is not. Carefully flip your bird over onto the flesh side. Cover again and allow to sear for yet another 3–5 minutes. We are building flavors here my fellow culinarians. Once seared, slide the chicken over to the non-coal area and replace the lid. We will now allow the chicken to slowly cook for about 20–30 minutes. This is a great time to toss a handful or two of those fruit wood chips (another personal preference, of course, feel free to use any type of wood chip you’d like) that you had soaking in water earlier. Just place them directly onto your hot white coals. This will create a flavorful smoke that should make your neighbors take note. Try not to disturb the coals or the chicken if you can help yourself. If you notice you are running out of coals, might be a good idea to start another batch in your chimney just in case. If you made a nice batch to begin with, you should not need to use any more coals.

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In about 20 minutes, start checking for doneness with a digital thermometer. Place the probe in the thigh which generally takes the longest to cook. Once the internal temperature reaches 165F, place the bird on a plate and allow to rest there while you grill your veggies.

We are building flavors here my fellow culinarians.

Clean your grates once again with that steel brush. I find it a little easier to move the hot coals over to more center of the grill at this point, adding more hot coals if needed. You will need most/ all of the grilling surface for your vegetables at this point. Also, feel free to add an additional handful of fresh wood chips.

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Place your lightly marinated vegetable planks onto the clean grill grates. Depending on the vegetable and how hot your coals are, cook them for about 3 minutes per side. Place them all nicely on a platter. Place your rested chicken right on top of your veggies, pouring any juices that may have seeped out of the chicken during the resting process. This is valuable flavor we do not want to waste!

…cook your veggies for about 3 minutes per side.

At this point, you can add all sorts of additional flavor components. A squeeze of fresh lime juice over everything is great for a nice burst of acid. Shaking on a few lugs of your favorite hot sauce, maybe even a little balsamic reduction may also be in order. Crack open a couple cold beers, and everyone will swoon with happiness.

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You may find you have a ton of hot coals left over. Just cut open a couple ripe peaches, removing the pits of course, and grill them up for a few minutes chuck them in a bowl and scoop some vanilla ice cream on top for an awesome grilled dessert!

…everyone will swoon with happiness.

With a grill, there is no need to heat up the house with the oven or dirty any unnecessary cooking vessels. Just light up your grill and get the best ingredients you can. This will be more enjoyable for everyone, especially those that have to clean up!