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Grilled Ribboned Zucchini
Fire + Food. Tips & Techniques for Successful Grilling

Grilling outdoors evokes a sense of ease, and a relaxed approach to cooking. I know many people who happily stand over the grates, turning and tending, would otherwise not find themselves in an indoor kitchen whipping up dinner most other days. Grilling over fire is a fun way to cook, requiring minimal prep or fussing, and with satisfying results.

Perhaps grilling feels more approachable because, at its core, it is so basic. Fire + food. But oh, if it were only that easy. Grills have hot spots and certain foods like fast and hot, while others do better with slow, indirect heat. Then there’s the decision of what type of heat – most standardly either gas or charcoal, which each have their benefits. 

Whether you are new to grilling, or a seasoned pro, this guide will help you navigate the ins and outs of cooking over fire, with tips to help you achieve the best and most tasty results. 

First, The Grill Method

Most likely, you’ve already got your outdoor grill in place, and it’s either a charcoal grill or propane gas grill. But, if you are still contemplating between the two, there are a couple of things to know:

Let’s begin with gas grills. They are unarguably more convenient than charcoal. They heat up quickly, temperatures are easier to control, and often come with side tables making staging easier. Critics will note that what you give up with gas powered grills is the depth of flavor that only charcoal (sometimes wood chips for added smoke) can impart. But if time-saving convenience is a priority, gas is most likely for you. One other drawback is the propane tank. If you’ve got one, we all have been there – the tragedy of running out of gas at the worst possible time. Be sure to check your tank before you begin, so you won’t have to haul back into the kitchen to finish cooking. 

Charcoal requires advanced planning, as the coals need to heat up prior to cooking, but hardcore charcoal fans would argue it’s the only way to go. There are a variety of briquettes available, including quick-lighting. However, critics say these can impart a chemical flavor to your food from the accelerant. I’ve heard the same complaint from those who use lighter fluid, though it is a popular method to light the briquettes. To avoid this concern, the best way to heat the charcoal is with a chimney starter. Ball up newspaper and place it in the bottom of the chimney, top with coals then light the newspaper. After the coals are heated through, dump them out into the bottom of the grill and place the grill grate in place. If you enjoy an extra smokey flavor, you can mix in water-soaked wood chips with the coals. 

Next, The Tools

Walk into any kitchen store and you’ll be overwhelmed with the amount of grilling apparatus available. To keep it simple, there are only a few must-haves – though if you’re a gadget guy you’ll probably end up with more. Personally, I’ve never been keen on grilling baskets, but they are popular and come in handy if you plan to grill vegetables like asparagus, pepper slivers or cabbage which have a tendency to fall through the grates.

Otherwise, a few sturdy utensils are all you’ll need:

  • A pair of grilling tongs
  • A turner (metal spatula)
  • A grill brush for cleaning

A note on brushes: Be careful when using metal-wired grill brushes. There have been cases for concern recently where it has been reported that metal wires have come loose and subsequently ingested, a serious health hazard. There are several alternatives on the market, including nylon brushes and those with stainless steel coils. 

  • Optional, but helpful: A probe or instant-read digital thermometer for checking the temperature of meat

Zone Cooking

Whether you are using a gas or a charcoal grill, it’s a good idea to know the location of your hotter (direct heat) and cooler (indirect heat) portions of the grill. This allows for greater control in cooking, e.g. allowing a quick sear on protein to seal in the juices before moving to a less intense heat to finish cooking through (think bone-in chicken breasts). 

Additionally, for charcoal grills, you can simply move the briquettes to one side to concentrate the heat, and with gas, turn half of the burners on high heat, and the remaining on low. 

Rules of Thumb when Grilling

  • Fatty pieces of meat should be trimmed to avoid flare ups.
  • Lean meat, like chicken, will need well-oiled grates to keep it from sticking to the grill. Ditto for fish or shellfish.
  • For all protein, and vegetables too, season them well before going on the grill. There are many grill rubs out there that contain salt and pepper, but if not seasoning is essential.
  • Skewering is a great way to cook smaller pieces of food, like zucchini, bell peppers and onions, or proteins such as shrimp, scallops or cubed chicken. If you choose wooden skewers, allow them to soak in water for at least a half hour to help prevent scorching. If using metal skewers, be careful as they get very hot. Always turn them with tongs or use kitchen mitts. 

Outside of the Box

Protein and vegetables aren’t the only thing you can toss on the grates. Fresh fruit is lovely when grilled, especially when topped with vanilla ice cream while still warm and gooey. Be careful as the sugars in fruit caramelize quickly and can burn easily over too high a heat. Try halved peaches, apricots or skewered strawberries. Or make appetizer skewers from cubed pear, prosciutto and haloumi cheese. Drizzle with lots of honey after it comes off the grill. 

Pizza is beautiful on the grill, and you have two options here. Place well-oiled dough directly on the grates, flip after a minute then top as desired and finish cooking. Or, use a pizza stone. Make sure to place it on the grates while cool, allowing the stone to gradually come up to temperature with the grill, otherwise the stone could crack. No need to turn the dough if using a stone, but do make sure to close the lid for optimal heat retention, as well as minding the below grate temperature, as if it is too hot it can scorch the bottom of the crust.

Other types of bread also do well on the grill. You can make panini or grilled cheese sandwiches – or simply grill olive oil brushed sourdough slices, rubbing them with garlic as soon as they come off the grill, then enjoy with a sprinkle of salt or a tomato/basil topping for bruschetta. 

One of my favorite things to do is stuff pita bread with ground meat seasoned with garlic, onions and other spices and cook it directly on the grates. Or, fill the bread with feta and spinach for a Greek inspired vegetarian option. Oil the pitas well and grill over medium-low heat, making sure if it’s stuffed with meat that it is cooked thoroughly. 

Other Top Grilling Recipes:

Grilled Mixed Vegetables with Burrata & Basil Vinaigrette

One taste of this zippy basil vinaigrette and you'll be putting it on everything. It goes particularly well with the distinctive grilled flavor of these veggies, but I also enjoy it on green salads, studded with corn, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Here, burrata adds a richness to the grilled vegetables, and plays so well off of the pungent garlic and basil vinaigrette.
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Grilled Cubano

The key to a good Cubano is the bread. If you don't live near a Cuban bakery, or otherwise cannot find a good quality Pan Cubano (bread), use a soft French style roll – crust of a harder roll will get in the way of grilling and pressing the sandwich. My recipe is not an authentic Cubano, as it does not use mojo-marinated pork shoulder, but this version is easier to make and still delivers the flavor. Smoked turkey is a good stand in and makes for a lighter sandwich that you can enjoy any day of the week.
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Lime-Marinated Grilled Chicken Fajitas with Grilled Avocado

Fun, festive, easy and tasty. Whip up a quick marinade for the chicken, and toss everything on the grill, yes, even the avocado. It might sound strange, but when grilling a halved avocado flesh side down, you end up with a warm, soft and creamy texture to slather all over your warm fajitas. Once everything comes off the grill, place it directly on a large wood cutting board to serve. Slice the chicken and vegetables, and make sure there's a spoon for scooping out the avocado.
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Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Salted Peanuts & Orange Miso Vinaigrette

Grilling sweet potatoes is an easy way to get extra flavor from the char and makes for a fun side dish at your cookout. If the weather isn't cooperating or you don't own a grill, roasting them in the oven works quite well. The key to this dish is the punchy miso-orange vinaigrette. With a touch of garlic, rice vinegar and maple for sweetness, it's a great compliment to the starchy potatoes.
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Grilled Ribboned Zucchini

This simple, three-ingredient recipe is perfect as-is, but once you get the hang of the method feel free to add some extra flavorings. Finely chopped herbs or a little garlic mixed into the olive oil before tossing with the zucchini would both be nice. Occasionally, I’ll shower the skewers with grated parmigiano after I plate them hot off the grill, but most often I’m devouring them before I get that far.
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Grilled Caribbean Chicken & Coconut Rice

Inspierd by Mark Bittman's chicken & rice recipe
Make this dish for your family on the weekend or scale up to feed a crowd. Marinate the chicken for at least two hours, but don't let it go longer than about four. The citrus in the marinade could start to toughen the chicken if it sits too long. The marinade plays double-duty, getting reduced into a delicious sauce for the chicken, and a bed of zesty coconut rice rounds out the meal.
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Yogurt Marinated Chicken Skewers with Avocado & Apricot Quinoa

As apricots have such a short season, if you cannot find them, substitute with peaches, blackberries, or even dried cranberries or dried cherries. The quinoa salad can be assembled ahead of time, but don't add the nuts until serving or they will lose their crunch. Marinating the chicken in yogurt keeps it tender and provides a zippy tang that goes so well with the herb-flecked quinoa.
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Chipotle Maple Barbecue Sauce

I came across this recipe years and years ago in the long since defunct Gourmet magazine, and while I would love to give credit where credit is due, I can no longer find the source copy for reference. Fortunately, I had committed it to memory, as I make it all of the time – it is one of the best barbecue sauces I've ever tasted and most simple to make. You would never guess there is not one drop of tomato sauce in it; instead, it is based completely upon roasted bell peppers. Because of this, it is important to roast your own peppers, as jarred will not yield the same depth of flavor. Baste the sauce over bone-in chicken breasts as they grill. Serve a separate portion in a big bowl alongside the chicken.
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Grilled Zucchini Pizza with Creamy Ricotta & Feta

There are lots of methods for cooking pizza on the grill, but the best method here is to put the dough directly on the grates, and flip before you top the pie. It creates a pillowy crust, crispy on the outside with lots of pockets for cradling the ricotta mixture. Be sure to check the weight of your pizza dough. It doesn't need to be exactly one pound, but it should be close so that the porportions all work together.
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Blackberry Marinated Grilled Scallops

Don't be tempted to make these too far ahead, the lime juice in the marinade will cook the scallops the longer they sit and make them rubbery. You can make the marinade ahead, but don't toss the scallops in until about 20-30 minutes before grilling. As an accompaniment, serve with coconut rice and a side of grilled asparagus. Coconut rice is easy to do, simply swap out a third of the cooking liquid for canned coconut milk, and season with salt and pepper.
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