By Shelby Barone
Summer nights are perfect for blazing the barbeque trail, and it’ll be easier than you think to master the grill without resorting to hot dogs. When you don’t have to worry about dinner – or your culinary reputation – going up in flames, your family will enjoy many a healthy barbeque meal to cap a day of fun in the sun.
We’ve collected tips from Orange County’s grill masters to help you hone your barbeque skills. Now you, too, can be a smokin’ success. The secret is in this season’s bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.
To kick off grilling season, distinguished Irvine restaurant Bistango recently hosted the Great American Grill-Off in search of Orange County’s master griller.
Five finalists competed on the restaurant’s elegant patio to be named champion of the grill. A panel of judges awarded grill master Michael Kinder of San Juan Capistrano a $1,000 dining experience at one of three top O.C. restaurants: Bistango, Kimera or Bayside.
“It was really exciting watching the chefs create their recipes at the Grill-Off,” says Javier Montoya, Bistango’s executive chef. “Most people associate summer with grilling, and the Grill-Off event ultimately felt like a backyard family barbeque! I look forward to grilling all summer long on [our] patio.”
Kinder won with his Hawaiian Barbeque Burrito. His tip for ribs is to bake them in the oven before grilling them slowly and for a long period. The only tool Kinder says you need for grilling success is a good set of knives and tongs. The real secret ingredient is love, he says. “You just have to love the people you are cooking for, and your food will come out perfect every time.”
Contestant Jacqueline Rodriguez of Anaheim made a delicious Japanese Cola Chicken. Her tip for getting those perfect grill marks is to oil the grill. Using an old cloth (never a paper towel) and cooking oil, clean the grates before putting your food on the grill.
Are you nervous about trying pizza on the grill? I tested Rodriguez’s tips, and not only was grilling pizza a breeze, my tasty pie had a delicious smoky flavor with a crispy crust – better than our local pizza joint’s.
Jacqueline recommends precooking the dough in the oven. Add toppings to the precooked dough before transferring it to the grill over low heat.
Finalist David “Daco” Cox of Dana Point, who has been grilling since he was 15, entered his signature, Daco’s Tacos.
His secret to grilling the perfect piece of fish is to first coat it with olive oil. Beginners can first start grilling fish wrapped in foil. To help keep the fish from breaking apart and falling through the grates, wait as long as possible before turning. If you cook over medium heat with just one turn, it will guarantee the perfect piece of grilled fish on the dinner table.
For backyard barbeque corn on the cob, Cox recommends first steaming the corn in the husks before shucking the corn, brushing it with olive oil and placing it on the grill.
Banker by day, chef by night, Grill-Off finalist Michael Bueche of Mission Viejo whipped up prosciutto-wrapped shrimp. His top tip is to use a meat thermometer to determine whether or not a steak is done.
Diner-style burgers at home
Two popular local chefs offer great grilling tips for that diner staple, the juicy burger.
Chef Kevin Deemer of Deemer’s American Grill in Laguna Niguel daily creates burgers made of whole chuck ground. Deemer, who started in the business as a busser at 15, wanted to be part of the excitement in the kitchen and attended culinary school. His passion continued as he learned from some of the best chefs in the industry before opening his first restaurant.
A burger lover, Deemer says grilling is one of his favorite types of cooking, and he developed some of his restaurant dishes on his grill at home. He says you can put together restaurant-quality food in a casual, at-home environment while still feeling good about what you are eating.
Planning is important for mastering the grill, advises Deemer. Choose the marinade or flavoring for your meat; keep them simple and fresh. His favorite for chicken – salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh herbs – creates a perfect meal every time, he says.
Wondering how to create a juicy diner-style burger? You might know that most burger joints use a flat-top grill; the oldest diners use cast-iron flat-top grills. But rejoice: Deemer says you do not need a char-broiler at home. Using a cast-iron skillet on a stovetop, he says, creates the perfect sear for a diner-style burger at home.
In fact, Deemer says, he uses a cast-iron skillet for almost all of his home grilling, including steaks and chicken. Cast iron is a great heat conductor that allows the juices to stay with the meat throughout the cooking process. For best results, Deemer says, avoid overcrowding the steaks.
Agora Churrascaria, a popular steakhouse in Irvine, employs a simple Brazilian technique to create perfectly tender steaks, which tend to be larger than cuts of American-style meats. The owners designed a custom grill that mimics the open fire of a traditional Brazilian steakhouse.
At Agora, the cooks – traditionally known as “gauchos” – prepare their meat in a 2-foot-deep pit on skewers over the open flame. Instead of using traditional charcoal, they use pure lump charcoal that gets hotter than traditional briquettes.
Chefs fire up the charcoals to 1,000 degrees, and the meat cooks in 10 minutes. Most meats at the restaurant aren’t marinaded. The chefs say that for tenderizing, they use only rock salt; with no other seasonings to interfere, the rock salt brings out the natural flavor in the meat.
Although they serve Brazilian steaks at Agora Churrascaria, this cooking method can be used for traditional American-style steaks, too. The steak should be cooked on the open flame of a charcoal grill before finishing it in the oven. The open flame will seal in the juices. Once both sides are seared on the grill – about one to two minutes over high heat – transfer the steak to a cast-iron pan and put it in the oven. This is the easiest way, say the professionals at Agora Churrascaria, to get restaurant-quality steak in the comfort of your own home.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Even vegetarians can enjoy grilling. In fact, going meatless on the grill is easier than most people think. Coat your vegetables in olive oil before putting them on the grill over low heat. Serve the vegetables as is, then toss with pasta or add to a salad.
Try grilling favorite foods for a twist on familiar recipes. The versatile avocado, for example, is perfect in almost any dish. Once grilled, the texture and flavors border on decadent. After halving and pitting the avocado, brush it with olive oil and grill over medium heat.
Your entire menu for summer dinner can be managed on the grill. Start by grilling quesadillas as an appetizer, and wrap up the meal with a grilled dessert such as angel food cake. Angel food cake is an easy and light dessert to grill along with freshly sliced pineapple. For a more sinful dessert, add whipped cream ormelted chocolate.
Other unexpected open-flame favorites are fruits and nuts. Most fruits are easy to grill. The fire carmelizes natural sugars, bringing out fruits’ full flavors and adding a dimension to favorite desserts. Wrap nuts in foil and cook over medium heat before adding them to a freshly tossed salad.
Visit a local farmers market for the freshest local produce. Keep it simple and have fun exploring different foods to grill.
Then gather on the patio with friends and family to enjoy super-fresh meals and create delicious memories.