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Chef Foster: Alternative methods, new ingredients bring the excitement back to your outdoor grilling

Have you fired up your grill yet? If you’re like most of us, the grill never really got shut down last fall, and with the warm winter we had I know some of you might have grilled just as much in February as you did in October.

You now are on the verge of what I call “grill fatigue,” that vague feeling that you’ve grilled every burger, steak, chicken and hot dog in the world, and all you can see in your future is more of the same. With spring on the verge of jumping full-fledged into summer your opportunities to grill out will no doubt expand as far as you allow them.

I have no intention of telling any of you how to grill, but I would offer some alternative methods and ingredients that might make you outdoor summer meals more exciting.

Consider wood when grilling. Charcoal is nice, gas is convenient, but wood opens up new and exciting flavors that often are associated with grilling but in some cases never materialize.

Our penchant for grilling out comes no doubt from the first fire, and the fuel for that fire was wood. When walking my neighborhood on a grill night the smell of charcoal grilling takes me to the backyard, wood fires take me further. I grill over wood for flavor and for range of heat. When I grill with indirect heat I place my product away from the center of the burn.

With charcoal you can accomplish some of the same techniques, with gas, unless your grill is outfitted to do it, you have a steady supply of heat. Wood is a fickle heat, and that’s what I love about it. Find your cool hot spots, your hottest spot, and then there are some in between. Move the pile around and you have a new set of spots to discover.

I know this doesn’t help the cooks who need to get things done, but for me grilling is a long, meditative affair, I’m not so worried about the time as I am about the flavor of the food. Certainly chicken, beef and pork do well on the grill, but a wood fired, grilled fish is outstanding and simple. A few sprigs of fresh herbs, sliced onions, salt and pepper and olive oil all add up to a really distinct flavor, especially if the fish is cooked indirectly so it has time to soak up some of the smoke.

I think that it’s vegetables where wood makes the difference. Allowing an eggplant to cook slowly over a cooler part of the wood fire tamps down the bitterness, and brings forth the very essence of this Mediterranean vegetable.

Grilled tomatoes pick up smoke well, without being overbearing and almost fake. A good local tomato will stand up to a hot fire and slow cooking, blistering the skin and imparting a sweetness to the flesh of the tomato with a hint of caramelization. Grilled spring onion, grilled green garlic or grilled leeks are probably some of my favorite grilled vegetables to eat straight from the grill or tossed with fresh pasta or a spring risotto.

The greenness of the onion and garlic is accentuated by grilling and then wrapping and steaming the vegetables in some parchment paper. Peel the outer, charred layers off to reveal a sweet soft interior that you can spread on bread (also grilled) with some sliced ham and olive oil.

If you’re grilling yellow or white onions or even the sweet Vidalia onions I would opt for an indirect heat for a much longer period of time. The density of those onions will require a slower cook time. Of course as we go into the summer you will have squash and zucchini. I like to marinate those vegetables with fresh herbs and olive oil, and after grilling finish them with lemon.

As the summer goes you’ll have peppers, greens, and spinach. Yes, I did say chard and spinach, on the grill. I like to gently and quickly wilt the greens by dressing them lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe a little bit of garlic, and then tossing them onto a medium hot fire. If your grill grates are too wide, put a little foil down and poke some holes in the foil to allow the smoke to come through. This is a lightning fast process so only do it when everything else is ready to go.

Taken separately, the grilling of the vegetables can provide nice sides for your grilled meats. But don’t overlook the possibilities of combining certain grilled vegetables into new versions of iconic dishes such as grilled vegetable ratatouille or a minestrone soup made by grilling the vegetables first.

Those fire roasted salsas you get in a jar can be made all summer long and canned or frozen, to have on hand for the winter months. Grill some spinach and leeks, chop them up and combine them with a bit of feta cheese, lemon and fresh oregano.

Stuff the mixture in the belly of a whole fish and grill the fish until done. Serve the fish with a grilled green onion aioli and grilled marinated squash and zucchini. All done on the grill, it highlights flavors, colors and textures far removed from what you might expect.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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