Grilling, I find, brings those two summertime attitudes together. There’s something both lazy and productive about the endeavor. I can drink a couple of beers and still produce something worthwhile.
This being the official start of a long season, I’d like to make a suggestion to help the twain of sloth and industriousness to meet: Use the whole grill surface to cook a variety of items at one go whenever you prepare a meal.
When grilling, many of us cook only a main dish that we intend to eat right away, such as a steak or hot dogs. Using the grill to cook every element of a meal — or additional dishes that you can enjoy at a future date — develops your grilling skills, lends your home a restaurant’s mise-en-place approach to meal preparation and inspires spontaneity and creativity, the handmaidens of true laziness.
To achieve whole-grill mastery, begin by forgetting fully a third, maybe more, of the cooking surface. That third is for the entree. You might grill pork chops or classic barbecue chicken or za’atar-rubbed lamb. Whatever. The point is, you will have a lot of space on the grate left over. That’s what to focus on.
Using the entire grill surface requires a little barbecue mindfulness. That is, some thinking. But don’t worry, not a lot. And besides, I’ve done the thinking for you.
My Six Rules of Summer Grilling show how you, too, can fill that surface and thus lead a happier, more productive and ultimately lazier summer life.
Rule No. 1: Think about the fire
There are several types of fire for grilling and smoking, but to keep things simple, we’re just going with an indirect fire, with the coals distributed on one side and the other side left empty. The reason for an indirect fire is to allow you to either cook hot and fast directly over the coals or low and slow (well, lower and slower) over the cool side.
If, for example, you want to grill a slice of onion, you could set the onion directly over a medium-hot fire for about three minutes, then turn it over for another three. The result would be an onion slice striped with grill marks, or slightly blackened. The texture of the onion would be something akin to al dente.
If you cooked the onion on the cool side, it would be tawny in color, take on more smoke flavor and have a softer texture. Neither is “right.” The question is preference.
Another reason for an indirect fire is that it allows you to put the entree on the cool side to slowly cook and leave space on the hot side for grilling all the other foods.
You can do the opposite, but generally that makes the timing trickier. That’s because if you grill your entree over a direct fire, it cooks fast. If you are slow-roasting or smoking your additional items, you’d want to start and finish those before you even put the entree over the fire so that you avoid having to do a lot of things at the same time.
Rule No. 2: Think 10 minutes for grilling, 20 for smoking
Most side dishes and appetizers, which is what we’re pretty much talking about here, are vegetables. Many vegetables are ready after 10 minutes or less over a medium-hot fire, and for a smokier flavor, 20 minutes on the indirect side.
Take the following: slices of zucchini, eggplant, carrots, romaine lettuce (yes, lettuce), lemon and lime halves, and my current go-to, shishito peppers. When placed directly over a medium-hot fire, they will all take on a charcoal flavor and be ready to eat in 6 to 10 minutes.
If you want them smokier, simply set them on the cool side of an indirect fire and let them go for about 20 minutes. After they smoke, you might want to place them over the direct fire for a minute or two to give them a little char or some grill lines. You can also do the reverse — over the fire for a couple of minutes on each side, then move to the cool side.
Denser vegetables, such as beets and potatoes, take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. But if you boil them until just tender before setting on the grill, they too will conform to the 10/20 rule.
Oh, and those shishito peppers? I’ve been making them almost every time I fire up the grill. They’re nearly impossible to screw up (I’ve gone beyond charred to downright burned, and they were still good) and I have yet to meet the guest who hasn’t marveled over them when I put them out as an appetizer.
Rule No. 3: Think about what you like to eat
I really like salsa. Two shelves in my refrigerator door, a dorm fridge in the basement and a cabinet shelf are lined with various salsas, and still I make my own at least once a week. I love the freshness. I also love that it is mine.
The best thing about fire roasting the vegetables is the smoky flavor. The second-best thing about it is how effortless it is. A couple of tomatoes, an onion slice, a serrano pepper (or jalapeño) and half a lime. And presto! I have a robust dip with tostadas for an appetizer when friends drop by, a piquant addition to eggs in the morning and a spicy condiment for tacos (or anything else) in the evening.
Oh, and the third best thing? All those items easily fit around whatever else you’re cooking on the grill.
Now, take whatever you really like — gazpacho, say — and do the same thing.
Rule No. 4: Think about what you are going to eat
When I grill a chicken, I, like you, consider what I’m going to have with it. Maybe asparagus with a squirt of lemon. Perhaps cauliflower with tahini sauce. Then I ask myself: Why dirty a pan when I can achieve better results (and no cleanup) by cooking the veggies over a charcoal fire at the same time that I’m grilling the chicken?
My answer: What’s the question again?
Rule No. 5: Think about what you'll someday want to eat
There is also the question of winter. What are you going to do when you just don’t feel like shoveling your way to the grill? Complain about the cold preventing you from grilling? No, you’re going to open the freezer and pull out foods that you grilled and smoked during the summer.
Last year, when tomatoes were at their peak, I bought a peck (well, maybe not a peck, since I don’t know what a peck is) of really good Roma tomatoes, beefsteaks and Purple Cherokees, all my faves. I grilled some and smoked others.
In the relentless grip of winter, I would pull this or that container out to make spaghetti or eggplant Parmesan, or to add to chili, and I’d enjoy a reminder of summer past while looking ahead to the summer to come. At this writing, I have five containers left. They’ll be gone by the time tomato season rolls around.
I did the same thing with corn and peaches.
You can and should do the same thing with whatever you like. Not only are the foods cheaper and tastier than what you get in the frozen foods section of your supermarket, but how else can you open a plastic container and enjoy an intoxicating whiff of summer?
Rule No. 6: Don't think, just do
One of the best things about using the entire grill is that you create a sort of restaurant in your kitchen. You’ll end up with foods that you can experiment with. You might grill a red bell pepper, not knowing exactly what you intend to do with it. You only know that you like grilled red bell pepper. Next thing you know, you’re adding half of it to corn and black beans for a salad and the other half to ratatouille.
You will also end up with foods that you can use at a moment’s inspiration. Earlier this year, I grilled broccoli rabe while I was cooking other things. I didn’t plan on eating it that night. But a day later, I had a friend over for smoked pork ribs and an antipasto composed of the vegetables I’d grilled the day before, including the rabe. The following morning, I chopped some into an omelet. For lunch two days later, I made one of my favorite sandwiches, broccoli rabe with sharp provolone on hoagie bread.
That multiple use and the ability to improvise makes using the entire grill one of the joys of summer grilling. Or, as the old maxim, sometimes attributed to Picasso, goes, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Even if Picasso didn’t say it, that doesn’t mean you can’t live it. At least in summer.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon:
. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.
Shishito peppers look similar to the Spanish Padron peppers, which can be prepared the same way. Padrons, though, are hotter, so consider that when purchasing.
MAKE AHEAD: After grilling, these peppers keep well in the fridge for up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Recipes from Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the grill
16 to 20 shishito peppers
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 3 or 4 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Combine the peppers with the oil in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and toss to coat. Place the peppers on the grate above the fire. Close the lid and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the peppers are blackened, then uncover and use long-handled tongs to turn them over for another 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer to a platter. Serve warm, or at room temperature.
4 servings (makes 1/2 cup)
This version makes a chunky salsa. If you prefer yours smooth, then pulse the ingredients in a food processor for a few seconds a few times until you get the consistency you like.
You’ll need 1 cup of unsoaked hardwood chips, such as apple, pecan, hickory or oak.
MAKE AHEAD: The salsa can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
One ½ -inch slice onion
1 medium heirloom tomato, preferably Beefsteak or Purple Cherokee
1 serrano pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro leaves (optional)
⅛ teaspoon salt, or more as needed
3 or 4 grinds of black pepper
Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (450 degrees). Put the wood chips in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke. Using long-handled tongs, set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame or set it on the cooking grate; it’ll take a little longer, but the chips will smoke. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Scatter the wood chips over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Lightly grease the onion slice and the cut side of a lime. Place them, the tomato and the serrano pepper on the grate directly above the fire. Close the lid, with the vents half open. In 4 to 5 minutes, turn over the onion, tomato and serrano. If the lime is caramelized, remove it. If not, leave it on. In 4 to 5 minutes more, transfer all the vegetables to a platter.
Once the vegetables are cool enough to handle, slip off and discard the tomato skin. Finely chop and transfer to a medium bowl, along with any juices.
Cut the serrano lengthwise and mince one half of it, seeds included, and add to the bowl. (Its charred skin may also slip off.)
Finely chop the onion. Mince the garlic. Add them both to the bowl, along with the finely chopped cilantro, if you’re using it.
Squeeze the juice of the lime half into the bowl, then season the mixture lightly with salt and pepper. Stir to blend the flavors; taste it. If you want more heat, add more of the serrano (see headnote).
Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
4 to 6 servings (makes 3 cups)
MAKE AHEAD: The grilled broccoli rabe can be refrigerated for up for up to 5 days.
1 pound broccoli rabe
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, plus ¼ teaspoon
⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 or 4 grinds black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more as needed (from ½ medium lemon)
Have a large bowl of ice and cool water at hand (for shocking the broccoli rabe). Also have a colander ready to place the vegetable in after shocking. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 3 or 4 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Trim off about an inch from the ends of the broccoli rabe stalks. Once the water in the pot has come to a rolling boil, add the broccoli rabe and cook for 1 minute. Use long-handled tongs to transfer the vegetable to the ice-water bath; let them cool down for 1 minute (its color will brighten), then use the tongs to transfer them to the colander. After a few minutes, pat the broccoli rabe dry with paper towels or a clean dish towel. Place the broccoli rabe in a medium bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Toss to coat evenly.
Use the tongs to lay the broccoli rabe on the grill grate. Close the lid and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, moving the pieces occasionally with the tongs. Turn them over, cover and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes.
Transfer to a platter, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil, season with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, the crushed red pepper flakes the black pepper and lemon juice. Toss to coat evenly. Serve warm, or at room temperature.
Recipes tested by Andy Sikkenga; email questions to email@example.com
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