What's fueling our love of the grill

It's fast, fun - and brings more flavor to food than any other cooking method

Only five more shopping days until that Memorial Day cookout. But who's counting?

It may be the unofficial kickoff of summer grilling season, but there is no rush to buy those long-handled tongs, bamboo skewers, or charcoal briquettes. As outdoor cooking becomes more popular than ever, many folks are already more prepared than a Boy Scout on a camping trip.

According to the Barbecue Industry Association (BIA), a record 85 percent of American households now own a grill, 60 percent of those people grill year-round, and, in all, they host more than 3 billion cookouts annually.

What has Americans so fired up about grilling? It's fast, easy - and doesn't leave the host with a sinkful of dirty pots and pans, consumers told the BIA. But the thrill of the grill isn't just about convenience, insist the pros.

Reached at his home outside Miami, where he has six grills in "active service" and another 10 to 12 "on the sidelines," grilling guru Steven Raichlen put down his spatula just long enough to explain why people are so passionate about outdoor cooking.

"For starters," Mr. Raichlen says, "we as a nation have become happily obsessed with flavor, and no other cooking method brings out as much flavor as grilling."

He should know. For the past several years, the author, cooking teacher, and food columnist, who trained at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in France, has been on fire about grilling. For his 1998 opus, "The Barbecue! Bible," Raichlen toured 25 countries and gathered more than 500 recipes. Now, three years and several awards later, his more technical tome, "How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbecue Techniques," is appearing in bookstores.

To produce the 1,000 step-by-step color photographs of 150 recipes in his latest book, Raichlen and crew worked from dawn till way past dusk preparing, grilling, styling, and photographing dishes - from a whole hog to a hot dog, and everything in between. They flew in foods from celebrated sources - salmon from Alaska and lobster from Maine, for example - and they grilled on anything with a grate, including a Japanese hibachi and a $4,000 deluxe gas grill.

"It was really fun," Raichlen recalls. Which brings him to his second point. "Anytime you grill, it's a party. Unlike other cooking activities - which are a 'cult,' with one person in charge - grilling is a fun, interactive event."

Of course, some hosts enjoy culinary interactivity more than others. Those who are a bit reluctant to toss a guest a basting brush might take comfort in knowing, as even Raichlen does, that grilling is one of the most forgiving methods of cooking - at least in terms of measurements and proportions.

Such forgiveness allows hosts and guests to relax and enjoy the sheer drama of crackling flames, smoky aromas, and a beautiful, natural setting. No cooking method is as entertaining, says Raichlen. "And these days, to get our attention, everything has to have entertainment value."

But what really makes open-fire cooking irresistible, he adds, is our ancient connection to it. Indeed, for millennia, fireside cooking was the only kind of cooking. "It's a little mystical," Raichlen says, "how the evolution of the human species - language development, social skills, and more - really took place over a fire pit."

It's no wonder that, as grilling soars in popularity, authors are churning out related cookbooks faster than a quesadilla burns on an open flame.

Williams Sonoma, the gourmet cooking store, has just published the "Complete Grilling Cookbook" (Time Life Books, $23.50), a fine collection of its own best outdoor recipes. And two classics belong on the shelf of every grill cook: "Born to Grill: An American Celebration" (Harvard Common Press, $15.95),by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, and "Thrill of the Grill: Techniques, Recipes, & Down-Home Barbecue" (William Morrow, $24.95), by renowned grill masters Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

When asked about his peers, Raichlen singles out Mr. Schlesinger, his first pick for guest chef at a recent barbecuing class. But clearly the two men share a friendly rivalry. "He does great work," says Raichlen, adding with a laugh: "I still think my ribs are better!"

The 10 commandments of perfect grilling

- Excerpted from Steven Raichlen's "The Barbecue! Bible'"

1. Be organized. Have everything you need for grilling - the food, marinade, basting sauce, seasonings, and equipment - on hand and at the grill before you start.

2. Gauge your fuel. There's nothing worse than running out of charcoal or gas in the middle of grilling. When using charcoal, light enough to form a bed of glowing coals 3 inches larger on all sides than the surface area of the food you're planning to cook. When cooking on a gas grill, make sure the tank is at least one-third full.

3. Preheat the grill to the right temperature. Remember: Grilling is a high-heat cooking method. How high? At least 500 degrees F. When using charcoal, let it burn until it is covered with a thin coat of gray ash. Hold your hand about 6 inches above the grate. After three seconds, the heat should force you to snatch your hand away. When using a gas grill, preheat to high (at least 500 degrees F.); this takes 10 to 15 minutes. When grilling indirectly, preheat the grill to 350 degrees F.

4. Keep it clean. Clean the grate twice: once after you've preheated the grill and again when you've finished cooking.

5. Keep it lubricated. Oil the grate just before placing food on top, if necessary.

6. Turn, don't stab. The proper way to turn meat on a grill is with tongs or a spatula. Never stab the meat with a carving fork - unless you want to drain the flavor-rich juices onto the coals.

7. Know when to baste. Bastes and marinades can be brushed on the meat throughout the cooking time. (If you baste with a marinade you used for raw meat or seafood, do not apply it during the last three minutes of cooking.)

8. Keep it covered. When cooking larger cuts of meat and poultry, such as a whole chicken or leg of lamb, grill with indirect heat; keep the grill covered. Every time you lift the lid, you add five to 10 minutes to the cooking time.

9. Give it a rest. Almost anything you grill will taste better if you let it stand on the cutting board for a few minutes before serving.

10. Never desert your post. Grilling is an easy cooking method, but it demands constant attention.

Grilled Quesadillas

"Feel free to vary ingredients for the filling, but don't wander away. Tortillas burn like paper," says Steven Raichlen.

1-1/4 cups coarsely grated jack or sharp white cheddar cheese

1/2 cup sour cream

2 scallions, both white and green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced

3 to 4 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

2 to 3 pickled jalapeno chiles, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8 flour tortillas (8 inches each)

Preheat grill to medium-high. Combine the cheese, sour cream, scallions, tomato slices, cilantro, chiles, and cumin in a small bowl and stir to mix. Add salt and pepper.

When ready to cook, lay 4 tortillas out on your work surface and spread them evenly with the cheese mixture. Press the remaining tortillas on top to make a sandwich. Place on the hot grill grate and grill until lightly browned on both sides, 2 to 4 minutes per side, turning carefully with a large spatula. Cut each quesadilla into 8 wedges for serving.

Makes 48 wedges: serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer, 4 as a light entree.

Note: For spicier quesadillas, use thinly sliced fresh jalapenos, with or without the seeds, as desired.

- Adapted from "The Barbecue! Bible" by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing, $18.95)

Country Bread and Pork Tenderloin Skewers

It is crucial to the success of this dish that the bread cubes be slightly smaller than the pork cubes, otherwise the bread will come into contact with the grill and char. The correct result is crisp bread croutons alternating with chunks of juicy pork, all basted by the melting grease of the salty bacon. Serve the skewers over a simple green salad to catch the juices.

1-1/4 pounds pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes

20 cubes coarse country bread

16 pieces unsmoked bacon, cut into 3/4-inch-square pieces

3 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Generous 1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

2 lemons, cut into wedges

Prepare fire in a grill or preheat a gas grill.

Grill bacon squares slightly, about 2 minutes per side. In a bowl, combine the pork cubes, bread cubes, pregrilled bacon, and olive oil. Toss to combine. Add the salt, pepper, chili powder, and sage, and toss gently to coat evenly. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Thread the ingredients onto skewers in the following order: pork, bread, and bacon. Each skewer should have 5 pieces of pork, 5 pieces of bread, and 4 pieces of bacon. Place on the grill rack and grill for 3 to 4 minutes on each of all 4 sides, watching carefully that the bread does not burn. The bread should be golden brown and crisp, and the pork should be firm and just lightly golden.

Transfer to individual plates and squeeze a little lemon juice over each skewer. Serve at once.

Serves 4.

- From the "Complete Grilling Cookbook: The Best of Outdoor Recipes From the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library" (Time Life Inc., $23.50)

Nectarines, Mascarpone, and Pistachios

Fruits are the basis of the most common grilled desserts. The heat of the coals naturally dies down a bit after the main course has been cooked, and most fruit desserts are best grilled over gentle heat. A wide variety of fruits take well to grilling: bananas, melon slices, figs, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears, pineapple slices, and more.

6 large, ripe nectarines, halved and pitted

Melted unsalted pepper

3/4 cup mascarpone cheese

3 tablespoons sugar

1/3 cup chopped pistachio nuts, plus extra for garnish

Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill.

Brush the nectarine halves with butter and place, cut sides down, on a grill screen. Grill, turning once, until heated through and just tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes total.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, stir together the cheese, sugar, and the 1/3 cup pistachios.

Transfer the nectarine halves, cut sides up, to individual bowls, placing 2 halves in each bowl. Spoon the cheese mixture into the hollows, dividing evenly.

Serve hot or warm, sprinkled with additional chopped pistachios. Serves 6.

From the 'Complete Grilling Cookbook'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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