The simple secrets of grilling success

For first-class grilling, you need just three essential items, says master griller Chris Schlesinger: a pair of long-handled tongs, a wire brush, and your favorite beverage.

It's not that Mr. Schlesinger, coauthor of "Let the Flames Begin" (Norton, $30), doesn't have other preferred tools – a huge Weber "ranch kettle" grill, for instance, and hardwood charcoal (instead of briquettes).

But, as he sees it, the flames themselves – not the fancy accessories – are the true essence of the craft .

Schlesinger can reasonably claim to be an authority on the subject. This latest cookbook is the third on grilling that he's written with partner John Willoughby. It's a follow-up to "The Thrill of the Grill" in 1990 and "License to Grill" in 1997.He's also started two successful Massachusetts restaurants – the East Coast Grill in Cambridge and the Back Eddy in Westport– both of which rely heavily on live-fire cooking.

His own love affair with fire began young, grilling with his father when he was 6 years old. Schlesinger remembers squirting the lighter fluid on the coals and watching the fireballs rise into the sky.

"We always liked everything that got cooked on the grill, regardless of how burnt it was," he says, relaxing in flip-flops and shorts in his stifling office above the East Coast Grill. "It was exciting to me."

That's an excitement many Americans share. Summer has come to be synonymous with the smells of outdoor barbecues, and even though many of those are from the gas variety that Schlesinger disdains, Americans are reaching far beyond hot dogs and hamburgers when they look for what to throw on the fire.

"I remember talking about 'The Thrill of the Grill,' and everybody saying, 'Oh, seafood. I've never grilled seafood,' " Schlesinger says. "And then vegetables – 'You can grill mushrooms?' Now it's almost passé, grilled vegetables."

In this latest cookbook, Schlesinger targets a more sophisticated audience, with recipes for Grilled Figs With Blue Cheese, Grilled Thai-Style Squid, Mexican-Style Grilled Mahi-Mahi, and Grilled Peaches With Vanilla Ice Cream and Fresh Strawberry Sauce, alongside some of the more usual suspects.

Even the recipes for steak, chicken breasts, and pork chops are generally dressed up with spice rubs or unusual sides.

But when it comes to choosing the fuel, he goes back to the basics. "With gas manufacturers being able to sell grills at $2,000 or $3,000 a shot, they had a lot of info out there that [gas] was pretty much the same thing [as charcoal]," Schlesinger says. "We acknowledge it's quicker and easier – but it's not as much fun, and it doesn't taste as good."

A live fire gets much hotter than any gas grill, he says, not to mention the fact that it's more unpredictable. "I like lighter fluid and charcoal and burning holes in stuff, and smoke.... And it's a little bit harder because you have this dynamic flame. To me, that's fun."

He encourages grillers to get a basic charcoal grill, but one with as much space as they have room for or can afford.

A two-tier fire, Schlesinger says, is key. With the charcoal higher and flames hotter in one area, he can push food from one side of the grill to the other, depending on whether he wants to quickly sear an eggplant or slowly smoke a roast.

He also encourages people to think about when to cover their grill. "A lot of people just throw the lid on all the time, whenever there's a fire. We say, only cover when you're cooking indirect – or for longer than 45 minutes."

But the only true secret of better grilling, he says, is learning through doing it.

Inexperienced grillers sometimes worry – especially with the unpredictability of live flames – about burning or undercooking food. To avoid those problems, he encourages them to use what he calls the "nick, peek, and cheat" test to determine doneness. This means to cut narrowly into the food at its thickest point and peek to see if it has reached the desired state of doneness.

This may seem to go against conventional advice. "We were always taught by the old-timers never to prick or puncture or slice anything, because all the juices would flow out," he says. "There might be a little loss, but it's not like popping a balloon."

Many of the recipes in the cookbook sound mouthwatering, and Schlesinger has a hard time picking out his favorites as he flips through: "Some of the steak recipes ... all the seafood ones.... Oh, this New Bedford-Style Bluefish is really good...." But he adds that he hopes the book is really about technique.

"Recipes are just a list of ingredients," he says. "What we've always tried to do is move people along in their technique and try to break it down and explain it to them. You know – look at a steak, push on it, and take a guess, and then cut into it. Lack of fear is very important."

This Labor Day, many Americans will likely take their own stab at outdoor grilling. Schlesinger's recommendations: grilled shrimp, which he likes for crowds since it's easy, followed by super-thick steaks, such as giant T-bones that serve two or three people.

Will he be outside grilling this holiday weekend? It's hard to say. "My wife does most of the grilling [at home]," he concedes. "I stay inside and make the salad and pasta."

Grilled Peel-and-Eat Colossal Shrimp With Garlic-Tabasco Butter

'This is a gloriously messy dish, but we like it for precisely that reason,' says Chris Schlesinger. 'You stick your hand in the bowl and get some shrimp and peel them yourself, which means your hands get all covered with the garlic butter....'

12 colossal shrimp (known as U/12 or U/10, meaning there are under 12 or 10 per pound)
2 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce, or to taste
4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon, quartered lengthwise

Prepare the grill. When the temperature has died down to medium (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid for 4 to 5 seconds), you're ready to cook.

Using a small sharp knife or a pair of small scissors, slit the shell along the back of each shrimp and remove the vein.

In a large bowl, combine paprika, oil, and salt and pepper. Mix a bit. Add the shrimp and toss to coat. Put the shrimp on the grill and cook until opaque throughout, about 4 to 5 minutes per side.

To check for doneness, poke the shrimp with your finger to check the firmness level. If you're unsure, cut into one of the shrimp at its thickest point. It should be opaque all the way through.

While the shrimp are cooking, combine all the remaining ingredients except the lemon wedges in the bowl you originally used for the shrimp. When the shrimp are done, add them to the bowl and toss gently until the butter is melted and the shrimp are nicely coated with the other ingredients. Serve the shrimp right out of the bowl, with lemon wedges for squeezing and another big bowl for shells.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

Grilled Peaches With Vanilla Ice Cream and Fresh Strawberry Sauce

2 cups fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and quartered
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
2 ripe peaches, halved and pitted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 quart good-quality vanilla ice cream

Prepare a grill. When the temperature reaches medium (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid for 4 to 5 seconds), you're ready to cook.

In a small bowl, combine the strawberries, sugar, and lime juice and mix well.

Put the peaches on a grill, cut side down, and cook just until lightly seared, about 6 to 8 minutes. Flip them over, brush the tops with the butter, and cook until the butter begins to caramelize, another 2 or 3 minutes.

Put a small scoop of ice cream on top of each peach half, spoon on some of the strawberry sauce, and serve. Serves 4.

– Recipes from 'Let the Flames Begin,' by Chris Schlesinger

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