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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

A grill a minute

Time to get fired up about cooking outdoors, the right way


Ah, the sumptuous smells of another summer season. No, not the scents of freshly cut grass, chlorine or suntan lotion. The seasonal aroma of gas grills lighting up your neighborhood, hickory chips smoldering on backyard decks, and the irresistible fragrance of meat sizzling over an open fire.

Tis the season for barbecue.

Technically, the proper term is grilling, since barbecue is something else. Grilling, the act of cooking food directly over glowing coals or fire at high temperatures (usually between 450 and 650 degrees), is what most people think of when they say barbecue. Barbecue, made famous throughout the South, is the act of cooking food at low heat over long periods of time (18 hours for brisket), and making generous use of wood smoke.

But who’s checking? Whether you call it a barbecue or a cookout, it’s an unmistakable facet of outdoor dining that is as familiar as summer vacation and as American as apple pie.

Grilling is healthy, grilling is theatrical, and it’s a magnet for people when you entertain,” writes barbecue/grilling guru Steven Raichlen, author of “How to Grill” (Workman Publishing, 2001), which updates his 1998 “The Barbeque Bible.”

According to the Barbeque Industry Association, 85 percent of Americans own grills — and fire them up more than 3 billion times a year.

“You’ll never forget the first time you tasted a grilled tuna steak, fresh off a friend’s hibachi — the best fish you’d ever had,” writes Pamela Richards in “I’ve Got a Grill, Now What!?” (Silver Lining Books, $14.95).

Here’s what.

“It’s very nice in the evening to be outside, enjoying your flowering bushes and the things you planted in your garden,” says Dianne Ochiltree of Sparta.

At the Ochiltree household, the gas grill gets a vigorous workout three times a week during the warm months, with chicken, steak, boneless pork chops and those two perennial favorites of summer eating, hamburgers and hot dogs, taking their honored place on the grill.

Ochiltree’s gas grill sometimes competes with a vintage charcoal grill that Ochiltree keeps around for those times when extra grill space is needed. Gurus on the subject, such as Raichlen, revere the characteristic smoke and char that only a charcoal grill can impart, though most Americans prefer gas grills, according to the Barbeque Industry Association.

“Grilling meat over wood coals doesn’t merely satisfy same atavistic urge to cook outside the cave,” writes A.D. Livingston in “Strictly Steak” (Burford Books, 2000). “There’s more to it than that. It’s a hands-on kind of cooking, bringing into play the smells of wood smoke and cooking meat, the sizzle on the turn, the color of the meat.”

It used to be that gas grills were considered inferior to charcoal grills for flavor and essence, but with the advanced technology of today’s gas grills, that is no longer the case. And the convenience of gas grills cannot be debated. Though the pungent aroma of glowing charcoal briquettes brings back many a summer memory of blackened outdoor meals, today’s grillers are turning a dial rather than igniting a fire.

One thing is sure. Whether charcoal or gas, the smoke and charring that result from outdoor grilling add a depth of flavor that is simply unattainable with other cooking methods.

Diane and Allan Borowsky of Bloomfield love their grill so much, they use it year-round.

Allan Borowsky, who was trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, N.Y., but works at Lucent Technologies in Mount Olive instead of cooking, uses the grill to cook everything from ribs to lobster to corn on the cob.

“Corn is amazing on the grill,” he says.

To grill corn on the cob, Borowsky soaks ears of corn in their husks in water for about two hours, then slaps them on the grill at low temperatures for 20 to 30 minutes. The ears steam in their own sweet juices, acquiring a singular taste that simply cannot be replicated by boiling or steaming in a pot.

Men and their grills go perfectly together, according to Borowsky.

“Men usually aren’t in the kitchen,” he says. “Grilling is a chance for them to show their forte.”

Something about those orange flames seems to take men back to primitive fire-pit-roasting times.

“We feel a connection to our caveman days,” quips Dan Ramer of Maplewood, who, with wife, Alia, makes use of the grill at least twice a week during the warmer months.

Alia Ramer especially likes the searing savoriness that grilling imparts to vegetables. Something about those blackened crosshatch marks across a pile of zucchini, eggplant, onions, peppers and portobello mushroom caps is mouth-wateringly delectable. The secret to acquiring those attractive streaks is to brush the vegetables with oil. Alia also dredges them in a blend of garlic powder, salt and pepper.

Generally speaking, foods should be coated with oil or marinated to cook properly on a grill, according to Raichlen. Because a grill heats food at such high temperatures, there is the ever-present danger that food will overcook and dry out. For that reason, food that is not fatty, such as vegetables or lean meats, should be marinated or oiled before being placed on the grill. It helps to wipe the grill grates down with oil before turning on the gas.

Such basic instructions are hardly intimidating to even beginning barbecuers.

“Grilling is fairly easy,” says Alia Ramer. “And it doesn’t heat up the kitchen when it’s already hot outside.”

Just another reason Americans love their grills. Indeed, the benefits are seemingly never-ending: preventing a hot house from getting hotter, remarkable flavor, spending time outdoors, ease of preparation. Not to mention quick clean-up: no pots to scrub, no pans to scour.

Nothing says barbecue more than burgers and dogs, but a diverse range of meats are grilled by adventuresome outdoor chefs. Chicken pieces or breasts, different cuts of steak, firm-fleshed fish, shellfish, veal, pork, lamb. The trick is to marinate meat for several hours or overnight before grilling it. To tenderize meat, marinades must contain acidic ingredients, such as fruit or vegetable juice, wine, vinegar or yogurt.

“People like to have gatherings in their back yard,” says Dan Ramer. “They like to get together with their neighbors and friends outside, and they don’t want to be cooped up inside cooking while everyone is outside. With grilling, they can cook and be with their friends at the same time.”

And there is one more benefit that people are aware of, even if they don’t always talk about it: meditation. Because of the high temperatures, food on a grill must be closely watched.

“You’re out there checking the meat, but, really, you’re relaxing,” says Gregg Russo of Randolph. “You’re standing on your deck, outside, relaxing.”

Get out the tongs, let the propane flow and fire up.