Organic Sense

Smokin’ Good: Upgrading Grilled Foods

By Terese Allen, Organic Valley Food Editor

Ah, grilled foods. Is there any cooking method that offers more flavor? It’s that signature char, that sweet caramelization, that smoky savor we love so much. But what if you want to make a good thing even better? For cooks who like to play with their food, there are lots of ways to enhance the pleasures of grilled meats, fish and vegetables. Here are some ideas for pumping more savor and fun into your backyard meals:

1. Start with the best – Certified organic meat comes from animals that breathe fresh air and have room to move. They eat health-giving, pesticide-free prairie grasses and lead contented lives—all of which translates into meat that just naturally tastes better.  (It’s also healthier for you and the planet, which means you get to enjoy it on a deeper level, too.)

2. Get soaked – Marinades are seasoned liquids that give a flavor boost to poultry, meats, fish and vegetables before grilling. They might contain wine or orange juice to lend a complementary tang. Sometimes they include olive oil or a flavored oil, which add their own rich dimension, and can help carry the flavor of other ingredients in the mixture to the meat—ingredients like chopped fresh herbs, minced garlic or onion, lemon zest, and the like.

Marinades can be used to give a regional or international profile to grilled fare—try mixing soy sauce, minced ginger and sesame oil for an Asian angle, or combine salsa, green onions and cilantro for some Tex-Mex flare. In some cases a marinade can help tenderize grilled food as well as add flavor to it; buttermilk and yogurt, for example, are two cultured dairy products used for this purpose.

A little advice, however: Don’t let meat sit in a marinade too long, or it can make the flesh turn mushy. An hour or two for small cuts is plenty, while larger ones can sometimes go as long as 24 hours. When you are ready to grill, remove the meat from the marinade and pat it dry with paper towels (or it won’t brown well). And since you are working with raw meat here, never use the marinade as a sauce until you have boiled it first.

3. Rub it in – Spice rubs and herb pastes are another kind of marinade—ones that give concentrated flavor and a dark, delectable crust to the surface of grilled meats. For a dry rub, grind fresh spices and press the mixture all around and over cut of beef or pork, chicken parts or a whole fish. For an herb paste, mix chopped fresh rosemary, thyme or another herb with a little oil (and maybe some minced garlic). Rubs and pastes are especially convenient, since you can get grilling as soon as they’re on the meat. 

4. Make scents – Taste and smell are interrelated senses—when something smells good, it adds greatly to the pleasure of eating it. Wood smoke is a heady scent on its own, but you can give a fragrant accent to grilled foods by burning such things as fresh herbs sprigs or aromatic twigs along with the charcoal or wood. Branches of rosemary, sticks of apple wood, or hickory nuts shells can be tossed into the flames just before you put meat on the grill. And they’ll give a hint of their special savor to the meat, too.

5. Top it off – A simple, well-seasoned steak or chop cooked to perfection—can life get any better than this? Add a simple sauce and it will. Pesto, salsa, or European butter studded with fresh herbs or blue cheese will make your grilled foods sing.

6. Get to the bottom of it - One more way to accent grilled fare is to place it on a bed of something delicious. Position a rib-eye on a mound of peppery arugula or some butter-brushed Texas toast.  Or try nestling a trout fillet on watercress, or grilled chicken on pea vines. An edible base also has the added benefit of soaking up all those flavorful juices, so that not one speck of savor is lost.

Great Grilling Recipes

Tandoori-Style Grilled Chicken – Yogurt lends an agreeable tang to poultry, and its natural acidity helps tenderize poultry.

Grilled Portobello Parmesan Sandwich – Gourmet doesn’t necessarily mean difficult. And neither does vegetarian!

Grilled Cobb Salad –You can teach an old dog new tricks. Try this classic composed salad that features smoky grill flavor and all-organic ingredients.

Yucatan-Style Pork Tacos For a Crowd – Got a big, casual gathering coming up? Here’s an unusual soft-shell taco recipe that’s big enough to serve a crowd.

Mixed Grill Vegetable Salad – When summer’s organic veggies are coming on strong, bathe them in a fresh-herb marinade, grill them until they char and sweeten, and then dig in to all that nutrition and flavor.

Red Currant and Blue Cheese Butter (for grilled steaks) – As luscious as it is easy to make, this sauce is contributed by wild foods authority Teresa Marrone, author of Abundantly Wild and Cooking with Wild Berries and Fruits.

Blue Cheese Red Wine Burgers – Tired of the same ol’ burgers and beer? Red wine is the marinade as well as the wash for grilled burgers topped with Organic Valley’s blue cheese crumbles.

Marinated Grilled Pork Chops – This marinade will work for any meat, not just pork, says Organic Valley farmer and recipe contributor Charlene Stoller.

Spice Rubbed & Char-Grilled Steak – Steak gets a deep-flavored boost when it’s seasoned with a dry rub of spices plus aromatic ginger and garlic.

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