This weekend, I'll be posting a sign on the patio: Outdoor Kitchen Open for Business. With Memorial Day weekend as the unofficial start of summer entertaining, our grill and patio table will get plenty of use.
Now I know that many folks have been grilling outdoors since last fall. But truthfully, with the rain, wind, and cool breezes, there haven't been many occasions worth putting up our sun umbrella, much less eating outdoors.
That's all about to change. Man the grills. Pull up a lawn chair and get ready to prepare a Memorial Day menu.
According to the Barbecue Industry Association, 75 percent of U.S. households own a barbecue grill and Americans will grill out 3.1 billion times this year.
However, grilling has changed since baby boomers grew up with charcoal briquettes as a source of grill fire and Gen Xers watched their folks grill with natural gas or propane tanks. Today it's the "cylinder exchange" phenomenon where consumers drop off an empty propane cylinder at the exchange cage near a participating store entrance, and purchase a filled one.
My father-in-law used to spend three hours on a Saturday afternoon grilling whole chickens on a perfect charcoal fire. He would cut the grass a little, check the chickens, cut the grass a little, check the chickens. You get the picture.
Today, consumers rarely spend that much time grill-side. We're time-starved, with days filled with work, errands, soccer practice, and dance lessons. So hamburgers, steak, hot dogs, chicken, and potatoes are the most frequently barbecued food items, probably because they are quick to prepare.
We want that grill flavor, which Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, co-authors of Born to Grill (Harvard Common Press, $15.95) say is acquired when "a hot fire rapidly sears the outer surface of food, concentrating the juices of shrinking muscle fibers in meat into a potently delicious, crisp coating of crust."
Some people think the flavor is enhanced by smoke, but the Jamisons think that is overrated and is sometimes confused with barbecue smoking. Good barbecue doesn't depend on a smoked flavor.
However, according to the BIA, the most popular woods to add smoke flavor are mesquite, hickory, oak, fruitwood, and alder.
The truth is the outdoor kitchen, aka your grill, is amazingly versatile. There are recipes for every course using this method of cooking in Born to Grill, from grilled peaches with praline crunch to tortillas, and from onion rings to Bourbon Caramel Apples.
How to Grill by Steven Raichlen (Workman, $19.95) has instructions on how to grill a prime rib. Omaha Steaks: Let's Grill by John Harrisson with Frederick J. Simon (Potter, $13.95) features Grilled Zested Swordfish. Asian Smoked Duck with Grilled Pineapple is featured in Barbecues 101 by Rick Rodgers (Broadway, $15). There's even a Joy of Cooking: All About Grilling by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker (Scribner, $19.95) with delicacies such as Mixed Grill of Clams, Oysters, and Mussels.
Mixed grill is a dish of grilled or broiled meats that can include lamb chops, steak, bacon, and sausages. It is usually accompanied by grilled or broiled mushrooms, tomatoes, and potatoes. So a mixed grill of shellfish is a real summer delicacy.
Whether it's seafood or meat or poultry, mixed grill is pretty straightforward. Combine a couple of recipes for your own mixed grill; presentation on a large platter makes this a holiday feast.
Heartland Barbecued Pork Chops are topped with traditional barbecue sauce updated with honey, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard. Serve with corn bread, creamy cabbage slaw, and baked beans.
Lamb Chops with Herbes de Provence is made with a classic mixture of herbs used in the south of France. You can get the mixture in specialty stores or make your own. Serve with grilled asparagus and red-skinned potato halves that have been lightly coated before grilling with toasted sesame oil.
Rosemary-Pepper Beef with Steak Fries is a perfect choice for entertaining. Season the steaks with fresh rosemary, garlic, and pepper blend and then grill alongside frozen steak fries, seasoned with the same rosemary blend.
If charcoal grilling is your forte, then classic grilled chicken may be perfect with grilled corn and grilled potatoes.
Serve any of these entrees with grilled tomatoes. Simply slice off the top of the tomato. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and parmesan cheese. Drizzle with a little flavored oil, and grill just a few minutes to desired doneness.
You'll need that vegetable grill pan for grilled mushrooms, potatoes, asparagus, or any other veggies you want to add your entr e.
Whatever you choose will make this one memorable meal.