Here's something we learned from years of traveling in the tropics: Big flavor doesn't require big effort.
Sure, if you want delicate, nuanced shadings of flavor, then the labor-intensive creations of classic European cuisines are probably for you. But if you want deep, explosive flavor without much work, look to the hot-weather regions of the world. Because the ways flavors are developed in these two regions are diametrically opposed.
It's nearly summer, so consider the way flavors are deployed in warm-weather cooking, with each taste laid out individually rather than combined with others.
Think about a Latin salsa. Making it couldn't be easier: Chop up some tomatoes along with chilies and onions, add a little cumin and a handful of cilantro, squeeze in a couple of limes, and you're done. Then take a bite. Instead of a long, smooth ride on a single flavor, you experience waves of taste — the tart-sweet of the tomatoes, the pungency of the lime, the earthy spiciness of the cumin, the heat of the chilies, the aromatics of the cilantro — coming at you in quick succession. When it's properly done, each of these competing flavors underscores and balances the others.
This dynamic is found not just in Latin American salsas but also in India's chutneys, Southeast Asian sambals, and even the fresh relishes of the U.S. South.
Grilling, the cooking method of choice in most tropical cuisines, adds another element to the geographic flavor profile. Since cooking over a live fire gives food a distinctive element of smoky, charred taste, it further mediates against any attempt to introduce subtle, blended flavors.
Spices, too, are part of the equation. Most of them originated in the tropics, so even everyday cooks there are experts at integrating them into their cooking. Also, in most of these countries protein is not traditionally at the center of the plate, and the dominant starches rely on spices for liveliness. So we are big fans of coating food with spices before it goes onto the grill, an approach we prefer to marinating.
However dynamic, though, spices can't do it all. They lack the flavors and texture of marinade ingredients: the spark of ginger; the fresh licorice taste of basil; the gentling sweetness of hoisin; the familiar burn of fresh chilies. To bring these into play, we came up with what we call "razzle-dazzles."
We're not looking to do anything fancy to the food we buy on vacation. With the temperature high and the ocean temptingly close, we don't want to spend lots of time on dinner. But we do want to put some real flavor in it.
So we started putting together easy combinations of fresh ingredients that could be tossed with already-grilled food. We're talking about the handful of fresh-chopped herbs, the squeeze of lemon, the glug of fish sauce, the dollop of chili-garlic sauce.
The key is to add these ingredients at the last minute, rather than combining them in advance, as you would with a marinade. Because when you marinate something, you basically let the meat or fish soak in a combination of high-flavor ingredients, then toss out the marinade and grill the main ingredient — which all too often tastes as if it has been soaked in Italian dressing.
Think how different it is to simply grill the main item, put it in a bowl, then add the same ingredients you would have used for a marinade and give it all a good toss. You get them in all their flavorful glory, as opposed to discarding them.
The method of tossing is important here, too. Of course, you can mix everything together with a spoon or a pair of tongs (or your hands), but we prefer to toss it, in the kind of rolling flip that chefs use to toss food in a sauté pan over a burner's flames. It is really the best way to mix up everything without crushing anything. And it has a bit of showpersonship to it, which somehow makes everything taste better.
After all, a little visual razzle-dazzle doesn't hurt, either.
Thai-Style Baby Back Ribs
2 racks of baby back ribs, about 3-3½ pounds total
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ cup soy sauce
Juice of 2 limes (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons minced jalapenos OR other chilies
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh lemon grass.
Build a fire in your grill; when the coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium-low (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 7 seconds), you're ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, lower cover and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium-low.)
Sprinkle the ribs generously with salt and pepper, place them on the grill directly over the coals, and cook until a peek inside shows that the meat no longer has any pink at the center, about 10 to 12 minutes each side.
When the rib racks come off the grill, cut them into individual ribs and place in a large bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients, toss to coat, season with more salt and pepper if needed, and serve.
Yield: 3-4 servings as entrees, 6-8 servings as appetizers.
Spicy Latin Chicken Wings
3 pounds jumbo chicken wings
Salt and pepper
? cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1-2 tablespoons minced chipotle peppers in adobo (OR chili powder)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 2 limes (about ¼ cup)
Build a fire in your grill; when the coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium-low (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 7 seconds), you're ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, lower cover, and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium-low.)
Cut the wings into three sections, saving the tips for stock. Sprinkle the two larger sections generously with salt and pepper.
Put the wing sections on the grill directly over the coals and cook, flipping occasionally, until cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. (To check for doneness, cut into one of the wing sections at the joint; there should be no pink.)
When the wings come off the grill, put them in a large bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients, toss to coat, season with more salt and pepper if needed, and serve.
Yield: 4- 6 servings as appetizers.
Grilled Lamb Kebabs with Smoky Peaches
1 cup yogurt
½ cup minced fresh mint
2 pounds boneless lamb leg
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon curry powder
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
2 peaches, pitted and halved (not peeled)
1 tablespoon roughly chopped garlic
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh basil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
4-8 dashes Tabasco
Build a fire in your grill; when the coals are covered with gray ash and the temperature is medium-hot (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill for 3 to 4 seconds), you are ready to cook. (For a gas grill, turn all burners to high, lower cover, and heat for 15 minutes, then turn burners to medium-high.)
Mix the yogurt and mint in a small bowl and set aside.
Trim the lamb of most but not all fat and cut it into 32 large chunks, about 1-inch square. Add them to a large bowl with the olive oil, curry powder, and salt and pepper. Toss well to coat, then thread onto four skewers.
Put the skewers on the grill directly over the coals. Also put the peaches on the grill, cut side down, and cook until just slightly charred and softened, about 6 minutes. Take off the grill and cut into large wedges (about six per peach).
At the same time, cook the lamb, turning to expose all four sides to the direct heat of the coals, until done to your liking, about 2-3 minutes a side (8-12 minutes total) for medium-rare. (To check for doneness, cut into one of the chunks and check to see if it is cooked to your liking — remove from the heat when it is slightly less done than you want it to be when you eat it.)
Put the peaches and lamb in a large bowl. Add the garlic, basil, vinegar, and Tabasco, depending on your desire for heat. Toss to coat, season with more salt and pepper if needed, and serve (over rice if you wish), accompanied by the yogurt and mint.
Yield: 4 servings.