This weekend is your last chance to do what you promised yourself you were going to do this summer: Barbecue that chicken, grill that fish, or cook that steak.
That, of course is a vast overstatement. Dedicated outdoor chefs know the fall offers plenty of opportunities to light up the grill. However, in the fall it gets darker earlier, the gentle zephyrs of the summer turn into chilly winds. That means the motivation to stand outside and watch burgers wanes considerably.
So we are not talking about dedication here, we are talking "convenience." And Labor Day is the last three-day opportunity of the summer to grill with ease.
In the spirit of performing minimal labor on this weekend, here are three of my favorite low-sweat ways to grill the good stuff.
These are not all new ideas. I have, for instance, previously preached about the benefits of my favorite fish marinade. But as a parent, I find that unless you repeat something 900 times, no one seems to notice.
I also need to state, right from the get-go, that I am not a fan of cooking food in an oven, then finishing it on the grill. I regard such precooking as "cheating." I sneer at it.
First let us consider chicken.
I think that chicken, along with pizza, is one of the most temperamental foods I have cooked on the grill. The fire has to be hot, but not unruly. And, unless you burn it, chicken takes a long time, 1 to 2 hours, to finish cooking. Having undertaken both the quick burn and low-slow methods of cookery, I recommend the latter.
The best luck I have had with a whole, if squashed, chicken is the Marcella Hazan recipe, marinated in olive oil lemon juice and peppercorns, reprinted below.
Alternately for cut-up chicken, I first cook the naked pieces over a hot fire for 40 minutes then, as the fire cools, slather on a barbecue saucefor the final 30 minutes or so. If the fire is too hot, the sauce will burn. I know my chicken is done when I poke a joint with a fork and juices run out clear.
Now let us consider fish. I have two tactics for cooking fish on the grill. One for whole fish, another for fish parts, commonly called fillets.
For fillets of meaty fish like mako shark or even swordfish, I marinate them in a solution of mint, olive oil, soy sauce and wine (see recipe below). Then I treat each like a hunk of red meat. I cook it over a hot fire for about 10 minutes a side, flipping once. I know it is done when I can easily slice through the fillet with a fork. Before serving the fish, and while the fire is still going, I slice open the fillet and check for doneness. This too is cheating, but I tolerate it.
As for an entire fish, I have had good luck with a vinegar marinade (reprinted below) for whole red snapper, which I brush on the fish as it cooks.
And finally, the steak. I got the chicken and fish recipes from other people, but my steak treatment is my own. I grab a thick steak, a tenderloin or a T-bone, and rub it with olive oil.
I am not sure what this does for the steak, but it makes me feel terrific. Next I rub the steak with a handful of salt, a seasoning that lately I think is being carelessly attacked as outdated or unhealthy.
I get the pepper grinder and cover the steak with a hail storm of freshly ground black pepper. Then I toss it over a hot fire, flip it once, and add more pepper.
Broiled marinated chicken
From "Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan (Knopf)
1 broiling chicken (about 2 pounds)
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
Lay chicken on flat surface with breast facing down and split open along entire backbone. Crack breastbone from inside. Spread chicken as flat as you can with hands. Turn it over so breast faces you. Cut legs and wings where they join body without detaching them, just enough to spread them flat.
Turn chicken over and with inside of carcass facing you, pound as flat as possible, using cleaver or any meat flattening device. Chicken should have something of a butterfly shape.
Put chicken in deep dish. Pour the lemon juice over it, add the peppercorns and olive oil. Cover the dish and let marinate for at least 2 hours. Uncover and baste from time to time.
When fire is ready (coals are ashy gray), sprinkle the chicken with salt and place on grill about 5 inches above charcoal, skin side toward the fire. Broil until skin has turned a light brown, turn it over, basting with marinade from time to time. Continue cooking and turning on each side until thigh is tender at the pricking of a fork. Season with pinch of crushed pepper before serving.
Marinade for fish fillets
From "Eat Fish, Live Better" by Anne M. Fletcher (Harper & Row)
juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup dry white wine (vermouth is best)
2 tablespoons minced mint leaves
1 1/2 pounds of 1 1/4 inch thick fillets of meaty fish (mako shark, swordfish, mahimahi).
Combine all ingredients, except fish, in a bowl, set aside.