When it comes to grilling, anything goes NO BIG THING

May 25, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Thinking about cooking out tonight? Why not think big?

That's BIG, as in barbecued beef tenderloin, stuffed turkey breast, marinated leg of lamb, salmon roast, or ham.

All these are perfect on the grill, and can make a mighty nice change from the "small stuff" like burgers and dogs. They can turn a family meal into an occasion, or make a memorable feast for guests. And they're really no more trouble than preparing and watching over a lot of little things on the grill.

"You can do anything on a grill," says Francie George, corporate vice president of Baltimore's Haussner's restaurant and an enthusiastic outdoor griller at home. "I do Christmas dinner on the grill," she says. Other favorite items to grill are whole fish, fresh ham, turkey, prime rib and spare ribs. Everything is cooked on "an old, beat-up" kettle-type grill she's had for nearly 30 years.

Statistics show she's not alone in her enthusiasm. Americans celebrated 2.6 billion "barbecue events" last year, up from 2.3 billion in 1991, according to the Barbecue Industry Association, a trade group based in Naperville, Ill.

Eighty-three percent of all families in the country own a barbecue grill of some type, the association says. Gas types have a slight edge over charcoal, with 59 percent of grill owners having gas grills, and 58 percent with charcoal.

And whatever the type, 52 percent use their grills year-round.

The trend toward more meal preparation over coals or flame outdoors doesn't surprise Melanie Barnard, author of "The Best Covered and Kettle Grills Cookbook Ever" (HarperCollins, $16.95).

Grilling appeals because it's so easy -- it's less formal, and there's less cleanup afterward -- a factor that appeals in family dining and in today's entertaining.

"Grilling speaks casual entertaining," Ms. Barnard says. "You don't do formal things on a grill -- because it's a participatory experience. And that's what I think is fun about it. You get people together and they get their hands in. . . . Maybe it's prehistoric, maybe it's part of our genetic makeup. Anything you make on a grill tastes better."

While her book offers recipes for such things as Cajun burgers and "the ultimate hot dog," there are also recipes for whole chicken stuffed with lemons and sage, summer herb stuffed turkey breast, grill-smoked brisket, ham, and country pot roast, apple and sage-stuffed pork roast and spiced rack of lamb.

"You can do chickens and ducks, whole turkeys, big pieces of fish" quite easily on the grill, Ms. Barnard says.

It takes just a little planning to make a memorable meal around a grilled specialty, she says. Simple dishes are the best accompaniment: She suggests starting with such snacks as cheese and crackers, or grilled toast with salsa, sides dishes such as coleslaw, potato salad, or macaroni salad, some fresh vegetables from the farmer's market, all topped off with ice cream or frozen yogurt and sliced fresh fruit.

"The biggest mistake people make," she says, is planning a menu that requires them to be in the kitchen finishing side dishes at the same time they're outside watching the grill. That's why easy things that can be made ahead, or require only the tiniest bit of last-minute preparation, are the most practical choices.

And then the centerpiece can really stand out.

"The key to doing larger pieces is to roast them slowly at lower temperature," Ms. George says. She cooks everything with indirect heat, moving the coals aside after they're hot to encirle the grill, or placing them in semicircular piles on each side of the grate.

The vents in the grill also help control the temperature, she says. "When I do something large, I close the bottom vents and open the top ones, to let in a little more oxygen." She tries to keep the temperature between 275 and 300 degrees. (She recommends buying a good meat thermometer, commercial-style if you can find one at a kitchen specialty store or restaurant supply outlet.)

"Doing a whole turkey is wonderful," she says. "I do nothing to it. I just let it cook." She props up less dense areas of the bird by placing an old half-cup measuring cup under the tail, and allows half an hour per pound to cook the bird. The skin gets brown and crispy and the flesh is firm and juicy, she says.

"Another thing that's spectacular on the grill is a whole salmon," Ms. George says. She divides the coals into two semi-circles on opposite sides of the grill, so no part of the fish will be directly over the coals. "The night before I wash it and dry it and make sure there are no scales left on it, then I open it up and fill the interior with a paste made of honey and brown sugar." You can also put in sprigs of fresh herbs -- dill, tarragon or thyme all work well, she says. The honey-sugar mixture should be the consistency of thick paste. She stores the fish in a plastic bag on a baking sheet in the refrigerator until she's ready to cook it.

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