Old-world Flavor

Americans rediscover the European roots of thier outdooe-cooking favorites

October 03, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Michael Symon's day job requires him to cook contemporary American cuisine at his well-regarded Lola Bistro and Wine Bar just west of downtown Cleveland.

But what does the hot young chef cook in his own back yard? He grills European. His favorite recipes include a lamb-and-onion kebab from Eastern Europe and grilled fresh peaches flavored like Greek baklava with honey and cinnamon.

"It's an overlooked cuisine," says Symon, 31, who also is co-host of the Food Network's Melting Pot cooking show. "But it's the stuff we do at home."

While it may be trendy these days to savor the grilled foods of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, with their exotic spices and robust flavors, it's easy to forget that the roots of American grilling lie in Europe.

Hot dogs? They can be traced to Germany's sausage makers.

The hamburger? There are similar ground meat patties grilled outdoors in Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia.

Italian sausage? Do you have to ask?

Even baked beans, the classic grilled-food accompaniment, come from Eastern Europe as cholent, a classic Jewish recipe for slow-cooked beans in a pot.

When Weber conducted its annual public-opinion survey last year, more Americans said they liked to cook Italian food on the grill than all forms of Asian cooking combined. Even Cajun cooking, one of the most popular and distinctly American forms of barbecue, can be traced to classic French cuisine.

"In Italian culture, there will often be an outdoor kitchen, and cooking things over a wood fire is very common, particularly in the south," says Paul Dongarra, chef-owner of Dionysus' Kitchen, an Ellicott City caterer.

Last August, Dongarra was recruited by the Italian Wine and Food Advocates, an Italian dining society, to cater a benefit dinner for 100 guests at the Lichendale Farm in West Friendship.

His choice was to cook sulla griglia or on the grill. A specialist in Sicilian and Mediterranean cooking, Dongarra decided to grill quail. After some experimentation, he chose to marinate the semiboneless birds in olive oil, garlic, thyme, rosemary and cracked pepper and serve them with braised fennel.

The quail were a hit. The dark meat and simple seasonings worked well with the smoky charcoal grilling.

"Even people who aren't partial to game loved it," Dongarra says. "The smoke really does something for the meat, and the hot charcoal fire gave it a nice crunch on the outside."

Bringing Italian flavors to the grill doesn't even have to be complicated. It can be as simple as unscrewing the top from a bottle of salad dressing.

Brad Hammond of Granite, a Baltimore architect, is also the mastermind behind the DeGroen's Beer Porkitects, a competitive barbecue team that has taken first-place honors in barbecue competitions in Memphis, Tenn., and Ocean City, N.J.

Competition barbecues generally focus on classic American fare like smoked ribs and pulled pork, but on his team's Web site (www.porkitects.com), he recommends his parents' recipe for lemon-oregano chicken, which uses the classic Greek flavors of lemon juice, olive oil and dried oregano.

Even easier, he says, is to mix up a batch of Good Seasonings Italian dressing and use it to marinate a steak or pork loin overnight, a technique he's used in competitions (with a few extra seasonings). He recalls his sister once marinating an inexpensive steak in a bottle of Wishbone brand dressing with surprising results.

"It was a cheapo steak and it was just phenomenal," he says.

While European cuisines are often associated with heavy sauces and subtle tastes -- which could be considered the opposite of grilled food -- author Steven Raichlen notes that the popularity of backyard grilling is on the rise in places like Germany and Great Britain.

In his classic book on global grilling, The Barbecue! Bible, (Workman, 1998 $18.95), he draws grilling recipes from 11 European countries including, most surprisingly, France. "The French do all things culinary well, but no one can beat them at spit-roasted chicken," he writes.

For the Melting Pot show on European grilling, Symon's co-host, Wayne Harley Brachman, prepared Romanian Steak, a skirt steak marinated in garlic and oil. It's a classic Eastern European entree that is still quite popular in New York delicatessens.

"I call Romanian Steak the epitome of Jewish grilling, which is something because you don't usually hear too much of Jewish grilling except maybe for frankfurters at Nathan's," says Brachman.

Symon's lamb kebabs also have a bit of Turkish ancestry. The garlic, mint and rosemary are classic lamb seasonings. Serving it on a skewer with onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms is what distinguishes it as a kebab.

"The most important thing is to use good-quality, simple ingredients and to use things that pair up well," he says. "With grilling, it's about the heat. You get that nice texture on the outside and still have medium-rare meat on the inside. Whether you use smoke or not is a matter of preference."

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