There seems little alternative to having a barbecue on the Fourth of July and perhaps that's not such a bad idea. Barbecuing is the perfect social event that brings friends and family together.
To split hairs, barbecue is really quite different from grilling. Barbecue refers to the method of slow cooking and to the grill itself, so it can be a noun or an adjective.
This sort of slow cooking can produce delicious and tender results, but what is cooked is most often fatty pork or beef with a tangy, sweet sauce and it's not the healthiest option.
On the other hand, grilling, and that is our subject today, can be quite healthy and just as delicious. Forget the fatty meats and think of all the vegetables and seafood that lend themselves to quick cooking over a hot fire. The Italians are famous for their outdoor grilling as is most of the Mediterranean, so perhaps we can borrow something from them.
Some of the Italian's most celebrated grilled dishes are prosciutto and fresh figs, asparagus wrapped in pancetta, eggplant with goat cheese and pesto, grilled whole fish with salsa verde or rosemary grilled shrimp, just to name a few. If you want to pursue this subject get a copy of Mario Batali's Italian Grill Cookbook.
The results you get from your grill will depend in a large part on your method. The fire you cook over should be much more than just a source of heat. If you cook with gas, then heat is all you will get unless you add wood chips. Regular charcoal is a step up, but for about the same price you can buy hardwood charcoal that is much better. The best source of heat and smoke is always going to be wood itself.
The Italians would use fallen branches from their prized olive trees, but we can make do with a combination of hickory, pecan and oak that will produce a hot and fragrant fire. Still, there are other options -- Tom Fitzmorris, the WWL radio food and restaurant critic, is fond of cooking over sugarcane.
One final note -- there is nothing wrong with using a fire-starting liquid to get your grill going, as long as extreme caution is used. Always follow the directions. But it does leave a residue flavor if you do not let it burn off completely. Never use a fire starter while food is on the grill, unless you want your lunch to have a perfume of gasoline.
ROSEMARY ROASTED TOMATO CROSTINI
6 red ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
1 sprig rosemary
1 pinch oregano
1 pinch thyme
Salt and pepper
1 crusty baguette
Oil a sheet pan that will fit on top of your grill. Slice the tomatoes in half, squeeze gently over the sink to remove much of the juice and them place cut side up on the pan. Toss the other ingredients together and then dust each tomato generously with it. Place on
the grill, close and roast until the tomatoes are soft and fragrant. Remove to a large bowl and toss to break the tomatoes up. Slice the baguette, toast it if you like and top with the tomato mixture.
If you've been putting off trying Austria's Grüner Veltliner now's the time. It's the perfect white wine for a summer grill.
GRILLED ASPARAGUS AND BACON
Make sure to use thinly sliced bacon or pancetta, otherwise the bacon will not be done and the asparagus will be overcooked. The quality of the bacon also will make a big difference, so shop carefully.
1 pound asparagus
About 4 ounces best quality bacon or pancetta
Freshly ground black pepper
Remove the tough ends of the asparagus, then wrap three or four spears in one strip of bacon, season with black pepper and grill carefully until done, about 6 minutes if your fire is right. Remove to a platter, drizzle with olive oil and serve at once. Enjoy with a cold Pinot Grigio.
ROASTED RED BELL PEPPERS AND PASTA
1 pound penne or rigatoni pasta
3-4 red bell peppers
1 chopped red onion
3-4 chopped cloves of garlic
1 bunch fresh basil
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and set aside. Grill the red bell peppers over a hot fire until charred black, remove and place in a brown paper bag for about 15 minutes. When cool remove the charred skin under running water, roughly chop and place in a large mixing bowl. Sauté the onions in a little oil, remembering to season as you go, then add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Toss the peppers and onion/garlic mixture in a little olive oil, taste and season again if necessary. Toss with the pasta, top with lightly chopped basil and garnish with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
ROSEMARY GRILLED SHRIMP
1 pound large shrimp, shells off
6-8 rosemary sprigs
8 garlic cloves
1 pinch salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Remove the leaves from the rosemary and chop. Add the salt to the garlic and crush into a paste with the back of a wooden spoon, season with the black pepper and chopped rosemary leaves. Toss the shrimp in the mixture and then refrigerate for a few hours. Allow the shrimp to come to room temperature, skewer on the rosemary stems and then grill over a hot fire for no more than 2 minutes on a side. Serve immediately.