Category Archives: Cookout Season

Grilled Chicken Burritos with Smoky Pinto Beans and Fresh Corn Salsa

tonyr_pot_kAmanda writes: I’ve become so burrito-obsessed lately that I’ve decided to start making them for the family (easier, cheaper, more fun – right??). Got any recipe ideas?

tonyr_cook_kTony’s take: I’m burrito obsessed, too, Amanda. Like, a lot. I frequent Chipotle and other local burrito spots often and I also make them myself every now and then. The preparation is a good fit for a busy week. You won’t necessarily save loads of money, but  you can cook up big batches of varied, vibrant fillings and then graze on them for the next day or two (rice and beans reheat fine). Look, burritos are not fine dining, but beans, vegetables, and lean protein offer  balance and nutrition and they’re good eating. I’ll take them over meatloaf every weeknight of the week.  Since burritos are all about the fillings, here are 4 mini recipes for the essentials as well as a basic gameplan to roll.

Spicy Pinto Beans with Chipotle and Bacon: Purists favor dried beans (and so do I; they’re great), but canned beans are perfectly fine here and far more manageable. Bacon offers a little richness while a handful of spices impart depth. Yields 3 cups.

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Recipe: Cook 2 slices bacon (about 2 oz., cut into thin strips) with 1 Tbs. olive oil in a heavy-based pot over medium heat, stirring, until the bacon renders its fat and starts to brown, about 5 minutes; transfer to a plate lined with paper towel. Spoon off all but 1 Tbs. of the bacon grease. Still over medium heat, add 2 smashed garlic cloves and cook until the garlic starts to brown lightly, about 1 min. Add 2 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. chile power, 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme (or 1 tsp. dried oregano), and 1/4 tsp. chipotle powder. Cook, stirring, until the spices become fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 2 15-oz cans pinto beans (rinse and drain the beans first), 1 canned chipotle chile (finely choppy), 2 Tbs. tomato paste and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors mix and meld, 15 to 20 minutes. Add a splash of water if the mixture dries out. Season with salt and lime juice to taste and serve sprinkled with the bacon; or let cool and refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Grill-Marinated Chicken: If you have the time, marinate the chicken up to a couple of days ahead (with the oil, garlic, and spices) so the flavors soak in. Boneless chicken thighs have a little fat which keeps them juicy on the grill. If you want to make this with beef, try flank or skirt steak, chewy cuts with big flavor. Serves 4 to 6.

IMG_0071 IMG_0081Recipe: In a food processor, pulse 1 garlic clove (coarsely chopped) with 1/4 cup olive oil until it’s minced to a paste (you may need to scrape down the sides of the work bowl). Add 2 tsp. ground cumin, 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. chile powder, 1 tsp. granualted sugar and 1/4 tsp. chipotle powder and pulse. Spread this spice paste over 1 1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs (or breasts). Transfer to a large zip-top bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days. To cook: grill (or broil) the chicken over medium-high heat until cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Let cool for 5 minutes, then chop and serve.

Spicy Summer Corn Salsa: Canned corn has its merits, but not in a salsa. Not now, when summer corn is sweet and in season. Grill up fresh cobs or use leftover grilled or boiled ears. Yields 3 cups salsa.

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Recipe: Drizzle 2 ears corn with 1 Tbs. olive oil and sprinkle with S+P. Grill over a medium fire, flipping every minute or two, until the corn browns lightly, about 8 min total. Transfer to a cutting board to cool, then remove the kernels from the cob (use a paring knife). In a medium bowl, toss the corn kernels (about 1 1/2 cups) with 2 plum tomatoes (cut in 1/2-inch dice), 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, 1/2 red onion (finely diced), the juice of 1 lime (about 2 Tbs.), 1 jalapeno (seeded and finely diced) and salt to taste (about 1 1/2 tsp.).

Cilantro-Lime Rice: This recipe is little more than steamed rice with flavorings: use Jasmine rice, steam it with a touch of oil so the grains don’t stick, and then toss with the lime and cilantro. Yields 4 cups rice.

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Recipe: Bring 3 1/2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and 1 Tbs. olive oil and then 2 cups Jasmine rice. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring once or twice, until the rice absorbs most all of the liquid. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes without disturbing so the rice steams and finishes cooking. Transfer to a large bowl and fluff/toss with the juice of 1 lime (about 2 Tbs.) and 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro. Season with more lime juice and salt to taste.

Gameplan: Big burritos demand big tortillas. Restaurants generally use 12+ inch tortillas. In the supermarket, it’s hard to find anything much bigger than 10 inches (these will be labeled “burrito-size”). Measure out your fillings accordingly – nothing worse than a busted burrito. Add in guacamole, grated cheddar, or sour cream if you like. To assemble: spread some rice in the center of a warmed tortilla (heat in a skillet or the microwave), top with the beans, chopped chicken, some corn salsa, and a couple shakes of hot sauce (try El Yucateco for big-boy heat). Then roll: fold the side closest to you over the filling (over and away from you), fold the sides in to the center and roll away (check this video from Porkyland for decent folding technique). Serve and enjoy.

Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp with Herbed Tomato and Feta Salad

tonyr_pot_kRebecca writes:  I know it’s a quick turnaround, but I want to grill some shrimp tonight. I have tomatoes and greens from the farmer’s market and a pretty full pantry. Any thoughts?

tonyr_cook_kTony’s take: Plenty, but, first, the shrimp: the question is to peel or not to peel shrimp before grilling. Peeling can lead to tough, rubbery flesh. But the shell of unpeeled shrimp can block smoky flavor from advancing (and make for messy dining). What to do? I generally pre-peel; I’ll take flavor over texture any day. But (and this is a big but), you can have it all: wrap peeled shrimp in strips of prosciutto before grilling and you get a lighter, summery version of “larding“: the prosciutto both crisps up and encloses the shrimp, all the while leeching off its salty intensity. The addition of the cured ham might require another trip to the supermarket, but it’s worth it. Pair these “wrapped” shrimp with slices of tomatoes and dressed greens and you get a Mediterranean inspired meal that’s simple, but kinda fancy. IMG_0009 The pairing: Summer tomatoes and greens go perfectly with the shrimp. Sprinkle meaty slices of tomato generously with olive oil, salt, and fresh herbs so they sort of marinate. Pair with a salad of dressed greens (I used baby arugula), some crumbled feta, and black olives. Top the salad with the shrimp just off the grill and they’ll wilt the greens and bridge all of the different flavors.

Shrimp: At the market, shrimp are classified by how many make up a pound. I like 16-20 count for grilling, large enough to hold up to high heat, but not so large that they’re obscenely expensive (the larger the shrimp, the more prized). look for wild caught (Gulf or Florida pink) shrimp which tend to have a meatier texture and cleaner flavor than farm raised.

The recipe (Serves 4)
IMG_0014 1. Get prepped: Light up a medium charcoal fire or heat a gas grill to medium-high (not too hot, or you’ll burn the prosciutto and shrimp). Meanwhile, peel and devein 1 1/4 lb. shrimp (preferably 16-20 ct), rinse with cold water, and pat dry with paper towels (make sure the shrimp is completely dry so it browns nicely). Sprinkle lightly with S+P (about ½ tsp. each) and 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme (or rosemary). Set 4 oz. prosciutto (thinly sliced) on a cutting board. Cut the prosciutto in 2-inch strips (about the width of the shrimp). Wrap the prosciutto around the shrimp and secure on skewers. Slice the tomatoes between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick and spread on a large serving platter. Drizzle with 2 Tbs. olive oil (use the good stuff if you have) 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar (about 1 Tbs.) and another 1 tsp. fresh thyme or rosemary and let sit .
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2. Grill the shrimp: Set the shrimp on the grill and cook without touching until they start to brown and easily release when you lift up an edge, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until the shrimp brown lightly and become just firm to the touch, about 2 more minutes. Transfer to a platter.

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3. Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss 5 oz. baby arugula (or spinach) with 4 Tbs. olive oil and 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar. Season generously with S+P to taste. Add 1 cup feta and 1 cup Kalamata olives. Set the tomatoes on 4 large plates, top with a mound of the salad, and then arrange the shrimp around the perimeter. Drizzle generously with olive oil and serve.

Spicy Grill-Braised Clams with Sausage and Jalapenos

Tony writes: Mine has been a summer of grill-braising. I know; I  should have just gone to the beach or hiking, gotten a little sun. But grill- braising offers its own (simple) thrills. Just grill meats, fish, and vegetables until they brown and pick up some smoke, then chop (where applicable) and transfer to a waiting pot of broth to finish cooking (right on the grill if you like). My latest efforts involve a spicy pot of clams and sausage. The richness of the sausage complements the tender clams while smoky tomatoes and spicy jalapenos fill out the broth. Serve with a crusty baguette or over a bed of pasta and feel the rush.

Grilling clams is easy and allows you, in a sense, to cook each bivalve individually (so it smokes/roasts/steams to a perfect doneness: tender with all of its sweet juices pooled in the bottom shell). Grill the clams over a hot zone of the fire until they start to crack open. Gently flip and cook another minute or so until the heat fully coaxes open the shells (all in, about 5 minutes). The last step is the most important. Carefully transfer the open shells to the pot of broth so their precious, briny juices reach the pot and don’t fall to the grill below; kind of like toting a couple of shots to friends in a crowded bar, but not, of course.

The technique: This method consists of three basic steps: first, grill the base for the broth. Brown plum tomatoes, Italian sausage, and whole jalapenos over a hot part of the fire. Then make the broth and grill the clams (simultaneously). Transfer the grilled base to a cutting board to cool for a couple of minutes, before chopping up and pairing with sauteed garlic and white wine. Meanwhile, grill the clams until they just open.  Pass the cooked clams to the tomato-sausage broth and cook together for a couple of minutes so all of the flavors marry.
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1. Prep and grill the base for the broth: Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or heat the burners on a gas grill to medium high. Rinse 2 1/2 lb. littleneck clams (or other small clam, about 25 ea) under cold running water (if they feel particularly gritty,  soak for 10 min. in a couple quarts of cold, well salted water with 1/4 cup cornmeal. The clams will feed on the cornmeal and, while they do so, release any extra grit.). Toss 1 1/2 lb. plum tomatoes (about 10, cored and cut in half) and 1 to jalapenos with 1 Tbs. olive oil and S+P (about 1/2 tsp. each)  Then set on the grill along with 1 lb. Italian sausage (3 to 4 links). Grill the sausage and vegetables, flipping after a couple of minutes, until browned (with good grill marks) but not necessarily cooked through, about 6 min. total; the sausage should still be raw-ish in the center and the tomatoes and jalapenos should just start to soften. Transfer to a cutting board to cool. Slice the sausage into 1-inch pieces and the jalapenos into thin rings and coarsely chop the tomatoes.IMG_0010 2. Start the broth and grill the clams:  Make the broth by sauteing 3 cloves garlic (thinly sliced) with 3 Tbs. olive oil and 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme in a large pot over medium-high heat (I use the grill itself) until the garlic starts to sizzle steadily and become fragrant, about 1 1/2 min. Add the sausage, tomatoes (and their juices), jalapenos and 1/3 cup dry white wine and cook, simmering and stirring, until the sausage cooks through and the tomatoes melt into a saucy broth, about 8 min.; move to a cooler zone if the broth boils too aggressively. Meanwhile, set the clams over a hot zone of the fire and grill until they start to crack open ever slightly, about 2 min. Gently flip and continue grilling until the clams fully open, 2 to 3 more min.; discard any that fail to open.IMG_0013 3. “Braise” and serve: As each clam opens, transfer it to the tomato-sausage broth. Cook for a couple more min, stirring occasionally, so the flavors mix and meld. Season the broth with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, sprinkled with more chopped fresh thyme (or 8 basil leaves, torn, if you have), over pasta or with a crusty baguette for sopping up the juices. IMG_0022

Grilled Jerk Chicken with Wholegrain Mustard-Thyme Crust and Marinated Vegetables

green potSam writes: Any tricks or suggestions for grilled jerk chicken? I’d like to make a batch next weekend for a cook-out.

chef hatTony’s take: Hey, Sam. Thanks for the question! As I write (and eat) the recipe below, I feel moved (no, make that, obligated) to share a new revelation (or, at least, something I had forgotten): grilled jerk chicken (crisp, spiced, smoky) out-skins all other poultry players (the flavor-soaked coating of buffalo wings, the buttery crackle of a perfectly roast bird, and, yes, even the glazed exterior of a Chinese roast duck). I know – none of this pertains to your actual question, but for the skin alone, I would make jerk chicken. Now that my moment of sharing is out of the way, I do have ideas for jerk. They’re not particularly authentic (I’ve spent all of 1 week in Jamaica – I was young and my focus was on waterfalls, swimsuits, and curried meat pies), but I have made a bunch of different versions over the years and this is an amalgam of my favorites. Most of my jerk tricks, not surprisingly, center around the marinade. And grilling easy – so that the  skin crisps and browns without burning. Irie, irie. IMG_0081  -Mustard makes the marinade: It may not be traditional, but mustard smooths out the intensity of jerk’s assertive flavorings (fresh ginger, Scotch Bonnet pepper, garlic, fresh thyme, and allspice), concentrating their punch. Use whole-grain mustard; the seeds add flavor without getting in the way, as regular Dijon might.

Prep ahead: A good marinade is as much about the time you allow it to do its thing as the actual flavorings. Two days of marinating is optimum. And use a food processor (or mortar and pestle if you’re so inclined); it purees the ginger and garlic into a smooth paste.

A bed of vegetables…: Another revelation for me: wilting grilled vegetables with grilled meat. It’s a common thing with roasting: roast a whole chicken over a layer of vegetables so the two mix and meld. But setting the grilled chicken pieces (just as they come off the fire) on top of the vegetables for a couple of minutes before serving, allows all of their wonderful juices to soak into the veggies. It’s a small thing, but nice.

The recipe (serve 4)

IMG_00901. Cut up the chicken: Cut up a whole chicken (about 4 lb) into 10 pieces (check out this video or this photo step-by-step, both from Fine Cooking and really well done). Rinse the chicken pieces under cold running water and then pat dry with paper towel.

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2. Make the marinade: In a food processor or mini-chop, mix  1/4 cup whole-grain mustard, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 Tbs. minced ginger, 1 Scotch bonnet pepper or habanero (chopped; leaves the seeds in if you’re feeling crazy), 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme, 1 shallot (chopped), 2 minced cloves garlic (about 2 tsp.), and 1/2 tsp. allspice. Sprinkle the chicken first with 2 tsp. kosher salt and 1 tsp. black pepper and then coat with this spice paste. Marinate for 1 hour at room temp or up to 2 days in the fridge for best results.

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3. Grill the chicken: Prepare a two-zone fire on a gas or charcoal grill with a medium-high and a low area. Set the chicken skin side down over the hot zone and grill until the skin browns but doesn’t burn, about 5 minutes. Flip, transfer to the cooler zone, cover the grill (with the vents open if you’re working with charcoal), and cook until the chicken browns all over and cooks through, 15 to 20 more minutes (slice into a thicker part of the thigh or check that it hits 165F on an instant read thermometer); the chicken should cruise along just fine over a low fire, but check often and lower the heat or nudge the bird to a cooler zone if it starts to burn. While you’re grilling the chicken, grill some red pepper, zucchini, and red onion. Set the grilled chicken on top of the grilled vegetables on a platter and serve, sprinkled with fresh cilantro and lime juice.

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“Wok-Grilled” Sesame Shrimp and Snap Peas

Tony writes: Hang around the grill aisle at Home Depot or Bed Bath and Beyond long enough (and I do… regularly) and you start to wonder about the vast sea of bbq gadgets and tchotchkes. Are any of them worth a purchase? Maybe it’s the recent heat wave (which has given me an overpowering urge to grill literally everything) or maybe I’m just losing it, but I’ve transitioned from grill-gadget browser to buyer. My first big purchase was a stainless steel perforated grill basket a week ago (a Mr Bar-B-Q for $12.99). I know – these baskets have been around for forever (all the way back to campfire cooking) – but I finally felt compelled to give one of the sturdier-looking ones a test drive. The baskets’ basic premise is to make things that don’t fit on the grill – ie: small/thin vegetables – grill-able (so they can’t fall through the grates)  Clearly, if these baskets were a grilling necessity, they would already have become part of the cannon. But most grill experts are traditionalists; maybe there are some lands left to discover.

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The technique: Holes or not, I decided to treat this wide, flat basket like an outdoor saute pan: set it over a hot fire and then grill/shake like-sized ingredients for a couple of minutes until browned and cooked through. It was only natural to co-opt the method into a stir-fry. Wok cooking relies on intense heat that, when executed properly, produces a smoky flavor similar to grilled fare (this smokiness is known as wok hei; in her master tome The Breath of a Wok, Grace Young explains it a heck of a lot more elegantly). The basket could mimic true wok cooking, only outside (where it won’t smoke out the house). I sliced up some pepper and red onion, trimmed snap peas, and cleaned shrimp and then tossed them all with a little oil, salt and pepper. I grilled the shrimp and vegetables, shaking, until browned and cooked through. And then the sauce. Unlike a true stir-fry, this one would have to be sauced off the heat, so I transferred the grilled stir-fry to a large bowl and tossed with a light mixture of rice vinegar and sesame oil. And it was good, good enough to repeat a couple of times since. Perhaps as important to this tale, the clean-up was mostly successful. Warm water and soap cleaned off all of the grilled debris from the basket. And though it would be hard to imagine the basket lasting more than a couple of grill seasons, at $12.99, it’s worth a buy (and this recipe worth a try).

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1. Prep: Light up the grill (heat the gas grill to medium-high or prepare a medium charcoal fire). Peel and devein 3/4 lb. shrimp (preferably 16-20 count); rinse under cold running water, then pat dry with paper towel to remove all surface moisture (this is important so the shrimp browns properly). Thinly slice 1/2 red bell pepper and 1 red onion. Remove the  stem ends of 1/2 lb. snap peas (and discard the stringy seams running along the sides). Add the shrimp and vegetables to a large bowl and sprinkle with 1 1/2 Tbs. canola oil and S+P (about 3/4 tsp. each).

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2. Grill: Heat the empty basket over the fire for 3 or 4 minutes so it gets good and hot. Add the shrimp and vegetables and cook, undisturbed for 1 to 2 minutes, until they start to brown. Using tongs and a grill mitt (or a folded dish towel), stir the ingredients so they flip and cook through all around (check the shrimp with a paring knife), about 2 to 3 minutes more.

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3. Toss with flavorings: Meanwhile, in another (clean) bowl, whisk together 1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil, 1 Tbs. rice vinegar, 1 Tbs. soy sauce, 1 tsp. Sriracha sauce, and 1 tsp. granulated sugar. Add the grilled shrimp and vegetables and toss well. Add more of any of the ingredients to taste and serve with steamed browned rice.

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Grilled Steaks with Wilted Arugula and Herb-Marinated Tomato and Mozzarella Stacks

Beth writes: We’re having a small dinner party next weekend for my husband’s work friends (2 couples plus us). I’d like to plan a really simple grilled menu. Steaks for the main course (my husband’s choice!); the easier the better. None of us is a gourmet!

Tony’s take: Thanks for writing, Beth! The casual, summer meal you’re describing is my kind of thing. If you push the menu in an Italian direction (which I would), you can create a meal that’s both simple and sophisticated… in an understated, I-just-got-back-from-Florence kind of way. Steak gets passed over for entertaining duty too often; and, instead, wedged into family-only/burger-and-dog territory. A good cut (like a strip steak, rib eye, or flank) can serve as the perfect centerpiece for company. Season the meat well, grill until it’s a perfect medium-rare, and then pair with a couple of summery Mediterranean “salads”. Neither of the pairings I suggest – the light arugula salad (generously dressed with good olive oil and red wine vinegar) nor the stacks of fresh tomato and mozzarella – are sauces in the traditional sense. But they make perfect summery counterpoints to the grilled beef: the peppery arugula offers a sharp balance, while a sprinkling of herbs marinates the meaty slices of tomatoes and mozzarella, enhancing the fruit’s brothy juices. A drizzle of good olive oil pulls the trio (steak, arugula, and tomatoes) together and makes the meal, more method than actual recipe, one that will impress.

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The steak: Following the old “chicken salad from chicken bleep” saw, the most important element to a great grilled steak is great steak. There are merits to all sorts of cuts, though I prefer chewy, beefy steaks as opposed to delicate (and expensive) ones like tenderloin or rib-eye. By my count, flank offers the best balance of flavor and affordability (though it’s not all that affordable anymore). If money is no object, I’ll go with a strip steak (rich beefy flavor, slight chew), while top sirloin (which I used here), tender and decently flavored, is my favored bargain

The grill: There are only 2 real tricks that I employ when grilling steaks. The first is to let the meat sit at room temperature while the grill heats. This 20 minute period allows the steaks to lose some of their chill, which helps them cook more quickly and uniformly (so the inside hits medium rare before the outside develops a gray ring). My other steak strategy is to build a moderate fire, hot enough to give the steak nice grill marks, but not so hot that the exterior chars before the interior comes to temp. Most great grill flame-outs come as a result of a zealous hand with the lighter fluid or charcoal (or both). Be easy!

The method (Serves 6)

1. Get prepped: Prepare a medium-high fire on your charcoal or gas grill. Set 3 lb. steak (like 2 medium flank) on a large platter and hold at room temp for 20 to 30 min while the grill heats. Thinly slice 3 large tomatoes (about 1 1/2 lb) and set on another large platter. Sprinkle generously with 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme and 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and let sit for at least 5 min and up to 1/2 hr.

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2. Grill the steak: Sprinkle the steak generously with kosher salt (about 1 tsp./lb or a total of 1 Tbs. for 3 lb. steak) and black pepper. Brush the grill grates well and lightly oil with a wad of paper towel. Set the steak on the grill and cook without touching until it starts to brown around the edges and easily releases when you lift a corner, 3 to 4 min. Flip and continue cooking until the steak is done to your liking, another 3 min or so for medium rare. To check doneness, make a nick into a thicker part of the steak or use an internal read thermometer (the steak should hit 13oF for medium rare). Note: As you can see from the pic below, I also tossed slices of red onion on the grill, drizzled them with balsamic and set alongside the steak.

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3. Assemble and serve: Transfer the steak to a carving board to rest for 5 min. Toss a 5-oz. pack of baby arugula with 4 Tbs. olive oil2 Tbs. red wine vinegar and a sprinkling of salt (about 1/2 tsp.). Alternating between slices of the marinated tomato and 12 oz. fresh mozzarella (thinly sliced), layer the tomato and mozzarella and set in stacks on 6 dinner plates. Set a mound of the arugula next to it. Thinly slice the steak and add to the plates as well. Drizzle with the best olive oil you’ve got and serve.

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Slow-Grilled Burgers with Sharp Cheddar, Spicy Pickles, and Charred Balsamic Onions

Tony writes: I’ve always loved the last meal debate (ie: what would you order/make for one final feast?). Kinda dark, but entertaining. As we start another summer of grilling, I couldn’t help but direct the question towards burgers (ie: “Sucks and all that this is going to be the last time you eat, but how would like your burger?”). Thinking in these terms helps sharpen the ol’ focus. I cook burgers every day, so I thought a little extra before deciding how I would direct each step in the process. Here it is, my greatest (last) burger:

I. Overview

1. Buy chuck:  Whether you’re grinding or buying pre-ground, look for cuts from the chuck (ie: the shoulder). It’s just the most flavorful part of the animal; tough, well exercised muscles that grind nicely. Round is too lean (and can taste livery). Sirloin sounds good, but has muted flavor. Fatty cuts like brisket or short rib are in vogue, but can be problematic on the grill (flare-ups). If you’re buying pre-ground, go with 85% lean; enough fat to keep the burgers juicy, not so much that you battle leaping flames.

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2. Grind (if you can): Part of this is food safety: for all the ghastly ground beef recalls, grinding whole cuts simply avoids this fate. But grinding your own is as much about flavor and freshness. The process is easy, even if you don’t have a grinder or grinder attachment. A food processor can also do the job (preferably one with a sharp blade – look for replacement blades at Amazon if yours is aging). Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes and stick in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm up (so it grinds nicely). If you’re using a grinder or attachment, just pass it through. I prefer one grind so the meat maintains a steak-y quality. If you’re using a food processor, you’ll need a bit more finesse. Add the chilled beef cubes in batches so they fill no more than 1/4 of the work bowl and pulse the beef until it’s coarsely chopped; it should take 10 to 15 pulses to get the meat about the size of little peas. Try packing the “ground” meat – with light force, it should form a patty; or else keep pulsing till it’s pack-able.

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3. Handle with care: It may seem trivial, but how you form the patties is important. A good burger should have a loose texture. Fat helps – it melts during cooking, like an internal basting brush. But packing the burgers gently ultimately ensures the right texture. To this end, use just enough force to press the meat into a patty and little more. Moisten your hands with a little olive oil, grab a ball (if you’re the exacting type, shoot for 5 oz – 6 oz.), and pack into a patty between 1/4- and 1/2-inch thick. I prefer relatively thin patties; their flat shape increases the surface area so the burgers cook more quickly and evenly and pick up more grilled flavor. Use the heels of your hands to gently flatten the burgers, and your fingers to round the edges.

4. Home-make the toppings: There’s almost nothing in a jar or bottle that you can’t best on your own (with the exception of Heinz 57 which Malcolm Gladwell accurately explains is almost impossible to match). My favorite burger toppings are all simple, but intensely flavored, the kinds of things you can throw together relatively quickly and then store in the fridge until you’re ready to grill. Below are two of my favorites.

5. Cook gently (“slow-grill”): The most common mistake that folks make with burgers is building too hot a fire. You want to cook burgers gently, so they get fine grill marks, but coast to a light pink doneness (or a juicy well done if you’re not sure who actually did the grinding and don’t want to tempt fate). A medium fire (with a surface temp of about 400F) is perfect: you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for about 4 to 5 seconds.

II. The Recipe (Serves 4)

Spicy Pickle Chips: Toss 1 English cucumber (about 1 lb, thinly sliced) with 1 tsp. kosher salt and 2 tsp. Sriracha and let sit for 10 minutes at room temperature, tossing occasionally. Toss the cucumber with 2 Tbs. white wine vinegar and let sit another 5 minutes before serving; or cover and hold in the refrigerator, mixing occasionally, for up to 3 days.

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Charred Balsamic Red Onions: Red onion’s high sugar content causes them to burn before they grill through. So grill them until they get color and then slowly saute with a splash of balsamic and some water until tender. To do this: toss 1 large red onion (about 1 lb., cut in 1/2-inch disks; skewer for easy flips if you like) with 1 Tbs. olive oil and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt. Grill over a medium fire until they get good grill marks on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to a small saute pan and set over medium heat (or right on the grill). Once the onions start sizzling, add 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar and 1/4 cup water and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions become tender and soft, about 10 minutes; add more water as needed if the onions start to stick or become dry. Serve immediately or let cool to room temp and refrigerate for up to 5 days before serving.

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– Slow-Grilled Burgers: Light up a medium fire. Form 1 1/2 lb ground beef into patties about 1/2-inch thick and 4 1/2 inches wide, gently pressing and spreading the beef while rotating it in your hands. Sprinkle each burger with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt each on both sides. Clean the grill grates well with a wire brush. Using an old dish towel, lightly oil the grates (this will prevent sticking and encourage grill marks). Cook the burgers, undisturbed, for about 3 minutes, until their sides start to darken and some juices rise to the top. Flip the burgers, top with thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese (about 5 oz. total), and cook about 3 minutes until the burgers become firm to the touch and the cheese melts. To check doneness, pull one of the thicker burgers to a cooler side of the grill and make a slit in the center; it should be light pink for medium. Sprinkle with a little salt, set on hamburger buns and serve immediately with the pickles and grilled onions.

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