By Nigel Spence
SUMMER IS officially here folks! It’s time to clean up that grill and get your barbecue on… Many of you may think that grilling is a simple matter of lighting some charcoal and searing your choice of meat or chicken over the hot coals.
However, to master the true essence of flavor and deliver an award-winning dish every time, there are three (3) simple tricks you should employ that will be key to your success.
First – the selection of charcoal. Shopping for charcoal can be overwhelming for the inexperienced griller. With the rows of palettes featuring every imaginable type of charcoal, how do you choose the best one? Simple. The preference should be for “Hardwood” charcoal. This type burns much hotter than most and presents a much cleaner burning fuel. I have also found the hardwood charcoal is comparable to the wood we use in Jamaica for delivering the lip-smacking, tantalizing jerk-grilled meats that have served to put us on the map. If truth be told though, Jamaicans have always used hardwood for charcoal, but not so much for grilling as we know it.
We love our “likkle” one-pot creations and so instead of meats placed on a grill over a fire, it was a huge iron cauldron familiarly known as a “Dutchie” placed over a coal stove made up of stones and wood.
No Master Chef could ever recreate the flavor of that meal using traditional kitchen methods. So, it was natural for us to transcend from coal stove cooking into actual coal grilling, a method only recently inherited in Jamaica.
Second is having not only a hot side to your grill, but also a cool side. I apply this method always, but especially when grilling vegetables.
The idea is to sear your meat or vegetable on the hot side to get some great grill marks and color to your liking, then lay it on the cool side to simmer and lock in the flavors and cook to your preferred doneness, just before serving. To do this, just keep most of the charcoal on the side that will be your hot side where most of the action takes place and a lot less coal for the cool side.
This still gives enough heat to keep food cooking at a temperature similar to “simmer” on your kitchen stove. Thirdly – you should lightly oil your grill. To do this most effectively, use an oiled cloth and gently rub over your grill. This prevents meats from sticking and allows for easy removal. This is an important factor when grilling fish as the thin skin tends to stick to the grill when heated and also when grilling vegetables for similar reasons. you can even put an oiled sheet of foil on the cool side to further deter sticking to the grill.
Summer is such an exciting and rewarding time of year for fruit and vegetable cooking. Everything is in abundance – you can pick, choose and refuse from the endless array of freshly, harvested products displayed at your local farmer’s market. Or, for those of you in the Caribbean who grow your own vegetables in your backyards, by now you are reaping basket loads of peppers, tomatoes, okra and much more.
So you eat some of the spoils and still have a surplus left over. Sure you can give some to your neighbor, but chances are they are facing a similar situation – what to do with all the excess? Most of us in the Caribbean and especially in Jamaica, have never placed much importance on vegetables within the structure of the meal. We mostly used veggies to garnish or to add to soups.
We rarely give vegetables the starring role on a plate. On a recent trip home to Jamaica, at my sister’s house was not much different. The emphasis was placed on the meat of the day and sides – the veggies were lost in the background. When I saw the enormous amount of vegetables reaped from the garden sitting orphaned in some boxes and baskets, my “Cheffy” juices starting kicking in.
It was my intention to rescue the fresh harvest from a life of boredom, emancipating it to the forefront of the meal. So I gathered my tools of the trade and set to work. Some peppers here, a little okra there – a handful of tomatoes, some beans and so on. The best thing that can be done for veggies in season is to handle them ever so gently without overpowering them with heavy seasonings or overcooking them, to allow the natural flavors to step forward.
By lightly seasoning them with fresh herbs and tossing them on the grill after a quick rub in a flavorful oil, such as coconut or olive oil, is all they need to be the star of your table. Leaving them as close to whole as possible also intensifies the wow factor in taste and presentation. In the end, when the meal was served, guess what?
The first thing to go were the vegetables! No longer a second-class citizen, the veggies took center stage over everything else and all from a simple process using the grill.
Folks, this is a dish that will leave your guests begging for more. So go out, enjoy your Summer and use this time to create. Don’t waste your produce or serve the same boring garnish. Here is my simple recipe for these all-important, health-giving wonders of nature. I present to you simple grilled vegetables!
2 tablespoons Jamaican extra virgin coconut oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped fine
1/2 yellow bell pepper, large julienne
1/2 chayote, sliced thin
16 whole okra, blanched
1 whole green squash, cut in thick half moons
1 medium carrot, cut in half moons, blanched
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon bottled Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce
Dash of good Jamaican Dark Rum
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except rum, and let marinate for 20 minutes.
Get a grill very hot and add vegetables to a grill pan specially for vegetables that has holes in it. Toss the vegetables every few seconds in the pan and cook for a total of about 3 minutes depending on the heat of the grill. The idea is for the vegetables to cook, but retain some structure to allow for carry over cooking to continue to soften vegetables after they have been removed from the grill. Just before vegetables are removed from grill, put a dash of dark rum being careful not to get burnt when the fire blazes up for a few seconds. Remove from heat and add adjust seasoning and serve immediately.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.