Gary StollerGary StollerContributor
With spring approaching, an increasing number of Americans are gearing up for the prime grilling season. They may want to consider some favorite meals and expert tips of chefs at three top Chicago restaurants.
The chefs — Ross Henke, Mike Simmons and Abraham Conlon — say grillers can easily and quickly create their own delicious meals at home.
Henke is the executive chef of the mezcal-focused Mexican restaurant Quiote, and Simmons is a partner of the neighborhood cafe and neo-bistro Cafe Marie-Jeanne. Conlon, the only Chicago chef to win a James Beard Award last year, owns Fat Rice, which bills itself as a restaurant “that explores the varied cuisines of the Portuguese speaking world with an emphasis on Macau.”
Henke calls home grilling one of America’s greatest pastimes.
“It usually takes place around loved ones and always tastes good,” he says. “Grilling is the most celebratory style of cooking. It’s not forced, and it becomes more of a freestyle when you get into longer cooks and slow smokes. People gather, ask what you’re cooking and you can smell it for miles. What’s not to like about it?”
Simmons says “there’s nothing like grilling some meats and vegetables with great friends on a sunny day.”
Abe Conlon was the only chef in Chicago who won a James Beard Award last year.MARIA PONCE
The following are the some of the chefs’ meal suggestions and grilling tips:
Simmons: “Get weird with your meat choice. My go-to dish is brochettes comprised of chicken hearts, hearty bacon lardons and pearl onions. A fast hard sear on a charcoal grill renders bacon fat, caramelizes the meats and chars the onions, bringing out some great complexity and leaving the center of the protein tender. Brush on a one-to-one mixture of sherry vinegar and honey over and over while grilling to give the skewer a sweet, smoky lacquer and serve with fresh chiles, hot sauce and copious amounts of cold beer.”
Henke: “A popular dish in Mexican cuisine is pescado a la talla, but whole or filleted fish is susceptible to sticking to the grill. To prevent this, it’s useful to create a nonstick coating by lightly brushing mayonnaise or aioli onto the skin before placing onto the hot surface. Add an extra hint of fresh flavor to your aioli with things like lime zest, cilantro or avocado, and it’ll be smooth sailing from there.”
Chicago diners have come to appreciate the culinary talents of chef Mike Simmons, a partner of the neighborhood cafe and neo-bistro Cafe Marie-Jeanne,BRIAN EAVES
Grilling errors are common with rookie — and even veteran — outdoor cooks. Simmons offers some insightful pointers.
Common mistakes, he says, include using a lighter fluid instead of a chimney starter, using briquettes instead of lump hardwood charcoal and failing to let coals burn to a glowing smolder.
“Lighter fluid tends to impart a petrol flavor to the food that takes away from the natural smokiness of the charcoal,” Simmons says. “Use a chimney starter instead to make a beautiful fire that gives a great smoky flavor.”
Hardwood lump coal “looks and acts like real wood, and the flavor is unbeatable,” he says. “It also makes for a hotter fire at first that’s great for quick sears like seafood or peppers and a long, slow smolder that’s great for lower-temperature cooks like a whole chicken or pork loin.”
Maintaining heat in a grill is very important, Simmons says. “Adding a few coals here and there will keep the grill cooking all day and night. I like to throw on a couple of small chunks of wood here and there to give a great wood-smoke flavor.”
Conlon says grillers should be equipped with a lightly oiled cloth to prepare metal grates before placing any items on the grill and a metal, hard-bristled brush to clean debris from the grill grate.
“Avoid flare-ups and have a clean spray bottle with water to control the flames from grease dripping onto hot coals,” he says. “You should also regulate your heat. Starve coals of oxygen by putting the lid on to reduce temperature and avoid burning your food.
“Another tip is to know your zones. Give yourself flexibility to move items from very hot to cooler temperature zones for precise cooking. You’ll want to avoid over-oiling or using oily marinades. If the grill grate is cleaned, lightly oiled and properly pre-heated, then your items will not stick. Don’t move your items too fast — let them sear nicely and release naturally before turning or moving. To move items, a long meat fork is preferred to get between the bars of the grill grate.”
Executive chef Ross Henke delights Chicago diners at the mezcal-focused Mexican restaurant Quiote QUIOTE
The most common grilling mistakes, Henke says, are timing and selecting the proper cuts of meats.
“Grilling is not a quick alternative to get food on the table,” he says. “Take your time, plan ahead and allow your grill to reach the proper temperature before cooking. Use large enough cuts of meat that will withstand the heat and time it takes to yield an incredible bite of food. In today’s America, not everyone needs their own steak, so don’t go buying 4 1/4-inch New York strips. Buy one or two 2- to 2 1/2-inch steaks, cook them properly over a good fire and slice them. Then serve slices to your guests or family instead of an overcooked hunk of meat.”
Looking for relatively unknown, easily accessible travel destinations with hidden history, unique geography, fine dining and comfortable lodging? Gary Stoller takes you there at ShortEscapes.net.
I am a multi-award-winning journalist who was USA TODAY’s investigative travel editor for 17 years and a founding journalist of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. I publish/e…Read More
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