At this time of year, I probably use my gas grill more than my cooktop or oven to get dinner on the table. I enjoy some fresh air in the early evening, I like to give some of my favorite foods a little smoky flavor, and I like to do so without dirtying any pots and pans. I leave the ribs, brisket and whole grill-roasted chickens to my husband, who likes a project more than I do. My specialties are appetizers, salads, grilled breads and desserts, none of which takes more than 10 minutes to cook outdoors. Some of my favorite quick and easy grill recipes follow.
Although gas is quicker and easier (just turn the knob and 10 minutes later you're ready to grill), there are folks who don't consider it grilling unless there's charcoal involved. The best way to control the heat in a charcoal grill is to build a two-level fire: Light the coals, wait for the flames to die down and for the gray coals to glow red. Then arrange a third of the lit coals in a single layer over half of the grill and pile the remaining two-thirds of the coals over the other half. This way, you'll have two cooking zones, giving you the flexibility to grill both clams (which require high heat) and flatbreads (which would burn on high but brown beautifully on medium) as well as larger, longer-cooking items such as steaks and chicken parts.
READY, SET GRILL
It was a long winter. Here's a refresher course in good grilling technique.
Clean your grill
Preheating the grill to high and then vigorously brushing the grate with a wire brush will remove residue from last night's dinner, preventing sticking and off flavors. (You don't want your caramel-mango quesadillas to have a hint of shrimp, do you?)
Oil your grill
After you have cleaned your grill, it's a good idea to oil the grate, even if you are also brushing your food with oil. Fold a paper towel in half and soak it with some vegetable oil. Use a pair of long-handled tongs to brush the oiled towel over the grate. Take care not to push the paper towel through the grate, or it may catch on fire.
Plan an outdoor menu
As long as you are firing up the grill, you may as well use it to cook your entire meal. Littleneck clams, grilled for just a minute or two, whet the appetite for grilled salmon or swordfish. Grilled flatbreads can be baked and set aside to be served with a main course of grilled chicken kebabs or lamb chops. If you are serving a grilled shrimp salad as a main course, dessert quesadillas are a fun finish.
When cooking small and/or delicate items such as clams, shrimp, bread or tortillas, there's no time to walk away from the grill to water your geraniums or refresh your drink. These items will cook through, and then overcook and burn, literally while your back is turned. Have tongs and a wide spatula ready to lift your food from the grill as soon as you see that it is ready.
This is one of my favorite ways to prepare clams -- so simple and quick. Prepare them as soon as your grill is hot, and then serve them while you grill your main course.
2 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce
1. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. While heating, clean and oil grate. Place clams directly on grill grate, cover, and cook for 2 minutes. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, grill the clams on the hotter part of the grill.) Open grill and use tongs to remove clams that have opened, carefully transferring them to a platter so they don't lose too much of their juices. Close grill and continue to cook, checking every 30 seconds and removing clams as they open.
2. Spoon 1/4 teaspoon of barbecue sauce on top of each clam and serve immediately. Makes 4 appetizer servings.
GRILLED FLATBREADS WITH ZA'ATAR
These flatbreads are so easy to make because they don't have to be flipped. You want the undersides to get crisp, while keeping the tops soft and pillowy. A sprinkling of za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, is a quick way to give them intense flavor. Tear them into pieces while still warm and serve with hummus or baba ghanoush. Look for za'atar in Middle Eastern or specialty markets. Or substitute a mixture of 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt.
1 pound frozen pizza dough, thawed and brought to room temperature, divided into 4 balls
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons za'atar
1. On a lightly floured work surface, stretch and press each dough ball into a 6-inch round. Drape with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes.
2. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. Brush dough rounds on both sides with olive oil. While grill is heating, clean and oil grate. Turn down heat to medium. Place dough rounds on grill. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, place the dough rounds on the cooler part of the grill.) Sprinkle tops with za'atar, cover, and bake until breads are golden on bottoms, with darker grill marks, 4 to 5 minutes. Use tongs to transfer to a platter, and serve warm. Makes 4 flatbreads.
GRILLED SWEET-POTATO SALAD
The trick here is to cut your sweet potatoes thin enough so that they'll cook through quickly, but not so thin that they'll fall apart on the grill; 1/4-inch-thick slices are just right.
3 sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 bunches scallions, washed and trimmed at both ends
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. Place the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet, toss with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt. Do the same with scallions, keeping them in a loose bunch.
2. While grill heats, clean and oil grate. Turn down heat to medium. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, cook on the cooler part of the grill.) Place scallions on grill in a bunch and cook, turning once, until they're softened and lightly charred in places, about 5 minutes total. Remove to baking sheet.
3. Place the sweet potatoes on the grill and cook, turning once, until they have nice grill marks on both sides and are cooked all the way through, 6 to 8 minutes total. Transfer to baking sheet.
4. Coarsely chop scallions and place them in a bowl, along with hot potatoes. Add cilantro, butter, lime juice and cumin and toss to coat. Season with salt if necessary and serve. Makes 4 servings.
GRILLED AVOCADO, CORN, AND SHRIMP SALAD
This is delicious on its own or over shredded romaine lettuce. Or fill flour tortillas with the salad for shrimp and avocado soft tacos.
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo
2 ears corn, shucked
2 ripe but firm avocados, halved, peeled and pitted
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. Whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, lime juice, garlic, chipotle chilies and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl.
2. Brush corn, cut sides of avocado halves and shrimp with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt. While grill heats, clean and oil grate. Turn heat down to medium-high. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, cook the avocados and corn on the cooler part of the grill). Grill avocados, cut sides down, and the corn, turning occasionally, until lightly charred and golden, 3 to 4 minutes total. Transfer to a plate to cool slightly. Turn the heat back to high. Grill shrimp, turning once, until pink and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes total. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, cook the shrimp on the hotter part of the grill.)
3. Slice avocados, remove corn kernels from cobs, and chop shrimp into 1/2-inch pieces. Add to bowl and toss with dressing. Season with salt and serve. Makes 4 servings.
GRILLED GRILLED CHEESE
We usually think of grilled cheese as coming from a skillet or panini press. But to give your bread some smoky flavor, why not actually cook it on your grill? This recipe is easy to vary -- for starters, try Cheddar cheese and mustard or blue cheese and fig jam (skip the tomatoes in that case) instead of the mozzarella and pesto.
4 slices country bread, 1/3-inch-thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons basil pesto
1 small ripe tomato, cored and thinly sliced
4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
Ground black pepper
1. Brush one side of each slice of bread with some olive oil. Place 2 bread slices, oiled sides down, on a cutting board. Spread each with a teaspoon of pesto. Arrange tomatoes on 2 slices and sprinkle with the cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with remaining slices of bread, oiled sides up.
2. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. As it heats, clean and oil grate. Turn heat down to medium. Place sandwiches on grill, cover, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, cook sandwiches on cooler part of grill). Turn sandwiches, pressing firmly on them with a wide spatula to flatten. Cook uncovered for additional 2 to 3 minutes until undersides are golden brown and cheese is melted. Cut sandwiches in half and serve immediately. Makes 2 sandwiches.
You can substitute Nutella for the caramel, and sliced strawberries for the mango. In that case, serve with vanilla ice cream. You can prepare the quesadillas in advance of your dinner, spreading the caramel on the tortillas and sprinkling with mango, and folding them over. Cover them in plastic wrap so the tortillas don't dry out while they sit.
1/2 cup dulce de leche or caramel sauce
4 (8-inch) flour tortillas
1 small mango, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup strawberry ice cream or raspberry sorbet
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds
1/4 cup toasted coconut
1. Spread dulce de leche over half of each tortilla. Arrange mango on top of dulce de leche. Fold tortilla in half to cover filling.
2. Preheat gas grill to high or light charcoal. While heating, clean and oil grate. Turn heat down to medium. Brush both sides of quesadillas with melted butter, then grill until they are light golden with grill marks, 1 to 2 minutes. (If using a 2-level charcoal fire, cook the quesadilla on the cooler part of the grill). Carefully flip them and grill a minute longer.
3. Cut each quesadilla into thirds, arrange on a dessert plate. Top with a scoop of ice cream, sprinkle with nuts and coconut, and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.