If your most adventurous grilling involved a fish fillet or meat-and-veggie skewer, it's time to take outdoor cooking in a new direction. Restaurant chefs and everyday cooks are making French toast, brie appetizers, wilted lettuce salads and mouthwatering desserts on their grates.
Tim Witcher, a grilling enthusiast and culinary arts teacher, includes the humble grill in a Burlington County Institute of Technology course about cooking methods. Students cook pizza and stone fruits (such as peaches or apricots) on a decades-old barrel grill, or use the tail of a lobster as a simmer pan for the succulent flesh.
"The kids aren't used to grilling things like that, so this sort of opens a new world," he said. "I tell them to think of it as a different kitchen."
The first step to going beyond traditional fare such as rib-eye steak or hot dogs and hamburgers is to think of your grill as both an oven and a stove. Control the temperature, Witcher said, and it's just as reliable as an oven with the bonus of imparting a smoky taste. Keep sauce pans and skillets nearby, like he does, and it's a stovetop perfect for making sauce from just-grilled tomatoes while the indoor kitchen stays clean.
"I cook outside all summer long just for the fact that I can keep the house cooler," said David Marks, part of the partnership that owns Delaware Valley sites of Famous Dave's barbecue-based restaurants. "And it's just nice to be outdoors after being cooped up inside all day long."
With such good reasons, it makes sense to use the grill for more than just the meaty part of a meal. Witcher grills French toast for breakfast. Marks uses a smoker for a decadent bread pudding dessert. Karen Docimo, a cooking instructor at Kitchen Kapers in Mount Laurel and a personal chef, rests brie right on the rack for a gooey appetizer.
Docimo preps a plank of cedar or other hardwood with an overnight soak in water. She cranks up the grill to build high heat, sets a whole wheel of brie on the plank, and keeps a close watch.
"Close the lid and stand by," she said. "You have to check on it constantly."
Once the white rind has started turning beige to amber and the sides just begin to bulge, she pulls it off the grill and serves it on the plank with plain crackers and a sweet topping like one made of figs or lingonberries.
"You want to taste the brie and the smoke and whatever toppings you want," Docimo said.
Chefs say the taste associated with flame cooking is the primary reason for moving a traditionally indoor food to the outdoor grill.
"There is a charred, smoky flavor that you can only get from flame," Marks said. "There's a definite nuance."
Try firing up your grill for some Romaine hearts, Docimo said. Slightly trim the brown bottom of the core, leaving enough to hold the leaves together, then slice the head in half lengthwise. Brush olive oil on the cut sides and season the pieces with salt and pepper, then set them on the grate of a gas grill on medium heat (or over the edge of a charcoal pile for not-quite-indirect heat).
"You're waiting for the edges of the leaves to get charred and wilted," she said. That can take two or three minutes, depending on the grill. Set a slice on a plate, drizzle with blue cheese dressing, and sprinkle with crumbled bacon for a tasty salad.
Keri Fisher, resident chef at Sur La Table in Marlton, suggested grilling slices of baguette brushed with olive oil and garlic. Broken up, they become salad croutons.
Fisher teaches grilling basics as part of her classes. Popular sessions go a step further to focus on pizza, fruits and other nontraditional foods.
She shows her students how to soak corn on the cob in water, then place it on a hot grill. The cobs get a little charred while steaming in their husks, then she moves them to a cooler area of the grill for a total cooking time of 10 to 15 minutes.
Don't forget fruit
Students branch out with fruit, too. Fisher cooks stone fruit like nectarines and garnishes them with blue cheese, warms skin-on banana quarters and serves them with dulce de leche ice cream, and stuffs apples with cinnamon and brown sugar before grilling them to apple pie-like perfection.
Fruit destined for the grill should be slightly less ripe than what would typically be eaten raw, according to Fisher.
"You want it to be firm," she said. "It it's too soft, it will just fall apart."
She suggested brushing fruit with a little vegetable oil, then placing it on a "screaming hot" grill just long enough for the telltale grate marks to develop.
Branch out from basics
Grilled pizza is a tasty example of how branching out from the basics can be entertaining, Docimo said. She starts with a typical dough, then adds cornmeal after it has risen "to give it more of a crunchy texture."
She starts with a hot grill and backs off on the heat right before brushing the dough with olive oil and tossing it onto the grates. (Charcoal users would build heat on one side of the grill but place the dough on the opposite side.)
"In swooping motion, you place it on the grill like you're putting a tablecloth on a table," she said. After three minutes under a closed lid -- just long enough for grill marks to develop -- swab the naked side with oil, flip it and start piling on the toppings.
"You have got to have everything ready, because you're working fast," Docimo said. Cook seven minutes or so -- depending on the dough's thickness -- and keep checking the underside for signs of burning. Toppings offer good clues to doneness: Slide the pizza off the grill when the cheese has melted or the onions are browning.
Domico notes that "if you're in party mode," you can press the dough a little thicker and grill one side a few hours in advance, allowing multiple pizzas to be served in a shorter time span.
Manage the grill
A common mistake among novice grillers is not allowing enough heat to build, Witcher said. That can lead to food that absorbs the lingering taste of igniter fluid or food that doesn't cook as evenly as it should.
Fix the problem by waiting until the coals are white and smoldering, he said. Use the lid to your advantage, and consider more positions than all the way up or all the way down. An aluminum can wedged horizontally between lid and bowl lets a little heat escape; wedged vertically it lets more go.
Don't be afraid to move coals around to create hot and hotter spots, Witcher said. Indirect heat is a key ingredient of grill cooking.
Witcher often starts the process by piling coals in a disposable aluminum pan. Small holes punched into the bottom provide ventilation. Once the coals are hot enough, he can move them around to suit the changing needs of the food.
Marks even moves the coals to a top rack, in a cast iron skillet, and cooks food under the heat source instead of over it. In addition to his role at Famous Dave's, he is the pitmaster for the competition barbecue crew Wilbur's Revenge. He said a big mistake amateurs make is to overlook the necessary cleaning of the grill.
"Some of the flavors do transfer," he said.
Keep your grilled peaches from tasting like pulled pork by heating the grill before spraying the grate lightly with water and scrubbing.
Marks also points out that traditional grill food like beef or pork has fat in it, thus many a home chef doesn't bother oiling the grates. Anyone who goes off the board with bananas, brie, even lean chicken breast should oil up.
IF YOU GO
Sur La Table: The Promenade at Sagemore, 500 Route 73 South, Marlton. Call (856) 797-0098 or visit www.surlatable.com
Kitchen Kapers: Cherry Hill Mall, 821 Cherry Hill Mall, Cherry Hill. Call (856) 662-1919. Eastgate Square, Moorestown-Mount Laurel, 1341 Nixon Drive, Moorestown. (856) 778-7705 or visit kitchenkapers.com.
Famous Dave's: 104 Route 70 West, Cherry Hill. Call (856) 857-1520 or visit famousdaves.com
Burlington County College culinary program: Visit www.bcc.edu/pages/403.asp