The spring after my third year of university, and my brother’s second, we suddenly found ourselves home alone for three weeks, while our parents went on the first vacation they’d taken in our adult lives without us. They deserved it, and deserved not to have us there marring the experience. I was working as a bartender a few nights a week, and taking summer courses, and my brother had a few weeks off before his summer gig as a lifeguard got going for the summer. Our sister was away, and we hadn’t really planned anything to fill our downtime, other than the odd get-together with friends.
With no designs on really accomplishing anything during the mornings, we developed a habit that still, years later, seems to me an unlikely one for two guys in their early 20’s: we crushed the Food Network for hours on end.
Initially, we were only half watching, while we read the news or course books, played games, and texted friends, but over the course of a few weeks, we became completely enthralled with what we were seeing on screen. The adventure of show hosts travelling the world and diving into new culinary and cultural experiences, the impressive view into the world’s most impressive restaurant kitchens, the performance-art-meets-reality-TV drama of Iron Chef and its various spin-offs… all of these were wonderful entertainment, but what really drew our attention was something else: grilling.
If I had to explain why we liked BBQ shows in a single word, it would probably be because they were, quite frankly, hilarious. It wasn’t that the more sophisticated shows were too removed from the everyday eating experience, or because we couldn’t relate to the adventure tourism bits, or because we didn’t find Iron Chef as enjoyable as every other human on earth who has ever seen it does. It was because the grilling programs were wacky shows, hosted by hilarious, sometimes unlikely gourmands, who seemed more interested in making “awesome” stuff than really worrying about moving any kind of needle, or hitting any kind of bar in the world of haut cuisine.
We relished watched Bobby Flay, studious and serious in other programs, walk around and talk smack to his guest hosts in a New York accent on Grilling With Bobby Flay. We loved watching local boy Rob Rainford go through enough propane on License to Grill to open a new hole in the ozone layer for every leg of lamb on burner. We liked watching Guy Fieri do… well, whatever it is Guy Fieri does. But we also liked that we felt, very strongly, that if we really took notes, we could actually make a few of these recipes.
No, we were going to make a few of these recipes.
A few burnt husks of corn, overdone steaks, empty propane canisters, and flaming, ruined slabs of hickory later, the spring ended. Summer began, our family came home, we got busier, and our we allowed our license to grill to expire. But ever since then, while we haven’t managed to catch much of Flay or Rainford, we’ve still made time, every chance we can, for grilling outdoors in the warmer months, and with a bit more experience under our belts, we look forward to hosting a spring BBQ annually with all our friends, and growing family.
One of the best things about grilling, to me, is that it’s perhaps the easiest style of cooking for making great food that also happens to be healthy. Grilling tends to cook food more quickly, preserving more of its natural flavour and nutrients. The lack of need for butter, and difficulty of using large amounts of sauce on the finished product tend to produce healthier outcomes almost by default, and even if you’re making something as simple as a burger or steak, the smoke of the grill – particularly a charcoal grill – has a way of imparting a delicious something extra all on its own.
The options aren’t short, but for healthy spring eating, there are a few staples to which I always find myself returning.
This may not be the first thing that most people imagine pulling off the BBQ when the weather gets warm, but for me, there’s almost nothing in the world better than the taste of grilled eggplant. The meat of the vegetable soaks up cooking oil, smoke from the grill, and seasoning, becoming a warm, earthy decadence wrapped in charred, flavourful skin.
Eggplant is common in cuisines from Spain to Greece, Morocco to Egypt, Turkey to Iran, and India to Thailand, meaning there’s no shortage of recipes ideas for any season. In spring, my favourite way to grill it is in a simple Mediterranean style: halved, scored, and brushed with oil, balsamic glaze, and sea salt, placed on the grill for 20-30 minutes until soft and mushy, then taken off, and sprinkled with dried oregano. It takes minutes to prepare, requires almost no supervision, and even if it’s intended as a side dish, it often turns out to be the most delicious part of the meal.
There are plenty of ways to iterate on this basic recipe, to suit the occasion or simply for the sake of getting more creative. To turn it into a classic Spanish side dish, simply slice the eggplant a little thinner, and when it comes off the grill, top it with a finely diced salad of tomato, onion, garlic, capers, and basil. A favourite Turkish version can be made by removing the halves from the grill, scooping the meat of the eggplant out, cooking it in briefly in a pan with tomato sauce and herbs, and returning the finished product to the skins.
Nothing screams spring like fresh asparagus, and the best way I can think of to eat it is hot off the grill. Like the eggplant, this doesn’t need to be fancy – if you have a vegetable tray for the BBQ, you can simply toss these in some oil, salt, and pepper, pop them on the grill, and within a few minutes you’ll have delicious, healthy stalks of green goodness ready to go. As always, though, real brilliance is just a few minor tweaks away, and there’s much that can be done to turn asparagus from an unremarkable side dish into perhaps the best thing you’ll eat that day.
One change I love to make from time to time is to finish the asparagus by covering it, while still on the grill, with a thin layer of thickly cut prosciutto. The fat melts off the meat quickly, and only a small amount of it is absorbed into the asparagus before it’s burned off. Before the prosciutto starts to crisp, take everything off and put it on a plate. If you feel it’s lacking anything, a judicious smattering of grated parmesan or gruyére should round it out nicely.
Another delicious recipe I like to use draws inspiration from northern Spanish cuisine. Take a generous handful of asparagus, and a few whole stalks of green onion, and toss them in olive oil and a dash of salt. Spoon them in a row onto a sheet of wax paper, and then tie up the paper and place the bundle on a vegetable try on the grill for about 20 minutes. The wax paper will trap moisture escaping as steam from the greens inside, keeping them juicy and crisp while they cook. To finish them off, open the wax paper, and roll its contents out onto the grill, until they are very, very lightly charred. Remove them and serve with Romesco, the delicious red pepper and nut based sauce popular in Catalonian cooking. Romesco is easier than you might think to make, but on a beautiful spring day, you may be more inclined to just buy it in advance, and spend some more time enjoying the sun while you tend the grill.
While steak lovers may pray on the alter of tenderloin, filet mignon, and ribeye, these cuts can often be heavy, fatty, and so thick as to be a meal unto themselves. There’s nothing wrong with drooling over a juicy cut of steak fresh off the grill, but for a healthier option more suitable for spring, conscious eaters might want to look towards the flank. This is from the abdominal section of the animal, a stronger, well-exercised area with less fat, resulting in a steak with less fat, and tougher grain. Flank is usually cut relatively thin, making it excellent for marinating, and short grilling on high heat. If cooked properly, it is one of the most flavourful cuts of meat available, and much of its tough edge can be alleviated by cutting it against the grain before serving.
Perhaps my absolute favourite way to prepare this steak is by marinating it in diced ginger and garlic, and a glaze of soy sauce, honey, and sesame oil with a splash of vinegar. Let it soak overnight, then at meal time, slap it on the grill until it’s done “medium”, slice it into thin strips, and garnish with thinly chopped green onion, and some sesame seeds or black pepper. This pan-Asian dish will do well as part of a meal with fresh or grilled peppers, and loves a side of rice or wholesome grain bread. It’s a technique that can be replicated in countless other styles to suit a different cuisine, though. Try soaking the steak in a bit of fresh salsa, or lime/lemon juice, garlic, sugar, and dried chili, then chopping it up for grilled fajitas with home made guacamole, and fresh tomato and onion. This also works beautifully as the topping for a fresh salad, or carne asada. The cut is also perfect more Mediterranean or North African fare, and will do well rubbed with harissa, sumac, or cumin, and served with feta, flatbread, pitted olives, and humus.
The real rate limiters for what works on the grill are just your tools and your imagination – if you’re able to fit the thing you’re grilling, and have a good recipe idea to support it, there’s almost nothing you can’t cook over propane or charcoal. It makes clean eating easier, and brings out flavours in food that we miss all winter while we’re bound (mostly) to the stovetop and oven. Hopefully some of the ideas here will get you started on a healthy, delicious spring season, and have your neighbours poking their heads over the fence, looking for the source of that amazing smell.