With summer right around the corner, it’s time to start dusting off the grill and pulling out the deck furniture. Outdoor entertaining season is fast upon us, and the sense of urgency to impress your crowd as a BBQ virtuoso should have you losing sleep at night.
But I implore you not to scurry into the corner of your kitchen and collapse in a heap of frayed nerves and post-traumatic grilling disorder. If you can keep these few key menu tweaks in mind for your next gathering, your friends will be thrilled.
“Everyone expects a nice dried-out piece of chicken breast to be served on the picnic table, so go in a whole different direction.”
– Chef Sean Gartland –
Put away the Tube Steak
Sure, it’s hard to beat a grilled Koegel slathered in mustard on a hot summer day. But nothing makes a statement like an artisan, hand-crafted sausage that some hipsters ground up and stuffed into a natural casing. The flavor combinations can range from the mild to the wild in any number of ways. Some of my favorites come by way of the Corridor Sausage Co. from Detroit with its Moroccan recipe Lamb & Pork Sausage with Dried Figs or the Vietnamese Chicken Sausage with bold lemongrass, lime and ginger flavors. Local favorite J. Deans Sausage & Jerky Co. cranks out a huge variety of creative recipes in its line of bratwurst. You can grab traditional beef and pork brats as well as venison and elk in flavors like Sassy BBQ and Philly Cheese Steak.
Tip: Don’t have time to stand over the grill babysitting a raw bratwurst? Try precooking it in a pan of your favorite cheap beer along with some chopped onions and garlic. Finish on the grill to crisp up the casing and give it a nice charred flavor.
Where’s the Beef?
Everyone loves a good burger now and then, and it’s an easy out if you’ve got a crowd of hungry friends on their way over. Go ahead and throw some prepressed frozen beef pucks on the fire and crack open a cold one. Problem solved. But who’s going to rave about a burger? How are you going to beef up (pun intended) your grilling credentials with a showing like that?
My favorite go-to when facing a bunch of carnivores is the tried and trusted flank steak. This once overlooked cut has ascended into hall-of-fame status among chefs and butchers alike. It’s perfect for marinating ahead of your party or simply rubbing in spices on short notice. Because it is a tougher cut, flank steak tends to be pretty flavorful. It’s perfect when used as filling for steak tacos, sliced up for a more sophisticated cheese steak hoagie or simply served alongside grilled vegetables and chimichurri sauce for a casual dinner.
Tip: Resist the urge to slice this steak on the bias, as you will be elongating the grain of the meat, thus making it tough to eat. Cut directly through the muscle against the grain, keeping the slice straight to shorten the grain of the meat.
It Tastes like Chicken
There is nothing more boring than chicken and nothing more cliché than chicken breasts marinated in Italian dressing. There, I said it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Chicken can be the star of the show if cast with the right characters alongside it. Don’t be afraid to pass up that giant package of chicken drumsticks for sale in the meat case. Or even the huge bag of frozen wings at the warehouse store.
Everyone expects a nice dried-out piece of chicken breast to be served on the picnic table, so go in a whole different direction. Throw on some drumsticks that have been marinating in Jamaican jerk sauce, or rub on a sweet honey teriyaki glaze as you grill them. Drumsticks are the perfect outdoor food. What else can you eat with one hand while you keep the other free for a beer? Chicken wings are the perfect finger food for outside too. They handle a low indirect heat on your grill really well, and for an unexpected take on a buffalo wing, throw some wood chips on the fire and throw them some smoke. These two cuts, by the nature of the beast, are less likely to dry out through the cooking process or while they sit in a warmer of some sort for the duration of the party.
Tip: Muffin tin cup/cupcake wrappers make great little drumstick holders to keep the BBQ sauce off your hands and allow for the one-handed, strolling meal.
Chef Sean Gartland is the culinary director of the Flint Farmers’ Market and owns Feast Gourmet Kitchen Shop in Fenton. Be sure to check out his blog, feastonthisblog.com, for more recipes and cooking tips.