Take grilling to a new level with tips from local chefs

Eli Collins prepares potatoes for a charred potato salad at Pub & Kitchen. ( BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer )

If you're looking for ways to liven up your grilling for Fourth of July weekend, then it's time to look beyond the burger/steak/chicken trifecta and start thinking of ways to eke flavor out of all kinds of ingredients.

"Grilling gives food that extra, unexpected element. The grill is basically the centerpiece of our kitchen . . . almost everything touches it at some point," says Eli Collins, chef of Pub & Kitchen.

What chefs like Collins are doing in restaurant kitchens works just as well at home: Moving meat from the center of the plate (and fire) and expanding the notion of "grilled vegetables" as way more than saggy discs of eggplant and zucchini.

There's nothing wrong with properly charred eggplant, zucchini, onions, and squash, of course, but there are so many other options. An easy place to start is Mexican grilled corn, or elotes. Ears of corn, husked or unhusked, take on next-level texture and sweetness after a spin on the grates, and an added layer of richness with spicy mayonnaise and crumbled cheese.

In his new cookbook, Feeding the Fire (Artisan, 2015), Fette Sau's Joe Carroll creates a Middle Eastern riff on this street-food classic. In place of mayonnaise and cotija, he uses cream cheese, and instead of chili pepper and lime, he adds za'atar and lemon to give it a tangy, bright flavor. He considers it an invitation for his readers to experiment further.

"You can take that basic concept of fat that will stick to your corn and spices," he says, "and go crazy with any kind of compound butter or cream cheese."

Chefs can't seem to get enough of grilled greens right now - kale, in particular, takes on a crispy-edged smokiness that makes the tough leaves more appealing, but Swiss chard, dandelion greens, and mustard greens also work great.

"Most vegetables are actually a form of cabbage, and they all take well to the flame," Carroll says, "which adds a nice depth and sweetness."

At Pub & Kitchen, Collins has been serving charred broccoli rabe greens in a rich green onion sauce - a bold remix of creamed spinach.

Greens on the grill can also be very simple. Wash; toss in oil, salt, and pepper; and set the greens in a basket or rack. Once blackened around the edges, remove, cool, chop, and serve with a drizzle of lemon. Or try a honey-based dressing and/or chili flakes to balance the char. The more bitter the green, the better the impact, so endive and radicchio are fair game, too.

But grilling doesn't have to be limited to hearty greens. Grilled salad can be a transformative addition to the table, and a good option for those wary of raw veggies. The ubiquitous grilled Caesar works well at home, and lends itself to variations, like grilled bread for croutons or grilled sardines in place of anchovies. Or a grilled salad can be made from root vegetables like carrots, beets, celeriac, sweet potatoes - the list goes on.

For more ambitious cooks, the grill might be used as a step in the preparation process - not just the end-point for all ingredients. In this approach, one or more elements are treated by direct heat, but they might be parboiled first or pureed later. In Collins' complex but stunning charred baby potato salad, the potatoes are cooked halfway first, grilled, then tossed with lip-tingling shishito peppers and onions (also grilled) in a delightfully bitter neon-green dandelion pesto. Similarly, in the restaurant's Baby Gem salad, grilled ingredients mingle with fresh and toasted components, with heads of lettuce - charred with grill marks - supporting chunks of bleu cheese, bacon, celery, radish, and crushed hazelnuts.

If fire-kissed veggies are not your thing, consider making dinner with smaller amounts of meat kebabs - or meatballs on skewers - that can be served with accompaniments. Carroll includes a recipe for spiedies, the upstate New York skewered-meat classic (marinated in Italian dressing) that will fit into any summer barbecue. Try grilling slabs of cheese like halloumi, kefalotyri, manouri, queso panela (no, the Greeks don't have a monopoly on grillable dairy products), paneer, or queijo de coalho. Breads - pita, crusty rounds of baguette, corn bread, even slices of pound cake - are another way to use the grill to its maximum potential.

Fruit should not be overlooked for savory applications. Grilled citrus can be squeezed over vegetables and fish. "I like to make salads with peaches in season and toss them with herbs, olive oil, and salt and pepper before grilling them. They're great with a creamy goat cheese," says Opa chef Bobby Saritsoglou. This summer, Opa's serving a grilled watermelon salad with feta cheese and a sprightly herb salad.

Though meat is obviously her forte, Kensington Quarters head butcher and manager Heather Thomason views her heated grill as a wasted opportunity if it's only used for chops or steaks. "I like to push the coals to the side and leave a cool side. I'll throw anything on there - asparagus, radishes, beets, fennel. I start out with direct heat and then move it to the indirect side just as I might cook something on the stove and move it to the oven. If I have people over, we almost always put some fruit on for dessert - nectarines, peaches, or plums - and once they're hot and soft, we'll serve them with some ice cream."

But most of all, Carroll advises that home cooks focus on good ingredients. "If freshness is your prime motivating factor, you don't really need to do much," he says. "A little salt, pepper, and olive oil, maybe a squeeze of lemon - that's all you really need."

Charred Corn With Compound Cream Cheese

Makes 8 servings

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 tablespoon za'atar, plus more for sprinkling

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 ears corn, shucked

Olive oil, for brushing


1. Prepare a single-level fire in a grill.

2. In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, za'atar, lemon zest, and lemon juice, and mix with a fork until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Brush the corn all over with olive oil, and grill, turning every minute or so, until blistered and charred all over, 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Transfer the corn to a platter, and use a butter knife to spread the cream cheese mixture all over it. Sprinkle with additional za'atar and serve.

- From Feeding the Fire, by Joe Carroll (Artisan, 2015)


Per Serving: 124 calories; 3 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 16 milligrams cholesterol; 78 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.

Charred Potato Salad with Dandelion-Greens Pesto

Makes 4 servings

1 pound small/medium-size red bliss potatoes, quartered


8 shishito peppers, whole

Canola oil

Black pepper

1 red onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

1 bunch dandelion greens, washed and cut

3 garlic cloves, divided use

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more if needed

1 cup chives, finely sliced

1 cup tarragon, finely chopped

Red vinegar

1. Place potatoes in a pot, and cover with cold water. Season with salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook the potatoes until just cooked through (about 10 minutes). They should not be falling apart.

2. While the potatoes are cooking, toss the shishito peppers in a small amount of canola oil, salt, and pepper. Heat the grill to medium high. Place peppers on the grill, and let them blister and char slightly. Remove from the grill, and repeat the same process with the red onion. When the vegetables are cool, rough chop them into quarter-inch pieces.

3. Meanwhile, toss cooked potatoes in oil, salt, and pepper. Using a fine grill rack or an aluminum foil packet, place the potatoes in a single layer on the grill. Let both sides of the potatoes begin to blacken. Transfer the grilled potatoes to large bowl with enough room for dressing, and add grilled onion and peppers.

4. To make the pesto, place the dandelion greens and 2 garlic cloves in a blender or food processor. Pour in a 1/4 cup olive oil. Blend until smooth, adding a little more oil if needed. (It should have a consistency similar to a thick soup.) Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

5. To finish the salad, toss vegetables with pesto dressing. Using a microplane grater, grate 1 garlic clove into the bowl and mix. Adjust seasoning with red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste.

- Courtesy of Eli Collins of Pub & Kitchen


Per Serving: 236 calories; 5 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; no cholesterol; 29 milligrams sodium;

5 grams dietary fiber.

Grilled Watermelon Salad

Makes 4 servings

Seedless watermelon, cut into eight 3-inch squares, ½-inch thick

Imported barrel-aged feta, cut into four 3-inch squares, ¼-inch thick

Aged balsamic vinegar

Parsley, mint, and chervil leaves picked from their stems, totaling 1 cup

Extra-virgin olive oil


1. Preheat the grill to very hot. Drizzle watermelon with oil, rubbing to evenly coat, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set melon on grill, and leave it there for about 2 minutes per side, or until just marked, and remove.

2. To assemble: Place one slice of grilled watermelon on each plate. Top with feta, a little drizzle of oil, and then add another slice of watermelon to form a stack. Toss fresh herbs in a bowl with a few drops of olive oil to coat, and season with salt and pepper just before plating. Place the herb salad on top of the stack, and drizzle balsamic vinegar around the plate and across the top of the watermelon.

- From Chef Bobby Saritsoglou of Opa


Per Serving: 150 calories; 4 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 12 grams fat; 19 milligrams cholesterol; 247 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

Chicken Spiedies

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes

Spicy Italian dressing (see note below)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 soft Italian rolls, split

4 tablespoons unsalted butter


1. Make the dressing. (See note below.)

2. Put the chicken in a large resealable plastic bag, add enough dressing to cover it, and seal the bag, pushing out any extra air. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or as long as overnight.

3. Soak six long wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes (or use metal skewers). Prepare a medium-hot, single-level fire in a grill.

4. Thread the chicken onto the skewers and season with salt and pepper. Discard the dressing. Grill the chicken, turning frequently (use tongs; you'll burn your fingers if you try to grab the skewers), until charred all over and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, brush the cut side of the rolls with the melted butter, and grill until toasted, 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Place a skewer inside each roll, and use the bread to hold the meat in place as you pull out the skewer. Drizzle with extra Italian dressing, if desired, and serve at once.

To make dressing: In a jar with a lid combine 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil; 1/2 cup canola oil; 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar; 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar; 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard; 1 teaspoon honey; 1 garlic clove; finely chopped; 1 medium shallot, finely chopped; 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley; 3 Peppadew peppers, finely chopped; 1 teaspoon kosher salt; 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano; pinch of red pepper flakes; and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Cover tightly, and shake well. The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

- From Feeding the Fire, by Joe Carroll (Artisan, 2015)


Per Serving: 504 calories; 47.9 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 23 grams fat; 155 milligrams cholesterol; 393 milligrams sodium; 7 grams dietary fiber.