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Grilling: Versatile, healthful, flavorful

SHAPE September 2015

As chefs and foodservice operators explore ways to accommodate more adventurous and hard-to-please customers, many are finding that dishes prepared on the grill meet those needs — and even set new standards.

Whether fueled by wood, charcoal or gas, grilling has emerged as one of the preferred cooking techniques for foodservice operations, from quick-service to fine-dining.

“Grilling is really a back-to-basics cooking technique,” says Dale Miller, president of the Master Chef Consulting Group in Clifton Park, N.Y. “Wood and fire is about as basic as it gets when it comes to cooking. And grilling transcends all cultures and cuisines. It's universal. Chefs are using it as a basic cooking method but they're also employing their own creativity to make the finished dishes unique.”

And the popularity of grilling continues to grow. According to research firm Datassential, 79.5 percent of all restaurants in 2014 featured some form of grilled items on their menus. The Chicago-based company found that 68.5 percent of all quick-service operations offered grilled items, while 86.3 percent of casual-dining and 90.7 percent of fine-dining restaurants featured grilled selections.

Grilling has become popular for a number of reasons, experts say. In the first place, it is perceived as being a more healthful cooking technique, compared to frying or even sautéing, both of which require the addition of other fats, according to Kevin Crawley, registered dietician and associate instructor in the Culinary Nutrition Department at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Moreover, in the case of grilled meats, the rendered fat is able to  drip off and fall into the fire, adding a distinctive, smoky flavor to the item being cooked.

As a result, grilling often can stand in for less healthful cooking methods. For example, fall is football season across the  nation and many restaurants cater to a clientele that is looking for food to enjoy while watching the game on TV. One of the most popular game day items is chicken wings. But rather than serving the wings fried, operators can grill them instead, flavored with hot sauce or more elaborate marinades containing herbs and spices like thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage, coriander or cilantro.

Grilling, in fact, can impart great flavor to a diversity of ingredients, including proteins, vegetables and fruit. Thomas J. Delle Donne, assistant dean, culinary relations and special projects at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, notes that chefs using wood-burning grills can customize the smoky flavor of a dish by employing a variety of different woods, including applewood, hickory, cherry and mesquite. In addition, some chefs are also using wood from wine barrels as well items like almond skins or walnut shells.

Flavoring a grilled ingredient with a spice rub, marinade, brine or sauce also offers other ways of amping up the taste profile of the dish. Rubs, which have been steadily gaining in popularity, not only provide added flavor but also can sear an ingredient, forming a crust on the surface that leaves the food moist internally. Miller prepares a duck breast by first opening a cavity, stuffing it with fennel, rosemary, garlic and Parmesan cheeses, and then coating it with a rub made from espresso, garlic powder, pepper and smoked paprika. The breast is grilled and served with a porcini mushroom sauce.

Grilling is a technique that holds a prominent place in virtually all culinary cultures — which accommodates the current red-hot trend of menuing more full-flavored international fare. “Within the past few years we've seen grilling incorporated into more ethnic dishes,” Crawley says. “Chefs are using it with South or Central American dishes or even African ingredients.” As an illustration, he suggests grilling chicken coated with a Berber spice rub and serving it with cous cous, apricots and dates and preserved lemon. In another example, he recommends serving skewered and grilled chicken in the form of a sate accompanied by different dipping sauces.”

Appearance is another important benefit of grilling. While caramelization from grilling gives proteins and other foods an appealingly flavorful golden-brown color, diners also appreciate the visual impact of being served food with seared-on grill mark. “People love to see a New York strip steak with grill marks on it — it's a great look,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio.

Grilling is adaptable as well. While chefs have traditionally employed the grill to cook proteins, today they are expanding their culinary palette. With fresh and locally raised vegetables and fruit getting increased attention in professional kitchens and at home — September is National Fruit and Veggies Month — chefs are exploring creative ways to prepare fresh produce on the grill. “Grilling brings out the flavor tenfold,” Crawley says.

Fresh, grilled vegetables lend themselves to a wide variety of preparations. Crawley notes that a combination of grilled root vegetables, corn, potatoes and asparagus make a perfect accompaniment for a whole grilled fish that has been stuffed with herbs, fresh garlic and lemon slices.

In addition, Brussels sprouts marinated in a citrus vinaigrette can be charred over a grill to maximize flavor, while charred broccoli can be served with a yellow tomato curry, mustard oil and chamomile yogurt. Cauliflower, eggplant, onions, peppers and mushrooms are good candidates for the grill as well. Thick slices of grilled cauliflower, in fact, are appearing more and more in the center of the plate.

Nor are chefs ignoring fresh fruit where the grill is concerned. Grilled pork, for instance, pairs well with grilled stone fruit like nectarines or pears. Grilled peaches soaked in brandy or Calvados also can be flavorful accompaniments for grilled veal chops. And grilled fruit can be found in every course, from appetizers to desserts, chefs say. Crawley says that a best-seller at his former restaurant was a grilled banana sundae, with toasted macadamia nuts and coconut, dark rum ice cream and mango puree topped with whipped cream and a cherry.

Clearly, all of these positive attributes are helping to stoke the popularity of grilling across the industry. Delle Donne calls grilling “a one stop shop. It's convenient and adaptable. As chefs and restaurateurs, we need variety and grilling offers that. You can cook nearly everything on it, and enhance the flavor of the item you're cooking. And isn't flavor what we're all about in this business?”



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