Snap, Snap: Local Chef Shares Grilling Secrets
WHEELING — The sky is happy-day blue. The grass is green. It’s enough to have any Ohio Valley grillmeister snapping those tongs in anticipation of hot nights on the deck or back patio.
But, you may want to hold on there. Wheeling chef Gene Evans — with 25 years of restaurant experience and an assistant professorship of culinary arts under his toque blanche — has some tips on how to make this the Best. Summer. Ever.
First off, Evans said true pros need to brush up on their vocabulary. There’s a difference between “barbecue” and “grill.”
“When it comes to barbecue, that’s when everything is about slow and low,” Evans explained, nodding in understanding that fellow West Virginians tend to call all outdoor cooking “barbecue.”
Not to say barbecue cannot be done on a grill. “If you’re grilling your baby back ribs, you’re doing it at the lowest (temperature) or indirectly,” he said, suggesting such a meal might be prepared on one side of a gas grill that is actually being heated from the other side.
Barbecued meat tends to fall off the bone when it is done. “That would be the hope.”
But, if your outdoor cooking style runs more to high heat and fast cooking times, it’s definitely not barbecue, he noted. “Most people are really grilling. Probably hamburgers or hot dogs in most cases.”
For cooks who like to, well, kick it up a notch, there are just so many ways to go, he noted. One way is to add variety.
“Once it turns summer and it starts really getting hot in the house, I try to figure out how to cook everything outside.” Evans really does mean everything — meats, vegetables, baked potatoes.
He suggests grillers visit area farmers’ markets to select the freshest ingredients, including those with which they might not be familiar.
In addition to what might be grilled, he said to look for unusual produce that could be turned into a companion salsa or pico de gallo that can add moisture to grilled meat.
“Play around and don’t be afraid to fail,” he encouraged. “Sure, we make dishes and they don’t turn out well, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from giving it another whirl.”
MARINADES AND ‘MOPS’
Another technique he recommended for premium flavor is to do a two-step treatment of meats intended for grilling. In the first step, he suggested planning ahead in order to marinate meat from between one hour to overnight.
“We’re so caught up in the rest of our lives that we don’t have time,” Evans said of slowing down enough to eat well. “It’s a lifestyle choice that you have to make to say, like, ‘Every Thursday I’ve got to get ready for Friday’s dinner.’ “
Evans likes to experiment to the level of play with marinades.
“What do I want that meat to taste like?” he asks himself before he begins. “Do I want it to have a Tex-Mex flavor or Asian or be just like summertime — really herby and fresh?”
Knowing he will use an acid (like vinegar or lemon juice) to tenderize the meat, he builds on that to create the chosen flavor profile.
It might be Asian — with some soy sauce and sesame oil added to the rice vinegar or lemon juice. It might be the spicy, savory combo of honey-Dijon — with honey, Dijon mustard and a flavor-neutral oil such as canola added to white vinegar. It might even be something similar to flavors of barbecue but done in grilling style — with vinegar enhanced by strong notes such as dry mustard, paprika and brown sugar.
It might be trendy, he added, noting that gochujang is emerging as the new chipotle or sriracha. Gochujang — a fermented pepper paste of Korean origin — can add savory, spicy and sweet elements to grilling. “It really adds nuance,” he said.
Or, given that he already spends a whole lot of time in the kitchen, it might be something so simple it comes in a bottle.
“One of my big standbys for a marinade is cheap Italian dressing. The acid will help break down and tenderize the meat and flavor it.”
Whatever he chooses, Evans will continue to build the flavor profile by making more of the same for a “mop” — a thickened version of the marinade that is used for basting during grilling.
There are two basic thickeners that can be used in mops, he noted. Flour will create a thicker, duller-finish, creamier mop. Cornstarch will create a glossier, translucent one.
Not all grilling requires quite so much thought, Evans noted.
“When I’m a professional and I’m cooking, I’ll always take the extra step,” Evans said. “When I’m home, I’m not into creating more work for myself.”
With exceptions such as marinades and mops, Evans said he focuses on letting the natural flavors of the food shine through. One example is corn on the cob. “I do nothing special with it — in the husk, right on the grill.”
Evans also employs restaurant-style efficiencies. A quality meat thermometer ensures meat is cooked all the way through without constant eyeballing.
Quantity is also in play. When he grills chicken breasts, for example, he does at least three to four pounds at a time. He then pulls (shreds) them and freezes them in single servings that his children can grab if they want a sandwich or chicken salad.
“I try to be very efficient in the kitchen,” he said.
Even his chosen grill is about efficiency, he noted. It has dual function for charcoal or gas grilling. “If I have some time, I use charcoal. When I don’t, I use the propane,” Evans said. “I use a little bit of both. I also have a small smoker.”