There is something primal about grilling, the combination of flame and raw meat (or vegetable or fruit or even pizza) that tugs at the caveman within and makes us feel unified with our wild ancestors. It awakens inside us the satisfaction felt by early man after a successful hunt, knowing they would be well fed for several days.
And not to belabor the point, but grilling also happens to be delicious.
Flame, fat and food. It is cooking at its most elemental. It’s easy and it’s a simple way to get big flavors out of food. And that may explain why, when we grill, we tend to grill foods that are easy and require little preparation.
The most commonly grilled foods are hot dogs, hamburgers and steak, in that order. Each is easy, none requires much work or thought at all. Each is adequate in its own way, but nothing special. That’s why the only one we’re going to talk about is steak.
Before that, though, let’s begin with chicken. Throughout the South is a fast-food chain called Pollo Tropical. With its Cuban-inspired flavors, it may be my favorite fast food anywhere.
Grilled chicken, which is served with rice and beans, is the signature dish. The chicken is clearly marinated in some combination of citrus juices, but after eating it several times I still didn’t know what they were.
That was before the invention of the Internet. I know now, or at least suspect, that they marinate their chicken in a combination of pineapple juice and bitter orange juice. And therein lays a problem. Bitter orange juice is not impossible to find here, but it isn’t easy, either. So we substituted two parts lime juice and one part orange juice for the bitter orange.
About the steak: My favorite way of making steak comes from a cookbook put out by the San Francisco restaurant Rose Pistola. It’s called Terrorized Steak, and it involves creating a paste of fresh rosemary, fresh marjoram, plenty of garlic, olive oil, salt, two kinds of pepper and cognac. You have to respect any recipe that uses a splash or two of cognac.
This recipe is sublime; you get a flavorful piece of meat with a superb outer char and a hearty, perfectly cooked interior.
A well-grilled piece of meat, of course, deserves a well-grilled vegetable. Asparagus is always appropriate, but I have been eating so much asparagus lately that I reached instead for the old reliable, grilled corn.
Grilling corn is ridiculously easy. Soak corn, still in its husk, in water for at least 15 minutes. Place on a grill. Cook until done. Eat carefully — it’s hot — and savor the deep, nutty flavor that comes from the grill.
And because the grill was still hot, I decided to grill a dessert. I don’t think I made up the idea of a grilled chocolate-and-marmalade sandwich, I believe I read about it some years ago, but I had wanted to make one for some time.
Simply spread marmalade liberally on one slice of bread, and cover with an ounce or so of chocolate. Top with another slice of bread, brush both sides with a little melted butter, and place on the grill. Cook on both sides until you get lovely grill marks on the bread and the melted chocolate starts oozing out from the center.
The melted chocolate blends with the marmalade — it is not unlike a chocolate-covered orange peel, but a little sweeter — and it all mixes with the unmistakably toasty flavor of grilled bread.
It is so good, you just might skip the meat and the vegetables altogether.