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Grilling tips from a top chef

Marinating pork chops.

How did your Memorial Day cookout go? If the results weren't so stellar, don't worry: You have the rest of the summer to practice, and we're going to give you some help. Nick Schneider, the chef behind the new Tavola Fresca dinner series, knows a thing or two about outdoor cooking. Here are a few of his tips for grilling meat:

Marinating pork chops.
Marinating pork chops.

1. Boost flavor by marinating, rubbing, or stuffing your meat Some meats benefit from the additional flavor or a marinade or rub, especially tougher, chewier cuts with a lot of surface area, such as flank or skirt steak. You'll want your marinade to have at least one acid (citrus, vinegar, wine) and aromatic (garlic, capers); for example, these pork chops are soaking in a mix of soy sauce, orange juice, garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, and a little honey. Marinades are effective in about an hour; after about six hours, returns tend to diminish.

Rub a top round steak.
Rub a top round steak.

Dry rubs impart flavor with less waiting time. (Use on meats that you won't cook at too high a temperature so as not to burn the aromatics.) For example, a rosemary and garlic rub works well with lamb. Or try dried ancho chiles with a little ground coffee and coriander seed on beef, or a Caribbean moji of oregano/mint/garlic/orange juice mixed into a paste with olive oil.

Cut a pocket in a beef tenderloin.
Cut a pocket in a beef tenderloin.

Beef tenderloin is a very tender cut, but it's not always so flavorful. Enhance the meat by stuffing it with cheese (blue, Stilton, cheddar) or duxelles (cooked mushrooms and shallots), or an herb butter. Just slice a pocket in the side (keeping a half-inch buffer around the edge) and fill by using your fingertips.

Stuffing the tenderloin with blue cheese.
Stuffing the tenderloin with blue cheese.

Schneider recommends hardwood charcoal over charcoal briquettes and also likes to flavor meat with wood smoke (grape vine trimmings, applewood, mesquite, or hickory chips). Soak the wood or vines in a little water first and add to your main heat source. Wait to cook until the coals are glowing and keep a squirt bottle on hand so flames don't touch the meat (dripping fat can cause flare ups). Also, always clean the grill first; get it hot, blot a paper towel with cooking oil and rub it on the grill using a pair of tongs.

 

Letting the lamb leg steak warm.
Letting the lamb leg steak warm.

2. Let the meat warm up a bit before cooking Restaurants are required to keep meat within certain temperature ranges, but at home it's okay to let the meat sit out a bit so it's not going from the icy refrigerator straight to the grill. That will help the meat cook more evenly. Oil and salt the meat to protect it from bacteria and let warm for no longer than an hour.

 

Move your meat around.
Move your meat around.

3. Cook first on high heat, then finish it on low Create a high and low heat zone on your grill by adjusting coals or gas flames. (Hold your hand six inches above the grill; if you can keep it there for more than five seconds, it's cool, if less than five, it's hot.) Sear on high heat to caramelize exterior then finish it on low heat. Move the meat around with tongs every minute or so to get an even cook. ("Grill marks are overrated," Schneider says.)

 

The hand test: pinch the ring finger to thumb and compare to rare
The hand test: pinch the ring finger to thumb and compare to rare

4. Check for doneness with the hand test Check for doneness with an easy hand test: Feel the meat and compare it to the meaty part of your palm directly under the thumb. If you pinch your thumb and index finger, the pad feels like meat that's rare; pinch the middle finger for medium rare; the ring finger for medium well and the pinky for well done.

 

Step 1: Remove meat from grill. Step 2: Test your patience.
Step 1: Remove meat from grill. Step 2: Test your patience.

5. Rest! The final--and one of the most important steps in grilling--is to let the meat rest for a few minutes (10 minutes for every pound) covered with foil before you slice into it. As the meat cools, its cells relax and reabsorb liquid juices so you won't have a bloody mess on your plate.


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