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Natural Awakenings National

Ready, Set, Grill Anything!...: Serve Up a Sustainable-Style Feast

Jun 01, 2010 03:00AM ● By Contributing Writers at Sustainable Table

Good backyard chefs know the distinction between barbecue and grilling and revel in trying new tricks with their favorite tools while they cook up a fun feast for family and friends. Few, however, may know that the original barbecue, or barbacoa, was the term that Spanish explorers used to describe the meat smoking and drying methods introduced to them by native peoples in the Americas.

Smoke originally was used to drive away bugs while lending a tasty flavor to their meat-preparing process. This slow, low temperature method of outdoor cooking still employs an indirect heat source, like hot coals, and cooking times of between two and 12 hours. In some recipes, burning Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified mesquite or wood chips adds a smoky flavor to the food; in others, it tenderizes it. Grilling, by contrast, uses higher temperatures and direct heat from flames. Cooking times range between three and 30 minutes and grilled meats rarely have a smoky taste.


Charcoal Choices

Lump Charcoal ~ A favorite choice of “green” grillers, lump charcoal is made of either natural (from trees or sawmills) or processed wood (from building material scraps, furniture remnants, pallets, flooring scraps, etc.). FSC-certified charcoal and coconut shell charcoal are good bets. Lump charcoal will burn hot and fast if unlimited oxygen is available, so it is best suited for grills that allow the user to control the airflow.

Charcoal Briquettes ~ Briquettes are useful when cooking on an open grill or whenever airflow can’t be controlled. But avoid self-starting instant-light briquettes and lighter fluid, which contain several harmful additives. Note that most commercial briquettes consist of crushed charcoal mixed with some additives that improve combustibility and bind the charcoal together. The mixture is compressed into uniform, pillow-shaped chunks that generally burn slowly at a constant temperature, regardless of airflow.

Be aware that additives in briquettes can leave a bad taste in food and even be harmful if not fully burned off; always burn charcoal for the time recommended by the manufacturer before putting food on the grill.

A good lighting method begins with an electric charcoal starter or a metal charcoal chimney starter. Other igniting aids include natural wood lighters or lighter cubes.

Cleaner and greener grills avoid charcoal altogether. They may be fueled by propane, electricity or even solar energy.


What to Grill

Grassfed Meats ~ The number one rule for cooking pastured meat is not to overcook it. It needs about 30 percent less cooking time than fattier conventional beef and tastes best if cooked medium-rare to medium. If cooking hamburgers made with pasture-raised beef, add caramelized onions or other moisturizing ingredients to compensate for the leaner meat.

Chicken or Pork ~ Consider brining the meat beforehand, to ensure that it is extra tender and won’t dry out on the grill. Submerge the meat in a mixture of one cup of table salt and one gallon of very cold or ice water for up to 24 hours before grilling. For a crispy skin, remove meat from the brine, pat dry and refrigerate for a couple of hours before cooking.

Ultimate Burgers ~ Shannon Hayes, author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook, cites Loren Olsen’s “Tips for Cooking the Ultimate Hamburger.” Before placing over medium-high heat on a clean, hot grill (which may be swiped with olive oil), Olsen recommends preparing patties by gently pressing the center to create a small depression in one side to assure even cooking. But don’t press or poke the burgers while cooking, in order to preserve the juicy interior. Season with natural salt and freshly ground pepper. Leave the grill uncovered and cook to a minimum internal temperature of 160° F.  For six-ounce patties, grill 2-1/2 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes after flipping for a medium burger. Toast split buns on the grill rack for the last 45 to 60 seconds of the cooking time.

Special Veggie Burgers ~ Simply clean a few portobello mushroom caps and brush them with garlic-infused olive oil (put a couple of crushed cloves in the oil 30 minutes before using) and set aside. Next, slice an apple lengthwise to get the biggest possible slices and soak in water and lemon juice, which will keep them from drying out on the grill. Then, put the mushrooms on a hot grill, gill side down and carefully lay the apples down on the coolest part of the grill. When the mushrooms have softened (5-8 minutes), flip them, place the apples on top and cover with slices of brie cheese. Serve on a toasted bun.

Refrigerate leftovers
promptly. Perishable foods
should not be left unrefrigerated
for more than two
hours; if the temperature
outside is 90° F or higher,
refrigerate after one hour.

Hot Dogs ~ Choose hot dogs that are produced by sustainable meat companies and do not contain any fillers, byproducts or additives, like MSG or nitrates. Or, skip the meat altogether and try a vegetarian soy dog.

Veggies ~ The key is to use locally grown, sustainably raised/organic fruits and vegetables. Natural flavors come through from produce picked within a day or so of eating, pre-empting the need for many seasonings or sauces. Just brush on some extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste to enjoy both favorites and exotic veggies straight from the grill. Vegetables don’t need the same high heat that meat does, so it’s best to cook them over medium heat toward the sides of the grill.

Corn on the Cob ~ Just pull out the silks at the top of each ear and brush a little oil on the husks. Cook for about 10 minutes, flipping once to cook both sides.

Grilled Asparagus ~ Brush with olive oil, season to taste and grill for 4 to 5 minutes.

Potatoes ~ It’s easy to slice or dice potatoes and onions; wrap in foil, throw in some butter and place on the upper rack of the grill. Put them on first, because potatoes take 35 to 45 minutes; flip the package over half-way through cooking.

Set up containers for
recycling and compost
only, and post signs to let
guests know what goes
where for easy cleanup.

Vegetable Kebabs ~ Experiment with a variety of veggies. Metal skewers are best, but wood or bamboo also work fine if first soaked in water for at least 30 minutes, so they don’t catch fire. To help prevent food from falling through the slats, use larger pieces, and then cut before serving.

Fruits ~ Fruits cook most evenly over low heat. The best option for grilling fruit is to wait until the coals begin to die down. Fruit is done when it gets soft and shows dark grill marks. The natural sugars will caramelize where the grill touches the fruit, creating tasty crunchy bits.

Some grilling aficionados say that almost any fruit can be grilled and taste delicious, even with the skin on. Some people like to brush on olive oil or melted organic butter; others feel the taste can overpower the flavor of the fruit. Softer fruits and vegetables like peaches and squash might need to be placed on foil poked with holes or cooking tool equivalent. Note that fruits tend to have a high water content that can make them extremely hot to touch, so cool a little before eating and taste test before digging in.

Cheese ~ Halloumi, a white, semi-hard cheese from Cyprus, is a wonderful grilling cheese. Brush it with oil and grill in large chunks, or pair it with fruit, like apples or pineapple, in a kebab. It is done when it softens and shows grill marks.

Pizza ~ This is an easy show-stopper. Roll out a favorite pizza dough and oil one side liberally. Place oil side down on a hot grill and cook until a crispy crust forms. Flip and add pre-grilled toppings, then close the grill. Cook until the bottom of the pizza has turned golden brown and toppings have melted together. Remove using tongs. For a dessert pizza, follow the same process, but top the pizza with a sweet cheese like mascarpone and grilled peaches, then sprinkle fresh mint on this special treat.


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For a sustainable table,
use cloth napkins and
reusable plates, cups
and utensils. For larger
crowds, choose recycled
or compostable goods
made from non-food

Retail brands include Verterra
(, Preserve by
Recycline (
and Whole Foods 365 (Whole For online
stores, see and
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