Grill Talk

Don’t wait for summer to get that smoky, barbecued flavor
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Don’t wait for summer to get that smoky, barbecued flavor

If you associate the sweet, smoky flavor of grilled foods with back yards in the summer, think again. You don’t have to wait until June to grill vegetables, tofu or even fruit.

Indoor grilling is an easy, rewarding cooking method that can be enjoyed year-round—all you need is a grill pan or electric grill.

What makes grilling so popular is the way it manages to intensify the natural flavor of foods while simultaneously lending them a smoky taste and a golden brown, caramelized surface. Grilling can be particularly suited to a health-conscious, vegetarian diet. The naturally low fat content of vegetables is preserved when they are grilled with only a small amount of added fat. And the lower the fat of the foods you grill, the less smoke they will create in your kitchen.

Beyond the ever-present grilled zucchini and red peppers that dominate vegetable platters in restaurants, almost any firm vegetable can be grilled if it is prepared correctly. Onions need only be sliced crosswise, leeks split lengthwise, peppers halved and garlic peeled. Eggplant, carrots and zucchini can be grilled in rounds or strips.

Potatoes should be thinly sliced or partially cooked before they are grilled to yield a soft interior and a crisp, golden crust that makes a healthful alternative to fries.

Just about the only food category for which the indoor grill is not useful is greens. Fragile leaves wilt too quickly to gain anything from grilling, although thick chard stems can be grilled with nice results.

If you plan on grilling bushels of vegetables rather than more compact foods like an individual veggie burger, choose a grill with a large cooking surface. This saves you from grilling in multiple batches. A two-burner grill pan is terrific in terms of surface area, provided you can make do without two burners when preparing the rest of your meal.

Always choose a two-burner grill made from a heavy-duty, heat-retaining material, such as cast iron, otherwise the ingredients placed in the middle, not over a burner, may not cook evenly. In general, the heavier the grill pan, the more evenly it will absorb the heat. Cast iron and anodized aluminum are excellent, readily available options.

It’s also important to consider the surface of the grill. Shallow, close grill lines have more contact with the food and may reduce sticking, even if the surface isn’t nonstick. However, if you want to grill without any or much added fat, choose a nonstick pan to avoid messy cleanup; both cast-iron and anodized aluminum pans can be found with a nonstick surface.

An alternative to a grill pan is an electric grill. It won’t use up any burner space and will heat up and cool down quickly. A covered, two-sided model cooks thicker foods by simultaneously browning the surfaces while the moisture in the food steams the interior. It will cut cooking time in half, though the steam can cause certain foods, like zucchini, to become soggy. You won’t have this problem with a one-sided, tabletop electric grill. Food may take a little longer to cook, but you also have the option of cooking tableside.

Another element to consider when choosing a grill is storage, especially if your kitchen is cramped. While stovetop grill pans can be hung or stacked, electric models will usually lay claim to precious counter or cabinet space. Think about where you would put your new grill before you buy, and choose accordingly.

Whatever type of grill you select, look for a streamlined design since any inaccessible cracks where food or liquids could seep in will make the grill harder to maintain. But in general, cleaning, maintaining and using an indoor grill is much easier than an outdoor grill; there are no charcoal and ashes to sweep up, no giant metal grills to try to fit in the sink and no mosquitoes. Fast, simple and versatile, indoor grills are a practical addition to any kitchen.