Actually it’s not the beginning of the famous Mae West line, but yes, I really did put bananas in my grill last weekend. Why? Because wild ideas like that appeal to me. More about the banana adventure later.
Last week, I heard a wonderful interview with chef, author, and sustainable food/cooking authority Barton Seaver. Although his specialty is seafood, Seaver has now written a grilling how-to/cookbook, Where’s There Is Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling. He grew up and got his start in the restaurant business in Washington DC (where I live), so I’ve been following Seaver’s career for a while. I like his straightforward style and how he combines his interest in good food with concern for the environment and feeding those in need.
Seaver’s advice on how-to-grill piqued my interest because it combines my overall cooking philosophy and techniques that my favorite griller-in-chief uses. Here’s a summary (in my own words) of his suggestions, along with a few comments of my own.
7 Tips for Great Grilling from Barton Seaver
- A simple grill is all you need. Like us, Seaver has an plain Weber kettle. Seaver says he has used his workhorse to prepare dinner for 20 and we typically use ours (in every season) to feed anywhere from 2 to 12. I’m sure pastoral scenery is nice, but we have a postage stamp, urban backyard, with no grass to speak of (only weeds seem to thrive) and an alley just beyond our old picket fence. Our less-than-bucolic environment doesn’t negatively impact grilling in the least.
- For fuel, briquette charcoal started with a chimney works great. Starting the fire with a charcoal chimney is much better (and safer) than using briquettes soaked in fire-starter or liquid starter. Seaver adds wood chips and chunks to impart more flavor. We have never used those, but I’m definitely game to try that. The fire should be large and hot enough (coals glowing white hot) to create adequate heat before you put the food on to cook.
- Use indirect grilling. Leave part of the grill cavity empty of briquettes so that you have plenty of space to slow cook where there is heat, but no direct flame. As Seaver pointed out numerous times, you really can’t control the fire as much as you can control where you put the food on the grill.
- Air flow is essential. Weber kettle-type grills have air vents on the top and bottom – use them. And my own special reminder – make sure they are at least partially open; totally closed vents will choke off the fire. Seaver seemed to assume you would know that, but the first time I used a grill, I forgot to open the vents and when I checked on my food a while after putting the cover on, the food was uncooked and the fire had gone out.
- The grill cover is key. The cover allows the heat to circulate. With no cover, the heat of the coals dissipates into the air.
- It’s all about the fire and simple, great ingredients. You don’t need to make complicated food. Attention to the fire and how you use it, and fresh, high quality ingredients are all you need for great grilled meals.
- Be brave. If you think it might taste good grilled, try it!
- Enjoy yourself. There is nothing more satisfying than mastering a new skill and grilling is definitely a skill. Whether you have a fancy backyard grill or a workhorse Weber kettle like ours, or take a hibatchi to a public park if you don’t have private space in which to grill, make it a communal experience that the cook enjoys as much as the guests.
Now about that banana – Seaver talked about grilling fruit. As you already know, I love grilled peaches and pineapple. With or without a touch of sweetener, they are fabulous, left to grill for dessert as you eat the main course of the meal. One listener during the interview suggested grilling bananas (in the skin) and Seaver seemed intrigued. We tried it with semi-ripe bananas, both directly in the coals and on top of the grate, covered and left for about 15 -20 minutes after the main course was taken off the grill.
The result? Both ways, the bananas turned soft and quite fragrant, with a hint of smokiness. We tried it with a spoon, straight out of the skin, while they were still warm. I’m a little dubious of using them in a sweet dessert given the smoky “note” as they say in the la-de-da wine world, but I bet they would have been great in a sweet-and-salty combination; maybe with bacon and a bit of brown sugar on top of a graham cracker like a bizarre s’more?
What would you do with grilled bananas?