You know I’m obsessed with olive oil, but here’s something you don’t know about me: I’m a grilling and barbecue fanatic.
Just ask my neighbors. They might deny it today, but they strenuously avoided me during the winter of ’06. They stopped taking my phone calls, closed their vertical blinds when they spotted me schlepping toward their domiciles, and hid, wide-eyed, in interior rooms when I rang their doorbells. I sensed their tacit pleas: “No more ribs…puh-lease!!!” That was the winter I barbecued about 100 slabs of baby backs, spareribs, and beef ribs in the service of a cookbook.
I still love and practice all the iconic dishes of American barbecue—Caroilna pulled pork, beer can chicken, Santa Maria tri-tip, Texas brisket, and of course, ribs.
But it’s the uncomplicated, nuanced cooking of the Mediterranean, with its heavy reliance on olive oil as a seasoning, sauce, and lubricant that draws me to the grill several nights a week. (Nearly everything I put on the grill receives a light coating of olive oil; it keeps food from sticking to the grill grate and from drying out over the high heat.)
Like my interest in olive oil, the whole grilling thing came rather late in life. I was well north of forty before I cooked my first meal on the grill. Why?
One, I grew up in an era (1960s) when grilling was a man’s domain. My father owned one of those shallow-panned grills you see on reruns of “Leave It to Beaver.” Wrestling bags of charcoal, directing strong, manly streams of lighter fluid on the briquettes, and finally, throwing a match on everything did not look like womens’ work to me. I was content to ferry platters of hot dogs, hamburgers, and the rare steak (“rare” as in we didn’t get them very often) from the kitchen to the grillmeister.
Two, as an adult, I continued the pattern of deferring to males on all grill-related matters. Some men, unlike my father, preferred the convenience of gas grills, but always cleared the decks of women and children before lighting the grill. They intimated that if you didn’t follow strict propane protocol, you could appear unexpectedly in the next county, scorched and naked. That was all the encouragement I needed to stay safely ensconced in the house preparing side dishes and setting the table.
Then, about five years ago, I discovered how beautifully olive oil and grilled foods intersect on a plate. There’s something about food caramelized on a grill (especially over charcoal) that yearns for a splash of high-quality olive oil, whether it’s meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, or even fruit. The two players really bring out the best in each other.
My epiphany occurred at an idyllic picnic in an olive grove near Palermo, Sicily, hosted by the olive oil company Federico Secundo. A farm worker built a fire on bare ground of olive and lemon tree prunings. When the fire burned down, he positioned a makeshift grill grate over the glowing embers and loaded the grate with sausages. The fat sizzled and seasoned the grate. Next, he rubbed lamb chops and pork steaks with salt and pepper and the cut sides of lemons, then drizzled them with fresh-pressed olive oil—an intensely green and spicy Nocellara del Belice. He turned the meat once before removing it to a platter, then drizzled more lemon juice and olive oil over it before serving.
After building a fire of lemon and olive tree clippings, a farm worker in the Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo bastes lamb and pork with fresh olive oil. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Loseke.)
This was cooking at its most elemental, I thought, and the results were sublime.
Surely, you don’t want to hear the details of my evolution from flame-fearing female to the person my local fire department now calls on when they need extra grills for their annual community cook-out. (It’s really the Weber Ranch kettle grill that they want—a testosterone magnet with a 36-inch diameter grill grate that can accommodate ten chickens or twenty steaks at a time.)
Suffice it to say my desire to recreate dishes similar to the ones I enjoyed that day in Sicily and to experiment with grilled food and different olive oils helped me overcome my aversion to live-fire cooking.
Here are some pairings I’ve tried recently:
- Pineapple, dusted with coarse sugar and cinnamon and finished with a sweetish Spanish Hojiblanca;
- T-bone steaks with grilled fennel and a peppery Tuscan Frantoio;
- A mélange of grilled peppers, onions, and eggplant with a Spanish Arbequina;
- Halibut with smoke-roasted new potatoes (parboil potatoes first before skewering and grilling) with a buttery Koroneiki olive oil from Greece;
- Halloumi (a Greek, grillable cheese available at some specialty markets) with a Greek Kalamata olive oil, tomato, kalamata olive, and caper vinaigrette;
- Cubes of a rustic bread, bocconcini (small fresh mozzarella balls), basil leaves, and cherry tomatoes threaded on double skewers (to prevent spinning), brushed lightly with a good Italian olive oil, and served with a vinaigrette made with the same oil, salt and pepper, and a splash of balsamic vinegar;
- Whole chicken indirect grilled, beer can chicken style, over a can of white wine (use an empty soda can for the wine), coated with a Sicilian Biancollila and Mediterranean herbs and served with grilled polenta and a green salad;
- Grilled lobster with lemon or lime and finished with a splash of Spanish Picuda;
- White pizza with garlic, onions, mozzarella, and an Italian Cerasuola.
I encourage you to survey the oils in your own pantry—some of them will undoubtedly be blends—and retaste them to identify their forward characteristics.
Then grill with them. A fresh, peppery, throat-pinching oil is usually a great match with grilled beef, lamb, or tuna. A rich, buttery oil is lovely with shrimp, scallops, or non-oily fish, as well as vegetables and fruits. A vegetal oil pairs well with grilled salads (ever had a grilled Caesar or Salade Niçoise?), tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash.
(Note: Use high-quality olive oils primarily as finishing oils. You can, as mentioned above, put a light coating of olive oil on foods to be grilled to keep them from drying out. Remove the grilled food to plates or platters, and then splash the oil over them. Doing so while the foods are on the grill will create some exciting moments for the fire, and probably for you as well.)
Below are a couple of recipes to get you started.
GRILLED MARINATED SCALLOPS
WITH LEMON AND olive OIL
Source: Recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma Taste
Serves: 4 to 6 as an appetizer
For the scallops:
- 30 sea scallops, tough side muscle removed, rinsed, and patted dry
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Zest of 1 lemon, cut into wide strips
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably a buttery-tasting Greek oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine the scallops with the 1/4 cup of olive oil and lemon zest strips.
Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, soak 12 wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes.
For the dipping sauce: In a bowl, combine the 6 tablespoons of olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to serve.
Preheat the grill to medium-high. Make a grill shield by folding a piece of aluminum foil into thirds (like a business letter).
Remove the scallops from the olive oil-lemon zest mixture. Thread 3 scallops onto each skewer, positioning the scallops toward the pointed end of the skewer. (Any exposed skewer will burn, soaked or not). Season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the grill shield on the grill grate, and arrange the skewers, exposed wooden ends positioned over the shield.
Grill scallops until just firm and white, about 1 to 2 minutes per side (2 to 4 minutes in all).
Serve immediately with the dipping sauce.
ROSEMARY-SCENTED FRENCHED LAMB
Though it can be difficult to find in the U.S., particularly outside of California, olive wood would make a wonderful smoking wood for these elegant little lamb chops. One commercial source is www.grilling4all.com.
Source: Recipe adapted from Grill: Stylish Food to Sizzle by Linda Tubby (Anniss Publishing Ltd., 2005)
Serves: 4 as a meal, 6 as an appetizer
- 6 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil (something with a bit of assertiveness to stand up to the rosemary), plus additional for drizzling over the finished lamb chops
- 2 tablespoons red wine
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary, plus several whole sprigs for garnish
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 12 rib lamb chops (each 3 to 4 ounces and 1-inch thick, bones Frenched
Make the marinade: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, red wine, minced rosemary, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.
Put the lamb chops in a large zip-top type bag and add the marinade, turning the bag to ensure the chops are coated on all sides. Refrigerate overnight, turning several times to redistribute the marinade. (Alternatively, marinade the chops in a large nonreactive baking dish; cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.)
Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.
When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Remove the lamb chops from the marinade; discard the marinade. Season with salt and pepper.
Arrange the lamb chops on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until cooked to taste, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a plate or platter; drizzle with additional olive oil and garnish with whole rosemary sprigs.
CHARRED BEEF CARPACCIO Source: Adapted from Taming the Flame by Elizabeth Karmel
WITH CAPERS AND FLEUR DE SEL
Serves: 3 to 4 as an appetizer
- 1 filet mignon, about 2 inches thick and 3/4 pounds
- Best quality extra-virgin olive oil (something fresh and peppery, like an Italian Frantoio or a Spanish Picual)
- Kosher salt
- 2 cups of arugula or mixed greens
- Fleur de sel or coarse sea salt
Build a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill. Just before grilling, pat the filet dry with paper towels. Brush it lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Place the cold filet on the cooking grate over direct high heat. Sear the meat about 1 minute per side or until browned and marked, but make sure not to cook more than 1/8-inch of the surface. Remove it from the grill, place on a clean platter, and let cool. Cover the filet tightly and refrigerate it for 4 hours or overnight.
Cut the filet very thinly into 1/8-inch slices. (You should have 12 to 16 slices.)
Place the slices of meat between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and roll them out with a rolling pin until they are almost as thin as a piece of paper. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 1 day. To serve, divide the arugula among 4 chilled plates. Arrange 3 or 4 slices of beef on each, edges overlapping slightly. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of capers and fleur de sel.
Before booking a trip to a foreign country, research that country’s national and religious hoildays. Otherwise, you risk disappointment, especially if you have a very specific list of things you want to do and see during your visit.