The summer days of my childhood fell into a pretty consistent routine. Mornings were spent splashing and playing in the pool or running through sprinklers attempting to cool off in the hot Las Vegas sun. Each afternoon the heat and bright rays would drive my siblings and me into the house for afternoon siestas. Of course, that didn’t last too long and soon the cool water called to us and we ventured back out to the pool playing until well past dark. Our large pool was often crawling with neighbors, friends, and extended family. And most evenings while we enjoyed the water, my father fired up the grill.
There is something about the combination of sunshine, chlorine, water games, and the smell of bar-b-q that has the power to make one insatiably hungry. And you would have to be really hungry to enjoy my father’s idea of a bbq. All summer long my parents would proudly lay out the frozen, pre-formed hamburger patties purchased in bulk to meet the needs of their many visitors. Dad would start the grill and work to get the flames high and hot. Then he would carefully place the patties on the grates where he would proceed to use his metal spatula to move, and turn, and squeeze the flame-engulfed patties until they achieved what was apparently his ideal finish- black outside, red in the middle, and completely void of whatever juicy flavor the cheap patties originally had. While my father mangled the meat, my mother busily worked in the kitchen prepping veggies which always (and only) consisted of iceberg lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions, and pickles.
Eating blackened burgers served up on white Wonder buns, with a side of soggy store-bought coleslaw and runny grocery deli potato salad, I soon realized that this was a family tradition crying out for a serious upgrade. And so, armed with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, high quality meats, and tips from our favorite grill masters, my husband and I have set out to create the perfect grilling experience. Our grilling successes have included the untraditional such as kabobs, fish, and desserts, but today I am going to focus on our classic All-American bbq. Hopefully some of our tips and recipes will get you inspired to set aside the pressed patties and store-bought sides and get healthy and creative with one of my favorite summer traditions. Happy Cooking!
• Bobby Flay says that 80% lean ground beef chuck is best for juicy (but not greasy) patties.
• Steven Reichlin advises forming the patties loosely to ensure a tender texture. Don’t slap or pat the patties as this will toughen them up
• Reichlin also recommends using your thumb to make an indentation in the center of the patty. Cook indented side up first.
• All the experts seem to agree that salt will draw moisture out of the meat and should be added to the outside of the patty instead of in the mixture.
• Get creative with other seasonings. Dry herbs and spices can be mixed into the meat to bring out flavors. We like chili powder, finely chopped garlic, and pepper.
• Reichlin warns grill masters to leave the meat alone once it is on the grill. Moving it around, flipping too much, and pressing it will toughen the meat and leave you with a dry patty. You’ll know it’s time to flip when you see red juices rising to the top of the patty.
• Place cheese on the cooked side of the patty just after you have flipped it. To get cheese to melt evenly, close the grill lid while the second side cooks.
Meatless options– Patties of Portobello Mushrooms, black beans, chick peas, or even quinoa are all great options for your vegetarian cook-outs.
Topping Ideas- Go beyond simple lettuce and tomato- mix two or three of these suggestions for a burger with its own distinct flavor.
• Cheese- Pepper Jack, Swiss, Blue Cheese Crumbles, Feta, or spicy Nacho Cheese Sauce
• Veggies- Sautéed Mushrooms, Roasted Red Pepper, Avocado, Diced Cucumber, Jalapenos
• Sauces- Tomato salsa, Salsa Verde, Mango Salsa, Tzaziki, Mayo flavored with chipotle peppers or Cilantro
Sides- These are always better when made at home. My go-to recipes are from America’s Test Kitchen. The secret to crispy coleslaw is in the soaking- don’t give in to temptation and skip this step. The tip for perfect potato salad is to toss the potatoes in vinegar or dill pickle juice while they are still warm. They will absorb the liquid and the flavor while they cool keeping the salad from becoming too heavy at the end.