Saturday, May 28, 2011


"Why isn't grilling simple anymore?  What happened? When did it go from basic to
ridiculously over the top? We're nothing if we don't have a Grillinator 6000
Titanium BBQ with Dual Source Infrared Heat capability (all for the
suggested retailprice of $12,500, use at your own risk, grill cover not included)."
--from the Introduction to JUST GRILL THIS! by Sam the Cooking Guy

Sam Zien, known to millions as Sam the Cooking Guy for his popular shows devoted to simple, easy cooking, has re-introduced sanity to the summer grilling season with the publication of  you JUST GRILL THIS! (Wiley; $19.95; ISBN: 978-46793-0). Let me explain. 

I lived in New York City for decades--almost all of it without a terrace or balcony. A big black hole in my culinary arsenal has been the lack of any expertise, let alone basic skills, for grilling. And then I moved to Portland, Oregon and bought a house. Even before moving, I began to assemble a collection of books on barbecuing and grilling. Most of them are stuffed with information and/or recipes that I'll never need or want to cook.  I must have about ten or so of them, and I find I don't use them very much.  JUST GRILL THIS! may change all that.

My "Grillinator"

Sam Zien doesn't get all preachy about what woods to burn.  He uses a gas grill. "Not because I don't or can't appreciate the charcoal version--because I can," he writes.  "I just use a gas grill because I don't plan well in advance, and when I want to eat, I want to eat, and taking the requisite amount of time charcoal takes to do its thing is beyond me."  Me too, Sam.  Me too! And when it comes to all the complicated grilling accessories (you know--that take up pages of Williams-Sonoma's summer catalogs), Sam says you only need spring-loaded tongs. "Oh, and those cases they sell full of BBQ tools for Father's Day are mostly a waste of time and money," he advises.  I agree. "I don't like forks," Sam concludes, "because they poke holes in whatever's being cooked and the juices run out." It doesn't get more basic than this. Amen, brother.

JUST GRILL THIS! sticks to a few basic rules and then leaps right into a few rubs and sauces, which is what most of us want anyway. Nothing exotic, mind you, but all of them full of ingredients we keep on hand.  There are six steak butters.  Nothing fancy (except perhaps some truffle oil which is always available at your local Trader Joe's, and if not, you don't need it). And then you're grilling.  Sam's recipes are simple but designed for maximum flavor impact. In the ten chapters that follow, he takes you from "small things", such as the messy, but oh-so-tasty Steak & Mashed Potatoes (a great idea for using leftovers using smoked Gouda as the ooze factor) and Grilled Shrimp Cocktail to "impressive"--Mexican Chicken on a Mexican Beer Can, and Sesame Grilled Meatballs or sandwiches such as a Chicken Parmesan Sub or a Grilled Cuban.  He offers a vegetable chapter (Parmesan Hearts of Palm anyone?) and a Mexican Grilled Corn that is guaranteed addictive. There are great steak and beef grill recipes here as well as a chapter on pork, lamb, chicken and ribs.  You'll want the Chinese Grilled Shrimp on skewers in your rep and a Grilled Catfish Sandwich too. Snapper Tacos and Cedar Plank Salmon will round out your fish and seafood grilling skills. I think Sam's chapter on "dogs and burgers," is a masterpiece of the griller's art. Everybody needs good hot dog and burger recipes (i.e, Pastrami Reuben Dog or Blue Cheese Stuffed Sliders). Sam also reminds us that indoor grilling during bad weather keeps those happy grilling days outside uppermost in our minds when the weather turns cold. Pound Cake S'Mores, and Grilled Peaches are but two sweet endings that keep the grill at work throughout the meal. 

I suspect that Sam finds much inspiration for his crowd-pleasing and casual cooking at Trader Joe's.  And while there are plenty of store-bought condiments that I wouldn't have a problem with in this book, I do have to take exception to store-bought mashed potatoes and frozen french fries. I hope "ready bacon" doesn't mean that pre-cooked stuff from the market and a grilled meatloaf that uses a store-bought meatloaf will never work for me. But these are minor quibbles.

I first became aware of Sam Zien when he had the misfortune to appear on the final hour of the Today show where in exasperation over the silly antics of Hoda and Kathie Lee who acted as if he wasn't there, he basically told them to shut up. Then in a something of a change of heart, the show had him back on, but instead of being gracious, both hosts continued to react as though Sam was at fault and brought on a consultant on anger issues to prove their point. It was a lesson in the rudeness and insensitivity of both hosts (particularly the scolding, motor-mouthed Kathie Lee). In outraged solidarity I immediately bought a copy of Sam's second book, Sam the Cooking Guy: Awesome Recipes and Kitchen Shortcuts. I really enjoyed it and the recipes I made from it were very good. I then got his first book, Sam the Cooking Guy: Just a Bunch of Recipes (both are available from Wiley). I love his show when I can find it. 

Sam Zien's breezy style guarantees that his recipes are effortless and fun.  JUST GRILL THIS! is an amiable, laid-back cookbook--just what we all need for the long summer backyard grilling season. It also makes a terrific gift, and not just for Father's Day.  This is one BBQ book everyone can cook from.

Steak & Mashed Potato Quesadillas
Makes 2 quesadillas

The wonderfulness of the Mashed Potato Taco from book #2 (Awesome Recipes & Kitchen Shortcuts) prompted me to revisit the age-old question “What more can I do with mashed potatoes?” This is it, and it makes sense for four good reasons:

    •    Because you’re going to have leftover steak - you just are.
    •    Because where there’s steak, there’s probably potatoes.
    •    Because a grilled quesadilla is wonderful.
    •    Because why the hell not?

And who can argue with logic like that? So here it is - make it, eat it, love it.
Olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch circles
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Four 8-inch flour tortillas
1 cup shredded smoked Gouda cheese
1 cup mashed potatoes, warmed
2 cups (about 10 ounces) leftover cooked steak, very thinly sliced

Preheat the grill to medium.
Lightly oil the onion slices, season with salt and pepper, and put on the grill.
Cook, turning once, until they soften and have good grill marks - remove to a bowl.
Turn the grill down to low.
Put 2 tortillas on 2 plates, sprinkle
1/4 cup of the cheese on each, top each with half of the potatoes, add half of the steak to each, and finally add the remaining cheese to each. Top with the 2 remaining tortillas.
Slide the quesadillas from the plates to the grill and grill until golden brown. Carefully flip the quesadillas over. Grill on the second side until the insides are warm and the tortillas are crispy.
Remove, cut into wedges, and serve.

Mexican Grilled Corn
Makes 6 ears - that sounds silly, doesn’t it?
Have it once, and you’ll have it forever - unless of course you’re my wife, and then you’ll have it never. Have I mentioned she’s my food opposite?

6 chopsticks, not pairs, just 6 sticks
6 ears of corns, husks and the crazy pain-in-the-ass silk removed
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chili powder
6 lime wedges
Preheat the grill to medium.
With a small knife, make an X about 1/4 inch deep in the middle of the bottom of each ear; this is where the handle will go.
Give the corn a quick rinse under cold water and place directly on the grill.
Place on the grill and cook until softened and golden brown in spots, up to about 30 minutes.
Remove from the grill and push the chopstick into the X you made in each ear, making a handle. Using the back of a spoon or a pastry brush, brush each ear with the mayo - and don’t be shy.
Sprinkle with the Parmesan and then a little dusting of chili powder. Give ’em a quick squeeze of lime and away you go - corn nirvana.
If you’re jacked for time, you can always wrap the ears in plastic wrap and give them a zap in the microwave for about 3 minutes, then throw them on the grill. It’ll cut the cooking time waaaay down.