Cooking on the Grill: Burgers, Barbecue and Beyond

Learn the secrets of grilling chicken, beef, vegetables, seafood, and burgers perfectly, plus recipes for Jimmy Schmidt's Rattlesnake Ribs and more.

For many years I was firmly of the belief that my best friend Jennifer Lafer’s parents invited me out for summer weekends to their home in Manchester, Michigan, for only one reason–I am the queen of the grill.

Sure I knew that my shish kebab was better than most. And I’d heard more than a few times that my BBQ chicken bordered on the divine. And I think I seared a steak or two to such a state that it practically sang my praises louder than the crickets.

But what convinced me that I was loved for my cooking on the grill alone (with a nod to my ability to properly appreciate Detroit Tiger baseball) was a particular rainy July evening. Staring out the screen door, we cursed the coming downpour as I stared at a plate of grill-ready chicken. So much for that, I thought. Wrong. Quicker than I could say “Anyone for fried chicken’?” Jennifer’s father had a rain slicker in hand, and her mother an umbrella. There I was, holding the top to the Weber with one hand and attempting to wield a pastry brush and an umbrella in the other. By the end of it all, my juicy drumsticks were drier than I was.

Grilling Chicken, Vegetables, Burgers, Fish, and More

But it’s not just the main course that’s cooking on the grill today: I haven’t met a vegetable yet that didn’t benefit from a quick turn over the coals. My favorite combination–sweet peppers, tangy onions, cherry tomatoes, and cloves of garlic (skins on)–makes a perfect side dish anytime. And don’t limit yourself to the usual cast of grill characters: zucchini, broccoli (blanch first to retain that wonderful green color), mushrooms, leeks, squash, not to mention one of my favorites, corn-on-the-cob, are all grill-worthy.

Needless to say, my ascension to the throne of Grill Queen was charred by more than my share of unintentionally blackened chicken (that remained undercooked inside), fish that either stuck to the grill or fell right through it (!), dry burgers and tough steaks. So from those experiences, a few grilling tips:

Those super-convenient skinless, boneless chicken breasts become nothing short of tasteless when grilled. Yes, I’ll make a few into quick sandwiches and they can be nicely sauced, but when it comes time for a serious BBQ, nothing but chicken on the bone will do, thank you.

While we’re talking poultry, it should be seared (start skin-side down), then cooked on a covered grill, if possible. When cooking a bird whole, leave it untressed, tuck the legs close to the body, and everything will cook evenly. If you’re grilling split chicken, take the backbone first.

They say you can eat anything in moderation, but when it comes to beef, better to throw cholesterol to the wind: nothing beats a three-inch steak hot off the grill. When you sin, sin well and don’t skimp–thicker steaks will dry out less. Aged and well-marbled will cook quicker then fresh, lean cuts of meat. Rub the steaks with olive oil (I infuse mine with rosemary), sear them quickly, then turn until cooked the way you like them.

The quintessential summer question (other than why do the ants always find your picnic): How do you cook the perfect burger? The three-part answer: One, don’t handle the meat any more than absolutely necessary (I know molding hamburger is fun but please refrain, this is food, play with clay if you must roll and pat). Two, sear the burgers then grill over medium-hot coals. Three, turn frequently to insure a nicely brown crust and a juicy interior.

Always braise your ribs before cooking them.

When cooking seafood on the grill, save yourself money and tears by investing in a hinged wire fish basket (great for soft veggies, too). If you get caught basketless, be sure to oil the grill well, and turn your poisson only once.

And come to think of it, make sure your grill is always well-oiled. Nothing disappoints more than seeing half your dinner stuck to the Weber.

And when it’s all said and done, be sure to give the grill a good scrub with the brush. A dirty cooking surface not only imparts curious flavors, but you don’t really want to ponder the composition of the muck that will be permanently soldered to your grill by the Fourth of July.

Jimmy Schmidt’s Rattlesnake Ribs

This recipe appeared in our local paper right after famed chef Jimmy Schmidt opened one of his fabulous Rattlesnake clubs in Detroit. They were a hit when they first arrived and they still are, although be forewarned: they’re not for the faint of palate.

Braising liquid and ribs
4 quarts beef stock
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons Tabasco
1 1/4 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon salt
4 slabs baby back ribs (1 1/4 pounds each)
Spice mixture
1/4 cup garlic salt
1 tablespoon ground white pepper paprika
1/4 cup dry mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup beer
3 cups barbecue sauce (recipe follows) 

Combine all the braising liquid ingredients in a large pot. Stir well, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

Add the ribs and simmer until tender, but not so that they’re falling apart, about an hour and 45 minutes. When done, carefully transfer the ribs to a baking sheet.

Combine all the spice ingredients in a medium-size bowl, and stir to form a paste (add more beer if it’s too dry).

Rub the paste over all surfaces of the ribs. Wrap each slab in aluminum foil, dull side out, and refrigerate until ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 400°F, and prepare hot coals for grilling. Place the rack three to four inches from the heat.

Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and arrange the ribs on the foil. Coat the ribs with two cups of the barbecue sauce, and bake on the center rack of the oven for 10 minutes.

Transfer the ribs to the grill, and cook long enough to char. Serve immediately, with the remaining one cup barbecue sauce on the side. Serves four.

Rattlesnake Ribs BBQ Sauce

1 cup chili sauce
1 cup ketchup

1 cup steak sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon finely pressed garlic
2 tablespoons of horseradish
3 tablespoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon very hot salsa
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Combine all the ingredients in a medium-size bowl, and whisk until the sauce is well-blended. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes three cups.

Mary’s Famous BBQ Chicken

I’ll admit it right here: When I can’t whip up a batch of Jimmy Schmidt sauce (like when at my brother’s house, a man who thinks having two kinds of beer is keeping the cupboard well-stocked), I’m the first to crack open a bottle of jarred sauce. While I object to having artificial flavor and colors slathered on my chicken (which, they tell me, ingests a suspiciously similar amount of artificial everything), I object even more to not having my barbecue.

So start by mixing up some of your favorite sauce or screw off the cap. Many people insist that the sauce should never touch the meat until the very end. Phooey. I spread out the chicken on a platter, toss the whole jar over it, turn a couple times, and let it sit for a few hours in the refrigerator. Once it’s well-soaked (or I get impatient), I bring the platter out to the fire.

With my cooking brush, I remove most of the sauce and lightly scrape it back onto the platter, placing the chicken on the grill as I go (start with the dark meat, it takes longer). I quickly sear my stripped chicken on both sides, locking in the juices before I painstakingly repaint the morsels with the sauce left in the platter (I add fresh sauce each time the chicken even ponders being a little dry). While the bird ends up looking a little charred sometimes (grill flare-ups mostly to blame), it has a wonderful flavor. Be sure not to overcook the chicken (prick until juices run clear, with only a trace of pink).

Lamb Chops

3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
6 loin lamb chops, 1 1/2 inches thick
olive oil 

Stir the garlic, thyme, pepper, and salt together in a small bowl. Rub the chops briefly with a paper towel dabbed with olive oil, then press the mixture into the chops so that they are well-coated. Cover, and refrigerate for a few hours.

Grill the chops over high heat, about 5 minutes on each side. Serves 3 or 4.

Grilled Corn on the Cob

Start the grill and have ready a clean bucket filled with salt water from the ocean or salted tap water. After pulling back the husks from the corn, remove the silk and replace the husks. Tie each with kitchen string at the ends and soak in the water for 15 minutes. Place the ears directly on the grill and cook until the husks are brown, and the kernels moist and tender. (About 20 minutes for large ears on a hot fire. Test by pricking a kernel; the juices should be clear, not milky. Don’t overcook).

Slather with butter, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

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