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B.A. Nilsson

Be the Daddy-O of the Patio
A few helpful hints to please a diverse barbecue crowdóand keep it simple at the same time

By B.A. Nilsson

With Memorial Day weekend looming, Iím already lugging patio furniture out to where the patio would be if we had such a thing. By autumnís arrival, this patch of grass will be scuffed and threadbare and singed by depth charges of glowing charcoal. But it recovers.

Which is more than I can say for myself after Iíve supervised one of those weekend parties in which I turn into a one-man burger-flipping assembly line. Itís great to be surrounded by both friends and nature, but the kinds of menus Iíve come up with in the past have made it impossible to spend quality time with either.

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Last year, however, I realized that all the extra effort was winning me no points and wasting much time, so I simplified. Itís still work, but Iíve spread it out and pared down the menus.

According to an informal canvas of some workmates, burgers are still the monarch of the summer grill, and are colored with much opinion. Iíve gone through phases of working the meat with various additives, and have lately decided that not much besides salt and pepper is really needed. But I prefer burgers to remain a reasonable size so thereís room for slices of tomato and onion.

While some like the simplicity of frozen patties, recent massive recalls have provoked uncertainty about such meat. I donít know if youíre much better off at many retailers, but as long as you cook the stuff properly you shouldnít have any problems.

So it is, too, with chickens. They need a lengthy cooking time. Keep the lid of your grill closed once the bird hits the heat, and resist the temptation to peek in too often.

Even thatís too much for some stalwarts. ďI like chicken kabobs,Ē says my friend Susan. ďI can make them a day ahead, and theyíre mostly vegetable pieces, which saves money.Ē Shrimp, too, are good kabob candidates if you donít mind doing some peeling.

Grilling and salmon were made for each other, and the fish even has a built-in indicator to let you know when to flip it: It stops sticking to the grill. Season the fish, then start it pink side down for a couple of minutes. The natural oils will cause it to let go when itís hot enough. Flip it and donít forget to take it off the heat.

While considering seafood, consider clams. ďSpread them across the top of the grill,Ē says another friend Heather, ďuntil thereís no room. Grill them until they open, and then dab each one with butter and garlic. Your grill will smell like clams for a long time after that.Ē

If your budget is more generous, grill a load of oysters, touching them with a little barbecue sauce as they finish. Or get some sushi-grade tuna and sear the outside as quickly as possible. Serve it with grilled new potatoes tossed in kosher salt and your best olive oil.

Salads can be day-ahead items. Toss some fresh tomato slices with slices of onion in an oil-and-vinegar dressing with some chopped basil leaves and let it sit for a day to intensify the flavors.

Oil and vinegar are great summer meal companions. Add some seasonings and you have a vinaigrette, just the thing to brush on squash or eggplant or any other vegetable youíd care to grill. (Work a little ahead with the eggplant and you can turn the grilled slices into babaganouj, a savory Middle Eastern dip.) Vegetarian friends tend to get short-shrifted by the typical American grill, so keep veggies on hand and explore the complex flavors that grilling will elucidate. Soak ears of corn in water, husks intact, for half an hour before putting them on the grill. Rip the husks off and watch the steam escape. Boiled corn never tasted this good.

Marinate asparagus in oil and vinegar for a couple of hours, and if youíre handy with the tongs, you can quickly cook them over the grill-top. As with all vegetables that hit such high heat, the sugars caramelize quickly and give it a deeper flavor.

I reserve a relatively cooler grill area for a medley of onion and pepper slices, which then can be applied to any sandwich.

Although mayonnaise-based dressings are most common for summer-entertaining salads, keep in mind the risk of having mayo out in the sun for too long. Doesnít hurt to have a cooler nearby in which you can store the potato salad during meal lulls.

According to the Weber Grill company, the latest trend in outdoor dining is the dedicated entertainment center, where your grill (or grills) and prep area converge upon seating for guests. You get the feeling of camping without actually leaving home.

Iím all for anything that puts creative food preparation in the spotlight; with the approach suggested here, you will reap ironic praise for your master touch when all you did was incur Thoroeauvian approbation by keeping it simple.

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