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Memorial Day grilling doesn’t have to mean a big party

JeanMarie Brownson
The Chicago Tribune

Empty-nesting opens new doors. I’ve come to appreciate a mostly empty fridge — no pressure to cook. Grocery shopping takes less time, especially with an expanded budget. The menu contains new additions — all quick-cooking and much of it indulgent. What has not changed is the preferred cooking method: the grill.

Before kids, my husband and I toted our hibachi grill on driving vacations. We’d pull into a picnic grove, fire up the coals and sear a steak or two while sipping wine and tossing a salad. Once in a while, freshly caught fish graced the grates. As the family grew, we traded in the hibachi for a large, covered kettle grill. Our deck houses a huge gas grill complete with side burner and electronic ignition.

Now, we employ a small, open grill for dinner for two on weeknights. Our hibachi takes center stage for grilled appe-tizers for friends before a night on the town. I even fire it up for the occasional meal for one.

Small grills, uncovered grills and makeshift fire pits are perfectly suited for quick-cooking foods that embrace the golden flavors rendered by high-heat cooking. Without a lid, open-grilling adds char and browning. Fast. More airflow encourages a hotter fire. Therefore, the foods best-suited to uncovered grilling include tender steaks, thin boneless cuts, delicate vegetables and seafood.

Lobster tails — an indulgent treat — take less than 10 minutes when butterflied open. I serve them with a pat of herbed butter.

Fresh, wild-caught tuna can be so expensive that cooking it properly can be scary. Hot embers and a hot grill grate are absolutely necessary. So is a kitchen timer and the attention of the cook. I serve the tuna medium-rare with a drizzle of mirin-sweetened soy and a tuft of daikon radish.

Skewers of tender beef steak and asparagus now make our go-to list of appetizers. For ease, I use bottled teriyaki sauce laced with garlic and sesame seeds.

Heating things up: Good heat from hardwood charcoal or gas is a must. Whether I’m grilling fast and small or large and long, I choose the best possible fuels — saving softwoods (such as pine) for fire-starting. I employ hardwoods, such as maple, oak, hickory and natural charcoal made from them, for grilling.

A small, uncovered charcoal grill needs 10 to 15 minutes to heat before cooking; plan on about 10 minutes for a small gas grill. Coals are ready when they are covered with gray-white ash and glow a nice red.

Small grills: Inexpensive hibachis, charcoal braziers, portable, small tabletop grills and camping grills that hover over the fire pit work just fine for quick-cooking cuts of tender meats, thin chops, fish fillets, sliced vegetables and burgers. (Large meat cuts, such as roasts and ribs, whole chickens and large fish really need indirect cooking and the steady, even heat of covered grills.) Look for a model that feels stable and sturdy — so it doesn’t collapse or topple when full of burning embers. I prefer cast-iron cooking grates because they conduct heat very well, meaning deep flavorful grill marks on the food. Stainless steel grates are more common but do not get quite as hot and prove more difficult to clean.

The real trick to working with uncovered grills (large or small) is avoiding flare-ups. (Covered grills allow you to cover the grill to reduce oxygen and

extinguish any flames.) When cooking on an uncovered grill, keep a spray bottle of water handy and a large pitcher of water to douse the fire after you are done cooking. Never leave an uncovered grill of hot fuel unattended.

Grilled Lobster Tails With Herb Butter

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 8 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

3 to 4 tablespoons herb butter, recipe follows

2 to 4 small lobster tails, about 5 ounces each

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh chopped chives or parsley or a combination

1. Prepare a charcoal grill; let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash. Or, heat a gas grill until hot.

2. Use a very sharp knife to butterfly the lobster in half by cutting through the shell but not completely through the underside. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil.

3. Place lobsters over hot coals, flesh side down. Grill, uncovered,

4 minutes. Turn and cook until nearly opaque, another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a platter. Top each with a quarter of the herb butter. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 186 calories, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 7 g protein, 314 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Herb butter

Mix 3 tablespoons softened salted butter with 1 to 2 tablespoons of a mixture of finely sliced fresh herbs such as basil, chives, cilantro, parsley, thyme or mint. Use at room temperature.

Teriyaki Beef and Asparagus Skewers

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 4 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

1 boneless beef or bison rib-eye steak, about 8 ounces, 1 inch thick

4 medium-thick asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths

2 green onions, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths

1/4 cup teriyaki sauce with sesame seeds

1. Prepare a charcoal grill, and let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash. Or, preheat a gas grill until hot. Meanwhile, soak 4 bamboo skewers in water to cover at least 20 minutes. Drain.

2. Use a very sharp knife to slice the steak across the grain into 1/4-inch wide slices. Thread, alternating, the beef slices, asparagus and onions on the skewers.

3. Place the skewers directly over the hot coals. Brush with some of the teriyaki sauce. Grill until lightly charred, about 2 minutes. Gently flip the skewers and baste the other side with the sauce.

4. Cook until steak is medium-rare, about 1 minute more. Remove from the grill, and drizzle with the remaining teriyaki sauce. Serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 266 calories, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 28 g protein, 1,433 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Tuna With Wasabi, Daikon and Basil

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

You can substitute dry white wine or vermouth mixed with 1 or 2 table-spoons sugar for the mirin. Kombu is optional but adds an intriguing flavor of the sea to the dish.

1/4 cup mirin (sweet rice wine)

1/4 cup light soy sauce

2 inch piece kombu seaweed, optional

1 tablespoon butter, softened

2 to 3 teaspoons prepared wasabi paste


1/2 cup spiralized daikon radish or finely julienned radish

6 large basil leaves, very thinly sliced

2 wild-caught albacore or skipjack tuna steaks, 1 inch thick, each about 7 ounces

Expeller-pressed canola oil

1. Put mirin, soy sauce and kombu in a medium-size, microwave-safe dish. Microwave on high until boiling, about 1 minute. Let cool.

2. Mix the butter with the wasabi and salt to taste in a small dish. Mix daikon and basil in a small bowl.

3. Prepare a charcoal grill; let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash. Or, heat a gas grill until hot. Brush fish on both sides with oil.

4. Place tuna directly over very hot charcoal. Cook, uncovered, without turning, 4 minutes. The fish should release easily from the grill. Flip carefully and cook until center is medium-rare, about 2 minutes. Remove to

2 serving plates. Immediately top each piece of fish with half of the

wasabi butter. Divide the daikon mixture over the fish. Drizzle soy mixture over the fish. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per serving: 417 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 134 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 11 g sugar, 60 g protein, 2,221 mg sodium, 1 g fiber