- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Sun’s up, and the great grilling season has begun — but wait a minute. What does grilling mean? How does it differ from barbecuing? And where does broiling fit into it all? I hasten to my cookbook collection but emerge an hour later even more confused than before. Everyone seems to disagree.

“Grilling is done over the heat on an outdoor grill or barbecue, while broiling takes place under the heat in an oven broiler,” states the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in “Classic Cooking Techniques.”

That seems clear enough, but there’s another twist. CCA does not mention those trendy indoor stove-top grills that come installed in higher-end kitchen ranges. I have a portable version, a heavy ridged griddle that fits over two stove-top burners and does a splendid job of searing beef steak and implanting an attractive lattice pattern on tuna or chicken.

A monthly magazine puts a finger on it: “Grilled foods have found their place on the menus of the best restaurants.” If I can call my quick stove-top supper “grilled,” I’m feasting like the rich and famous. It seems that the succulent grilled halibut, marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs that I’ve been making for years now counts as the current chic, as do the grilled vegetables and the charred eggplant puree called poor man’s caviar.

So where do these stove-top grills fit in? Grilling guru Steven Raichlen makes only a modest mention in his book “Barbecue Bible.” He describes one as “an electric heating element beneath a metal grate — a sort of inverted broiler.”

Skillet grills — cast-iron skillets with a ridged base — are another stove-top twist. “But is this really grilling?” Mr. Raichlen asks. “A purist would say no.” OK, I’m not in the forefront of fashion, but why should I worry as long as the food tastes good? Even Mr. Raichlen admits he’s not sure that “a blindfolded eater could tell the difference between outdoor and indoor grilled food that has been marinated well.”

I’ve come across a splendid traditional test for determining grill temperature. Hold one hand above the grill about the same height as the food to be cooked.

Say “California.” If you can pronounce it once before snatching your hand away, the grill is very hot. If you can say it twice, the grill is at medium heat. Three times means low heat.

Barbecue is another matter. The flavor imparted to food by open coals, whether or not bolstered with aromatic woods, is unmistakable. I’ve always thought that it was this character that defined barbecue, but it seems I was wrong. It is the degree of heat applied that is key.

Christopher Kimball, the mastermind of Cook’s Illustrated, states: “Barbecuing is a low-heat method of cooking and is good for inexpensive cuts. Grilling is done over high heat and is very good for tender foods such as fish or chicken, but it’s a lousy way to prepare tough, lower-quality cuts such as brisket.”

Strictly speaking, therefore, the term barbecue refers to low-heat cooking, covered to retain moisture that slowly tenderizes tough, usually large, pieces of meat. Pit barbecuing is a large-scale version of this method. This takes us back to the definition of the word, said to come from the early French settlers in Louisiana who cooked their goats from barbe-a-queue (from beard to tail). The cheerful kebabs and chicken pieces, frizzled happily over a bit of charcoal in the open air on the back porch, would not seem to qualify for the honored name.

Broiling is yet another technique. The 2000 edition of the beloved classic “Joy of Cooking” states: “Whether you broil on a grill or in a range, the principle is identical. The heat is a radiant glow.” The aim of broiling is to cook with the burner glowing at full throttle so the top surface of food is seared by radiant heat. Just as in grilling and barbecuing, the temperature for broiling is controlled by moving the rack on which the food is placed nearer or farther from the heat.

To gauge when grilled or broiled food such as steak or chicken breast is done, there’s a touchy-feely test. Make a circle with your first finger and thumb and press the ball of your thumb; it will feel soft. Press the food in the center with your fingertip. If it has the same soft texture, it is rare. Move your thumb to the middle finger and test the ball of your thumb again; food with the same resilience will be medium done. Finally, test with the little finger. The ball of your thumb will be firm and so will well-done food.I haven’t mentioned the innumerable marinades, rubs, barbecue sauces and other enhancements that are used to improve grilled, barbecued and broiled foods. High heat is tricky, and ways to mitigate its effects are part of the mystique.

Split baby chicken with garlic butter and mustard

2 small chickens, about 1 pound each

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons butter, softened

Salt, pepper

1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste

2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs

Bunch of watercress, for garnish

To split and flatten birds, set one chicken, breast side down, on a board. Cut along each side of backbone with poultry shears and discard it. Trim any flaps of skin and cut off wing tips.

Wipe inside with paper towels. Set bird breast side up, with legs turned in. With heel of your hand, push down sharply on breast to break breastbone and flatten the bird. Repeat process with other chicken.

Beat garlic into softened butter. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Loosen skin on chicken breasts and spread about half the butter between flesh and skin of both chickens, using your fingers.

Cut a slit in leg skin of chickens, loosen skin and spread remaining butter on flesh underneath.

Heat grill or broiler. Skewer chickens, threading each with two skewers (four skewers total) to hold legs and wings flat and level with breast.

Sprinkle birds with salt and pepper. Put on an oiled rack: skin side down for a grill, skin side up for a broiler. Grill or broil about 3 inches from heat, basting once with melted butter, for 12 to 15 minutes or until very brown. Turn them over, brush with remaining butter and grill or broil 8 to 10 minutes on the other side.

Brush skin side with mustard, then sprinkle with bread crumbs and turn birds over a last time. Grill or broil, skin side toward heat, until birds are tender when pierced with a 2-pronged fork, about 2 to 3 minutes longer. (If they brown too quickly at any point during cooking, move rack farther from the heat or reduce stove heat.)

Pull skewers from chickens. Arrange chickens on a serving dish or individual plates and garnish with watercress, if desired. Makes 2 servings.

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