I am often asked which wines go best with foods off the grill. At the risk of sounding flip, my response is usually “whatever wine you like.”
When you think about foods on the grill, however, you realize that there is often a lot going on. Typically, we use marinades and rubs with heat from chilies; acid from citrus, vinegar or wine; and sweetness from sugar, honey or molasses.
Then we pile on smoky flavors from the flame, along with additional sauces and condiments. All of this activity can be a challenge to wine, as the following recipes illustrate.
Because of the big, bold flavors that typically come from grilled foods, my advice is to serve wine or other beverages that are not going to add a big bag of flavors to the mix. Choose those that can complement, not clash with, the food.
Big, oaky chardonnays and tannic, in-your-face cabernets are not the best ideas, in my opinion — unless, of course, that’s all you drink and what you prefer. For the rest of us, however, something a bit more subtle seems to work best.
If you are a white-wine person, I’d recommend wines that are clean and fruit-forward with little or no oak flavor in the mix.
I also like whites with a little residual sugar, which helps accentuate the fruit. I’m not talking about obviously sweet wines, but those with just a touch of sugar. These are generally lower in alcohol because not all of the sugar has been fermented.
This lower alcohol content often lends a delicacy to wine that can offer a nice balance to big grilled flavors. Whites often made in a clean style with just a touch of residual sugar are Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, chenin blancs, muscats and viogniers.
If you like whites that are dry without a touch of sugar, go for clean sauvignon blancs and pinot gris or grigios. A good wine merchant can help you find the flavor profile you are looking for.
Note that the grape variety mentioned on the label is not a guarantee of flavor profile because the winemakers have lots of influence on the end product. They can add oak flavors and fruit that is very ripe, which can result in lots of alcohol.
Remember, too, that many imported wines do not list grape variety on the label. Instead, by tradition or by choice, they might use a location name or even a proprietary name, neither of which will give you much information. That’s where a good wine merchant can be of particular assistance.
If you are a red-wine drinker, you may prefer reds lower in tannins, such as pinot noir, with its earthy, mushroomy flavors, or syrah, with its naturally fruity, meaty flavors. Of course, there are lots of other options, including sangiovese, the great red grape of Chianti.
I’d serve any red ever-so-slightly chilled. I know this sounds like heresy, but I must tell you that it’s perfectly OK to chill red wine a bit before serving it. The old adage of serving red wines at room temperature came from Northern European climates, in which rooms were often in the 70s, even in the summer.
For many of us, summer temperatures can get into the 90s or more, and that’s just too hot to serve red wine. At above 80 degrees or so, the alcohol will begin to volatilize, causing odd off flavors and aromas. A brief 15 to 30 minutes in the refrigerator before opening and drinking can make red wines much more enjoyable on a hot day.
One final thought about wines with grilled food: You might want to consider roses and sparkling wines. Both are served chilled, which can help cool us down on a warm day. More important, their flavors tend to be more delicate, which provides a nice counterpoint to bold grilled flavors.
With roses, I’m not talking about the very sweet white zinfandels but pink or rose wines that are fairly dry. I don’t want to bash white zins, however, because these uniquely American creations run the gamut from very sweet to fairly dry. I’d pick one from the dryer end of the spectrum.
Delicious roses are made all over the world, and they have become popular recently in California. Like roses, sparkling wines are made in many parts of the world. You don’t have to spend a fortune on great champagnes from France or sparkling wines from California.
Spumantes from Italy, sparklers from New York’s Finger Lakes region and cavas from Spain are deliciously affordable and perfect with foods off the grill.
Summer is all about being outside and cooking food on the grill. Here’s a menu I especially like and hope that you will, too. You’ll note a definite Mexican influence in the ingredients and flavors.
Brined shrimp with grilled corn salsa
There are a couple of things going on in this recipe that make it interesting. The first is that we have brined the shrimp before cooking. Brining makes shrimp juicier and more flavorful, and the shrimp tend not to dry out as much on the grill.
Brining is a great technique for almost anything that goes on the grill. Also note that we’re cooking the shrimp in the shell. This also helps keep shrimp moist, and the shell imparts a lot of flavor to the shrimp meat. Use good hardwood charcoal to impart a sweet, smoky flavor. Avoid briquettes, if you can.
1/3 cup sea or kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
11/4 pounds large shrimp (16 to 20 size) or enough for 4 shrimp per person
1/4 cup light olive oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped or pressed garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 tablespoons dry white wine
Grilled corn salsa (recipe follows)
Sliced avocado fans and sprigs of cilantro for garnish
Prepare brine by stirring salt, sugar and 1 quart water together until dissolved. Add shrimp in their shells; refrigerate for 30 to 45 minutes. With a pair of scissors, cut the shrimp down the center of the back all the way to the next-to-last tail section. With a sharp knife, butterfly the shrimp in their shells, making an incision along the length of the back where the shell is cut. Remove sand and vein, and rinse.
Combine olive oil, garlic, parsley, hot red pepper flakes and wine to make marinade, and use it to coat the shrimp. Grill shrimp on both sides over medium-hot coals until they are just cooked through and shells are slightly charred, about 4 minutes total. Place shrimp on plates with grilled corn salsa, avocado and cilantro. Makes 6 servings.
GRILLED CORN SALSA:
3 large ears sweet corn
1 medium red bell pepper, halved with stem and seeds removed
1 poblano chili, halved with stem and seeds removed
1 small jalapeno chili, halved with stem and seeds removed
1 small red onion, peeled and halved
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice, or to taste
2 teaspoons honey, or to taste
1/3 cup chopped cilantro or mint leaves, or a combination
Brush corn, bell pepper, poblano and jalapeno chilies, and onion with 3 tablespoons olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper.
Place vegetables on a medium-hot grill, and cook on all sides until just beginning to color. Remove, cool and cut corn kernels from cob; place in a bowl.
Pull as much of the skin as possible from the pepper and chilies, discard skin, chop pepper and chilies, and add to corn.
Chop onion and also add to corn along with lime or lemon juice to taste, honey to taste, cilantro or mint leaves or a combination, and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Stir and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes before using. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes about 3 cups.
Grilled flank steak with lime-chipotle sauce
This is a great outdoor summer dish because it doesn’t involve any stovetop or oven cooking. Chipotle in adobo can now be found in small cans in most supermarket Latin sections.
To accompany this, grill whatever fresh vegetables you find in the market, such as scallions, thin-skinned potatoes, sweet peppers, zucchini and the like.
3 pounds flank steak
2 tablespoons minced chipotle chili in adobo
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 cup hearty red wine
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup honey
1 to 2 tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown mustard
½ cup fresh lime juice
1½ tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grilled summer vegetables of choice, such as scallions, thin-skinned potatoes, sweet red and yellow peppers, zucchini and sweet red onion
Cilantro sprigs for garnish or greens, optional
Carefully trim steak of any fat. Mix together 2 tablespoons minced chipotle; 1 tablespoon garlic; 3 tablespoons cilantro; and the olive oil, wine and soy sauce, and pour over steak. Marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight, covered in refrigerator, turning occasionally.
In a blender, puree together the honey, 1 to 2 tablespoons minced chipotle, the vinegar, the mustard, the lime juice, 1½ tablespoons garlic, the cumin, the allspice and 1/4 cup cilantro until smooth and set aside. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.Remove excess marinade from steak; grill over hot coals to desired doneness, about 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare.
Let steak rest for 3 minutes, then slice thinly across the grain on an angle and arrange on warm plates topped with the grilled summer vegetables of your choice and garnished with cilantro or serve on a bed of greens, if desired. Drizzle sauce over or serve on the side. Makes 6 servings.
Grilled pineapple and nectarines with rum-lime glaze
Any firm ripe fruit can be grilled successfully. Grilling adds a delicious smoky flavor, and the heat of the coals caramelizes the sugars in the fruits and the sugar in the glaze.
1 small to medium pineapple
Rum-lime glaze (recipe follows)
6 firm ripe nectarines, halved and pitted
Vanilla ice cream
Cut pineapple in sixths, and remove the tough center core, leaving the soft fruit and outer shell intact. Brush with rum-lime glaze, and grill over medium-low coals, brushing as you turn the pineapple pieces. Depending on the heat, this will take 6 to 8 minutes or so per side.
While pineapple is grilling, brush nectarines generously with glaze and grill cut sides down until lightly charred but still firm, 6 minutes or so. Arrange fruit on plates and serve warm or at room temperature with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with any leftover glaze. Makes 6 servings.
3/4 cup fragrant honey
2/3 cup dark rum
4 quarter-size coins of fresh ginger root
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Combine honey, rum and ginger root in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat and reduce by half, about 4 minutes. It will look syrupy. Turn off heat, and stir in lime juice. Can be stored, covered and refrigerated for up to a week. Remove ginger root before serving.
John Ash and Amy Mintzer won a 2005 James Beard award for their book, “Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher” (Clarkson Potter).