- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

Summer won’t officially arrive until June 21, but the smells of the season already are here. That tangy, irresistible scent can only come from fire-licked food. Yes, it’s grilling time again.

A 2005 report by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association says 44 percent of grill owners fire up one to two times per week during peak summer days — Memorial Day to Labor Day.

That doesn’t have to mean a steady diet of burgers and franks. Grilling can be just as healthy, or even healthier, than indoor cooking methods.

Bob Kiebler, director of food and beverages with Morton’s the Steakhouse, in the District, says a smattering of the restaurant’s customers insist on eating healthy grilled food. The rest, Mr. Kiebler says, “just want the good taste.”

He says diners can have it both ways. From grilled salmon to asparagus brushed with olive oil, customers don’t have to sacrifice flavor for their health.

“A grilled chicken breast has hardly any fat at all,” Mr. Kiebler says.

Today’s restaurants routinely tweak their menus to make them more health-conscious, cutting down on butter and grease and steaming rather than boiling vegetables.

But nothing can replace the taste of meat seared on the grill.

“Without the char, you’re not developing the flavor,” he says.

That char when done properly makes food tastier, but there is a downside. Researchers suspect overcooking meat on the grill can cause carcinogens to form.

Will Clower, author of “The Fat Fallacy: Applying the French Diet to the American Lifestyle,” sees more people are beginning to ask questions about the carcinogen connection.

“You can get the same effect from over-grilling in your broiler or frying pan,” Mr. Clower says. “This concern comes out like clockwork every Memorial Day.”

The science isn’t set in stone, Mr. Clower says, but grillers can take a few steps to prevent possible health woes. For starters, the cook can trim off any charbroiled flakes, with the remaining meat safe to consume.

Recent studies report marinating meat for only 10 minutes with something like teriyaki or turmeric and garlic can reduce the likelihood of carcinogens forming, he says.

Can’t give up burgers? Then choose leaner chopped meat varieties or turn to turkey for a healthier alternative.

And use a meat thermometer inserted into the center of a grilling chicken breast to make sure it reaches 165 degrees, the heat required to kill bacteria, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

John Youk, official grill chef for NASCAR, notices more people starting to watch what they eat. That includes the drivers who count on him for fuel.

“They say, ‘Why don’t we have some salmon sometimes or some fish,’” Mr. Youk says.

The self-taught chef learned his trade through trial and error, and he suggests neophytes be patient when experimenting with new, healthy meals.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s been a lot of stuff tossed in the trash can,” he says.

Mr. Youk recommends grillers pay close attention to the fire, particularly when cooking items such as pork chops.

“Don’t walk away from it … you need to stay right with them. You can’t let them shrivel up,” he says.

When cooking chicken, a favorite food for healthy grilling, make sure to go easy on barbecue sauce, he says.

“Don’t keep putting sauce on the chicken. There’s a lot of sugar in it and it’ll burn and give the chicken a bad flavoring,” he says.

And if people find it hard not to overcook chicken, he recommends taking the meat off the direct heat when it’s still a little wet in the middle and placing it onto a cooler part of the grill. Put the chicken in a tin with some water in it, cover with foil and let the chicken steep until it’s done.

The result is a tender chicken that’s “out of this world,” he says.

Chicken is an obvious choice for healthy grilling, but “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grilling” by Don Mauer suggests even pizzas can be cooked on the grill. The book also recommends grilling fruit, a process that caramelizes the fruit’s existing sugar, enhancing its natural flavor.

One of the best ways to turn a drab hunk of meat into a spicy dish is by using marinades. Linda Yerardi, consulting dietitian with Mercy Hospital’s diabetes center in Baltimore, says using marinade doesn’t have to be time-consuming.

Ms. Yerardi recommends a concoction of soy sauce and ginger, spiked with either garlic or pepper, as an easy way to shake up a grilled meal. The soy has health-boosting properties, while the ginger promotes a strong digestive tract, she adds. Other easy marinades include Italian dressing, either straight from the bottle or homemade, and vinaigrettes.

Low-fat marinades tend to be healthier, but sometimes a little fat is needed to add moisture and keep food from sticking to the grill, she says. A dash of canola or olive oil to any marinade will solve the problem.

She also cautions against re-using marinades for fear of bacteria contamination from exposure to raw meat.

Mr. Kiebler says grillers should use some imagination when considering their next grilled meal.

“I like roasted corn on the cob … and garlic that’s been placed near the coals and allowed to get soft enough to spread on bread instead of butter,” he says. “Anything you can cook on your stove you can cook on the grill. It might require a little thought ahead of time.”

Getting started

Grilling healthy begins with the grill itself. Consumer Reports has the following suggestions when considering a gas grill purchase:

• Take a magnet along when shopping. Cheap stainless steel is more likely to corrode over time and usually is magnetic.

• Opt for brass burners — burners are the most frequently replaced grill parts and brass models last the longest.

• Give that grill you’ve been eyeing a modest hip check to see if it tips. A stable grill is a safe grill.

• Consider the grill’s handle — a metal one will get hotter than wooden or plastic handles.

• Remember that higher Btu figures don’t necessarily mean faster heating or superior cooking performance.

• Stiff, heavy grates made of thick stainless steel allow for searing meat more effectively.

The magazine’s testers suggest spending no more than $500 for a quality gas grill. They cited Vermont Castings’ VM400XBP and Char-Broil Advantage Series 463453305 as solid, midsize grills. Those looking for a larger grill can check out the Great Outdoors Pinnacle TG-560 and Brinkman Pro Series 4400 810-4400-0. Both are capable of cooking more than 30 burgers at once.

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