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Fire up your grill game with different proteins, ‘off-cuts’

Peshoots add springtime touch lamb burger Goose IslBrewery. (Jean Lachat~Sun-Times)

Pea shoots add a springtime touch to the lamb burger at Goose Island Brewery. (Jean Lachat~Sun-Times)

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Before tossing food on the grill, make sure to thoroughly clean your grill, says Michael Staver, chef-instructor at Kendall College who also teaches classes in people’s homes (email to set up a class).

“Invest in a good brush,” Staver says. “Brush the grill after you turn it on and let it warm up a bit because it will remove the old bits from your previous grilling, otherwise those bits will end up like charcoal and give a bitter taste to your food.”

And invest in a good meat thermometer, he says.

“A lot of people lock themselves into the times listed in recipes, but you shouldn’t do that,” Staver said, noting that every grill is different. “Cooking is a proactive sport — you need to pay attention.

“I know people like to touch the meat to see if it’s done, but the fact is most aren’t professionals or cook a lot of meat every day, so it can be hard to tell.”

Sausage should cook to 160 degrees, chicken to 165, beef to between 130 and 135 for medium rare, and pork and burgers to between 140 and 145 for medium.

Amelia Levin

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Updated: May 22, 2012 10:11AM

Steaks and ribs, burgers and dogs — the classic American repertoire never fails during grilling season.

But if you’re itching for a change, why not swap those hamburgers for lamb burgers? In place of chicken wings, try butterflied, marinated whole chicken. Instead of hot dogs, throw on Italian sausage.

The latter is chef Jimmy Bannos’ choice for an easy outdoor gathering.

“I usually sear the sausages first, and then cut them in half and put them back on so each end gets a nice crust,” said Bannos, owner of Heaven on Seven and the Purple Pig.

For Italian sausage and peppers, Bannos will either sear large bell pepper pieces directly on the grill, or use a grill basket and add onions, or sometimes small fingerling potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms for a giambotte, or roasted vegetable “stew.”

Italian sausage also forms the base for an Italian-style paella Bannos cooks on the grill.

“I take a big ovenproof pan and get that hot on the grill,” he says. “Then, throw in the sausage, some chicken thighs, maybe some pancetta for smokiness. As you’re browning the meat, throw in some onions, garlic and peppers and let that cook down a bit, then throw in some tomatoes and rice, cover and let that simmer until the bottom gets crispy.”

You can swap the rice for orzo pasta, par-boiled until al dente, or for Arborio rice to make a risotto, Bannos suggests.

Let size dictate

Sausage should cook to 160 degrees (see sidebar for target temperatures for other meats).

Take the meat off the grill when it is five to 10 degrees lower than the desired temperature, because it will continue to cook while resting.

And pay attention to the size of the protein you’re grilling, says Michael Staver, chef-instructor at Kendall College.

“You don’t need to marinate thick cuts of meat like whole shoulder because you’ll only marinate the outer part,” he says.

Rubs are better in that case, but taste for excess salt before coating the meat.

“A lot of times people follow a recipe, but you end up with a rub that’s too salty because you are using a smaller piece of meat,” Staver says.

Tenderloins work well with rubs, and pork pairs especially well with pineapple. Staver usually sears the pork and fruit over direct high heat to start to extract color and flavor, then moves the food to the other side of the grill where the burner is off for indirect grilling.

Chops and other cuts

Experiment with different cuts. At the Butcher & Larder, 1026 N. Milwaukee, Rob Levitt offers a wide range of “off-cuts” not always available at a traditional grocery store.

Whole leg of lamb, deboned and marinated, then charred and cooked medium-rare can feed an army, Levitt says. Then there’s pork shoulder for slow-roasting over lower, indirect heat.

“I really like doing rabbit on the grill as long as you brine or marinate it first, and don’t cook it too hot,” he says. Levitt also will spatchcock a whole chicken for customers ­— that is, remove the backbone and flatten the bird in a butterfly style. This allows for faster, more even cooking on the grill when weighted with foil-wrapped bricks or a cast iron skillet. Be sure to marinate first or apply a rub to help tenderize the chicken and seal in juices.

Speaking of off-cuts, how about beef or pork heart? At first thought, you may flinch. “It takes a certain type of person to go for that,” Levitt says. But experimental grillers will like the deep, beefy flavor hearts provide, and at $6 a pound on average, they’re far less expensive than traditional steaks.

One heart, marinated in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme and a touch of balsamic, then charred on the outside, cooked until medium rare and sliced into semi-thin pieces will happily feed an adventurous group of 4 to 6 when paired with a bright salad.

For pork hearts, which “aren’t as porky as you would think,” Levitt goes for a harissa rub, which is a spicy, Moroccan chili paste that also pairs well with duck breast. The Levitts get their pork and some beef from Slagel Family Farm in Downstate Fairbury.

Wings and ribs

At Bridge House Tavern, 321 N. Clark, chef Mark Hemmer goes for “pig wings” instead of chicken wings. He buys pre-shaped pork pieces attached to tiny leg bones from a specialty meat provider, then braises the ribs in a St. Louis-style barbecue sauce. He finishes them on the grill for a sweet, caramelized crust.

Instead of the traditional accompaniments of celery, carrot sticks and blue cheese sauce, Hemmer serves the pig wings with a slaw made of shredded celery root, carrots, fennel and onions tossed in a lemon-blue cheese vinaigrette.

While Hemmer’s meat supplier is wholesale only, at home, use smaller cuts of pork to re-create a similar effect, or skewer chunks on bamboo or wood sticks pre-soaked in water for an easy-to-eat version.

At Butcher & Larder, “We can bone out a whole leg of pork and make six tiny subprimal cuts,” Levitt said. “Then you can soak the pieces in a brine of beer, salt and sugar, char on the outside and cook until pink in the middle.”

As for ribs, “The coolest alternative I think to baby back ribs is to do lamb spare ribs,” Levitt says. They’re fatty, so they’d take well to a rub and then the smoker.


Lamb is the quintessential springtime protein, said Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, 500 N. Clark. Instead of beef kababs, Nahabedian will marinate lamb legs and grill those for shish kebabs along with spring veggies such as ramps and young knob onions, which she’ll add to a salad with cucumber, mint and cracked wheat. Serve with pita bread and hummus with Greek yogurt scented with cumin, crushed fennel seeds and candied lemon.

Lamb also makes for an interesting burger, says chef Andrew Hroza of Goose Island Brewpub, 1800 N. Clybourn. Hroza recently swapped out a late winter version with triple cream Brie, poached pear and frisee lettuce for a more “springy” burger with gentle pea shoots, fresh mint and earthy wild mushrooms.

“I’ll make a simple duxelles using local mushrooms from River Valley Ranch in Wisconsin and pair that with Parmesan so it becomes ooey and gooey over the burger, then add some simple mixed greens like arugula or pea shoots to keep it light and fresh,” he said.

Sear lamb burgers over direct high heat only briefly, then cook the burgers at low, indirect heat for the remaining time.

At the restaurant, Hroza will pair the burgers with a light, hoppier beer such as Belgian-style brew or a pale ale like Goose Island Green Line to cut the gaminess of the lamb and the richness of the duxelles and cheese.


Fish also can be substituted for beef in burgers. Prairie Fire’s Sarah Stegner makes burgers with wild Alaskan salmon, which is in season this month. And Chrissie Camba, chef de cuisine of Vincent, 1475 W. Balmoral, cooks anything from trout to smoked bay scallops, mussels and clams on the grill.

Staver likes the foil pouch technique when it comes to grilling tender fish.

“It’s a great way to add a lot of beautiful aromatics, like ginger and herbs, and it’s pretty hard to ruin,” he said. “I also add a little liquid, like white wine with a pat of butter, and always remember to add more herbs than you think you’ll need.”

For extra “pizzazz,” add a squeeze of lemon juice and lemon slices to the pouch. Cook for about 30 to 40 minutes over medium-low heat for big fillets, half the time or less for smaller pieces. You’ll know the fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.

For meatier fish such as salmon or swordfish, make sure to leave the skin on, at least during the grilling process so the fish doesn’t fall apart and fall between the grates. Pair that with grilled potatoes, tossed in olive oil, plenty of herbs and more fresh lemon juice and wrapped in a separate foil pouch.

Amelia Levin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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