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Get a grill thrill with new flavors, cuts, veggies

For Memorial Day story outdoor grilling MercadiExecutive Chef Patricio Sandoval shows how he prepares dish with his mole barbecue sauce2.

For a Memorial Day story on outdoor grilling, Mercadito Executive Chef Patricio Sandoval shows how he prepares a dish with his mole barbecue sauce2. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 29, 2012 8:42AM

The mainstays — patties, barbecue chicken, brats — are good. But left as is? It’s doubtful they’ll rock your world.

Fruit-sauce slathers, reduced over coals? A smoldering, smoky braise? Well, that’s a different story. This season, let your imagination run wild by infusing fresh flavors — and taking a modern approach — when grilling grub.

Kari Underly, a third-generation butcher and author of The Art of Beef Cutting (Wiley, $50), starts by treating her grates like they’re part of the kitchen.

“There’s a lot to be said for extending the oven experience outdoors,” says the Chicago-based meat-master, a consultant to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

She is a force behind developing new cuts, among them flat-iron steak, Denver cut and petite tender.

A firm believer in less-expensive protein varietals done right, she’s been known to split a beef chuck into steaks and boneless ribs, cooking the overlooked, tender steak portion directly atop the grill, while braising the chuck-eye portion adjacent in a light liquid.

Others grillers choose to showcase — and elevate — humble ingredients in surprising ways.

“People all over the world have been gardening and cooking over wood fires for ages,” says Judith M. Fertig, who co-authored veg-centric The Gardener and the Grill (Running Press, $20) with Karen Adler.

That’s why the Kansas City, Mo., resident and former Kendall College instructor likes to wow guests with just-plucked wonders from her backyard.

“What really grabs people’s attention — and their taste buds — is a platter of grilled vegetables,” she says, noting she ups the ante with an herbaceous vinaigrette and sprinkle of smoked goat cheese. “Put that out for a barbecue bash and — suddenly — everybody is around that platter.”

Fertig notes that while she “loves ribs, hot dogs and burgers as much as the next person,” its vegetables’ fresh flavor and vibrant colors that she finds particularly appealing.

So, she also grills her slaw.

“Try cutting your green or red cabbage into quarters, brush the cut sides with olive oil and grill over medium-high heat — grill lid up, until the cut sides have grill marks,” she suggests, noting she tops the creation with Gorgonzola vinaigrette.

Fertig also likes to grill edamame and fava beans in the pod, serving them as an appetizer.

“Just plate a big pile of them with a bowl of artisan salt or fresh Pecorino in the center, and people are wowed,” she assures.

Of course, even some simple techniques can ramp up flavors, fast.

Underly, already a fan of citrus, has this bit of advice to impart:

“Though we often use fresh lime and lemon to tenderize meat in a marinade, it breaks things down even more when squeezed on meat — especially sliced meat — after grilling is done.”

Naturally, when it comes to global flavors, it’s easy to let your imagination run wild.

Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef at Sepia in the West Loop, likes to rethink the flavors or cuts for ribs.

“I use Indian or Asian flavors to remodel a BBQ sauce or use lamb ribs in place of more conventional pork ribs, “ he says.

The same goes for “hot dogs.”

“I make my own sausages, like merguez, pork Thai red curry and chicken with roasted poblano,” Zimmerman says. “Then, I play around with complementary toppings: pickled eggplant and harissa aioli for the merguez and green papaya salad and Sriracha mayo for the pork sausage.”

But he doesn’t stop there.

Zimmerman tops Belgian waffles with grilled pork belly and a whirl of grill-smoked maple syrup. He has even smoked water. Yep, water. Solving the age-old problem of watered-down drinks, his is used to craft curious ice for bloody Marys.

Meanwhile, Chef Patricio Sandoval of Mercadito in River North uses Mexican flavors to reinvent — or at least, tweak — the wheel.

“I like to use grilled shrimp in a ceviche with broths other than your traditional lime juice,” he says of combinations like passion fruit-serrano or key lime-habanero.

He finds the smoke of mezcal pairs perfectly with summer grilling.

“Try it neat with some citrus slices or add a half-ounce of mezcal to your standard margarita recipe with good blanco tequila,” he advises.

Dessert is not immune to being turned on end.

Underly plops a block of Himalayan sea salt on her grill. Once heated, she warms chocolates this way, tucking them into a gooey, lightly salted version of s’mores.

Basicially, anything goes. The sky’s the limit. And all that jazz.

Jennifer Olvera is a locally based free lance writer.

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