OK, it's Saturday night, the grill is out, the coals are on, the hamburger patties are sitting on a plate, the ketchup and mustard are -- STOP!
Nobody ever said grilling has to be boring.
There's far more to the art of the grill than burgers and hot dogs: It can be as elegant as a fine chef's preparation without being a whole lot more trouble than simpler fare.
"If people look beyond the short grilling history in the United States and look at the way grilling works in other cultures," says Chris Schlesinger, the Massachusetts chef who is co-author of "The Thrill of the Grill" cookbook, they'll find out how useful a cooking tool the grill can be.
In warmer climes, Mr. Schlesinger points out, "They use grilling -- as a regular cooking technique -- a normal, everyday cooking method."
The tradition is widespread: Think of grilled lamb with dried fruit in North Africa; grilled satays, marinated, skewer-grilled meats with piquant sauces, from Southeast Asia; meat and vegetable kebabs from the Middle East and the Mediterranean region; tandoor-oven grilled dishes from India, and spit-roasted pork from South America.
"When we started grilling vegetables in the U.S. about five years ago, everybody said, 'Oh, wow, that's unusual,' but if you look at other cultures, it's standard procedure."
Look at everything on your menu as a potential grill candidate, Mr. Schlesinger suggests. "Pretty much everything that you can saute, you can grill.
"Fish on the grill is really nice. And the bigger mushrooms -- portobello and shiitake -- you can just roast them a little in the oven, then crisp them up right on the grill. I do little neck clams -- throw them right on the grill, and they open up.
"And shrimp's really great on the grill -- skewer them with the shells on or off, cook about three to four minutes per side -- because the quick cooking helps keep them tender. And I like grilling little game birds, like quail."
"Everyone has a lot of tradition wrapped up in their grilling," says Kelly McCune, the California cookbook author whose latest book is "Vegetables on the Grill." She recalls plenty of grilled hamburgers with a side of potato salad in her youth. But "a little thinking time" can result in a far more imaginative meal, she says.
"Everything is easy on the grill. It's not more complicated to grill fresh vegetables than to cook a hot dog," Ms. McCune says. Vegetables can be cooked quite simply, by brushing them with a little olive oil and putting them on the grill. "My feeling is, don't peel it unless you absolutely have to. The peel is nutritious, and it helps hold the vegetable together."
She firmly believes that "Almost every vegetable is a potential vegetable for the grill." In her cookbook, recipes include cauliflower, bok choy, yams, leeks, fennel, acorn squash, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and rutabaga.
"No vegetable needs to be wrapped in foil," she says. Instead, they should be put on skewers or simply placed on the grill. "The grill is hot enough that it simply sears the outside," she explains. "Then the inside cooks without losing any of the special texture" of the vegetable.
For instance, fresh corn: "My favorite way to cook it is to take whole ears and carefully pull the husks down -- some of them will fall off -- take out the silks, wash the corn, then pull the husks back up and tie the ear with a loose piece of husk." The moisture from washing the corn is enough to keep the ear from drying out, she says. As the corn roasts on the grill, some of the husk will dry up and shrink, and the kernels at those spots will be roasted crisp. But the rest of the ear will be as tender as if it had been steamed.
Another of Ms. McCune's favorite grill recipes -- "It has converted even the most hard-core haters of this vegetable," she says -- is for eggplant.
She slices it, sprinkles the slices with salt and lets them sit for half an hour, then rinses each slice and pats it as dry as possible. Then each slice is brushed with a little olive oil and placed on the grill. "It's just perfect on the grill," she says. She suggests a sauce of plain yogurt with a little chopped mint or garlic -- "or even curry powder, if you like those tastes."
And while you're waiting for the grill to heat up, she says, why not create a couple of simple appetizers?
Quesadillas, for instance. She puts a flat tortilla on the grill, tops it with a little Monterey Jack cheese and some slices of avocado, lets it cook about 3 minutes, till the cheese is bubbly, then puts another tortilla on top, turns it over and grills it on that side for about 3 minutes. Slice like a pie and serve with hot salsa or cilantro sauce (see recipe in accompanying story).
Roasted peppers are good, too, especially when there are still flames on the coals. "Those are easy because the goal is to blacken them all over," she says. You simply put the peppers on the grill, keep turning them as they turn black, then let them cool for a minute or two. ("I sometimes let them cool in a paper bag, but that's not necessary," she says.) Then you scrape off the black part, scrape out the seeds, sprinkle with a little olive oil and serve, sliced, on "sturdy" bread.
In fact, grilled appetizers can be so good you can make a meal of them.
Illinois food consultant and cookbook author Barbara Grunes has written a whole book on the subject, called "Appetizers on the Grill." It includes such delicacies as grilled marinated mushrooms, mussels with white wine, lamb sausage with hot xTC sauce, skewered potatoes with freshwater caviar -- and a whole chapter on pizza on the grill.
Appetizers are not only delicious, but they may be less daunting than tiny birds or a whole fish. And they give backyard chefs a chance to experiment. "Any of the appetizers can be expanded into an entree," Ms. Grunes says.
"But the recipes are just a beginning," she says. "You can take them and interpret them any way you want, do anything to make them your own." The grilled mushrooms, for instance: She suggests putting them on skewers with other things -- say, shrimp and cherry tomatoes -- to create kebabs. Or make little pizzas and let everyone top their own.
"Grilling outside is such an easy way to entertain," Ms. Grunes says. People welcome informal get-togethers, "and they like to gather around and see what you're making."
If you put guests to work, chopping, turning things on the grill, topping pizzas or toasting their own ears of corn (pull back husks and silks and use them as a handle, baste constantly with melted butter, a suggestion from Ms. McCune), you'll be entertaining them as well.
Still, like other aficionadoes of grilling, Ms. Grunes believes that the most important ingredient in any dish is imagination. "Try to make things interesting," she says. "You feel so good when you've done something creative."