What's the best way to recast an ordinary steak, chicken breast or fish fillet cooked on the grill? Soak it first in a savory marinade. Basic marinades include vinegar or citrus juice for tenderizing, spices and herbs for flavor and oil for lubrication.
While the more usual red wine vinegar adds zip, balsamic vinegar imparts a mellow, sweetish taste. Or choose the sweet-sour bite of lime over lemon's simpler tang. Seasonal fresh herbs are choice, but dried herbs awakened in a bit of hot water are fine, too.
Old-time marinade recipes often call for cups of oil, but only a couple of tablespoons are really necessary. Experiment with avocado oil or walnut oil, or Oriental sesame oil for intense flavor. And since salt draws juices out of raw meats, sprinkle it on at the table.
After the basics, the rest is art. Add tomatoes, ketchup or chili sauce; mustard; Worcestershire sauce; beer, Burgundy, white wine or dry sherry; brewed coffee; fresh chilies; red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper or hot sauce; sour cream, creme fraiche; or yogurt.
Paste-rubs or dry marinades using minimal oil -- the kind familiar on Jamaican jerk pork and certain barbecued ribs -- seal in moisture and create a crusty outside. Seasoned oil or compound-butter marinades enhance browning.
Most wonderful of all marinades to my taste, though, are marinades with an Asian flavor. They may be as simple as bottled sauces sold in Oriental groceries, thinned with a little soy sauce and refreshed with chopped scallions and garlic, grated ginger and coriander leaves. Look for hoisin sauce; mushroom ++ soy sauce; tamari; Vietnameseor Thaifish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla, respectively); Sambal oelek (Indonesian ground chile paste); and, my favorite, a spicy-sweet Thai mixture labeled "sauce for chicken" that tastes great on fish, shrimp and even sliced cucumbers.
For more complex Oriental marinades, turn to this season's hot cookbook, "Asian Grills," (Doubleday, 1993) by Alexandra Greeley of Reston, Va. She invaded kitchens and roamed the streets of cities far and wide seeking authentic recipes. Most of these foods are marinated, often in two independent mixtures, or burnished with seasoning rubs before grilling.
Indian tandoori prawns, fish and chicken, for example, spend a ++ few minutes in a lemon juice, garlic, ginger and red chili-powder mixture before soaking in yogurt with spices. And murgh (chicken) malai marinates in a spiced egg, grated Cheddar cheese and heavy cream mixture.
Coconut milk is a featured player in many Thai, Cambodian and Burmese marinades, along with lemon grass, galangal and chilies. Other Thai marinades depend on tamarind juice, fish sauce or curry paste. Malaysian marinades add turmeric and candlenuts or macadamia nuts to this flavor constellation, while Vietnamese versions lean heavily on nuoc mam, caramelized sugar and lime juice.
Complex Indonesian marinades start with a base of kecap manis (a heavy, sweet soy sauce) and use cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, coriander seeds and cloves along with garlic, lemon grass, chili paste and shrimp paste for seasoning. Marinades for Chinese grilled foods are based on soy sauce, hoisin sauce or oyster sauce with rice wine and may include not only garlic and scallions but also black beans, five-spice powder or Sichuan peppercorns.
In the Philippines, the Spanish influence combines with the Oriental to create unique flavor combinations that include annato oil, tomatoes, onion and ketchup.
And in Macao, the Portuguese-African influence can be tastedin marinades that include paprika and butter.
Koreans favor sesame seeds with soy sauce, garlic, scallions and hot peppers while the Japanese like miso (fermented bean paste), mirin (sweet wine) and soy sauce-based marinades.
No matter which marinade you choose, marinating rules of thumb listed by Los Angeles author Kelly McCune in "The Art of Grilling" (Harper & Row, 1990) ensure tasty results.
She suggests avoiding aluminum or plastic containers for marinating; the first because they can interact with the acid and the second because they retain odors. Use glass, stainless steel, enamel or porcelain pans instead.
Marinate meats and poultry for two hours at room temperature or longer in the refrigerator. Fish and vegetables, on the other hand, should marinate no longer than 30 minutes unrefrigerated or two hours refrigerated or their fibers will break down too much.
Perhaps the best recommendation for choosing marinated grilled foods in summer is that they can be readied early and thrown on the barbecue at the last minute. Ingredients are widely available in Asian grocery stores.
The following recipes are from "Asian Grills."
Indian tandoori chicken
2 whole frying chickens, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds each, skin removed
melted butter for basting
freshly ground black pepper to taste
' First marinade
salt to taste
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
# Second marinade
6 tablespoons plain yogurt
7 tablespoons heavy cream
2 1/2 teaspoons ginger paste
2 1/2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
several threads saffron
Make 3 deep slashes on each chicken breast and thigh and 2 slashes on each leg. Combine ingredients for first marinade and rub over surface of chickens, making sure to work it into the slashes. Place chickens on a baking sheet and set aside.
Place yogurt for second marinade into a bowl and whisk in remaining ingredients. Rub chickens with mixture. Place chickens in a large baking dish, cover with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 hours.
Grill chickens over hot coals 20-25 minutes, turning two or three times during cooking. Remove from fire and allow excess moisture to drip off for 5 minutes. Baste with the melted butter and return to fire for 10 more minutes. Remove and place chickens on a large serving plate. Cut into halves or quarters, sprinkle with black pepper and serve.
Thai grilled beef sate Serves 4-6.
36 thin slices top round steak, 1 inch wide and 3- to 4 inches long, fat removed
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup coconut milk
1-pound jar chunky peanut butter
1 quart water
1/2 teaspoon salt
sugar to taste
4-6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3-4 tablespoons sweet soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons chili sambal (recipe below)
1/4 pound red chilies, sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
Put meat into a roasting pan. Dissolve turmeric and salt in coconut milk. Pour over meat, turning meat to be sure all pieces are coated. Set aside for at least 1 hour. Thread meat on bamboo skewers, inserting skewer at least twice along the length of the meat. Grill over medium coals 8-10 minutes, turning once and basting with marinade. Serve immediately with sate sauce.
To make sate sauce, combine all ingredients in a saucepan and cook on a low flame 1-1 1/2 hours.
(To make chili sambal, grind or mince chilies very fine. Stir in salt and sugar. Deep fry shrimp paste and mix with the chilies. Use immediately or refrigerate in a covered container until needed. Makes about 1/2 cup.)
Indonesian grilled prawns
20 jumbo prawns in their shells
juice of 3 limes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt to taste
6 shallots, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
3-5 red chilies, seeds removed
1 medium tomato, chopped
4 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Combine all marinade ingredients except oil in a food processor or blender and process to make a coarse paste. Heat the 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy skillet and add paste. Saute 5 minutes, remove from heat and cool.
Use a sharp paring knife to slit down the spine of each prawn to devein but be careful not to pull shells off. Pinch off legs and tails. Place prawns in a shallow baking dish.
Combine lime juice, 2 tablespoons of oil and salt and sprinkle over prawns. Coat them with marinade. Cover dish with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Thread prawns on pairs of bamboo skewers so they do not slip around while grilling. Grill over medium hot coals 7-10 minutes, brushing with marinade and turning once to cook evenly. Serve immediately.