The thrill is back as authors spice up foods for the grill


I am as happy as a kid with a new toy. I have a new cookbook, "Big Flavors of The Hot Sun" (Morrow, $27.50). It tells how to do new tricks with my old kettle grill. Tricks like covering the dull chicken breasts with a layer of spicy pesto sauce made with nuts and cilantro.

And salting the food, before, not after I grill it.

These tips came from Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby who also wrote "The Thrill of the Grill" a 1990 book I use so often its pages smell like smoke.

I began using their new book, "Big Flavors of The Hot Sun," on a plain old Thursday night. I was supposed to cook whatever was defrosted for supper. That turned out to be skinless chicken breasts, a pretty ho-hum entree.

So I pulled the new cookbook from my briefcase and began to read it, the way I read most cookbooks. Namely I started reading the back of the book, otherwise known as the index. Later I could read the authors' insights and philosophy. Now I needed to get the grub on the table.

Under "chicken," I found a recipe that looked quick and lively. It called for grilling the chicken breasts, then covering them with a layer of pesto made by pulverizing cilantro, pecans and garlic.

Another thing I liked about this recipe was that it allowed kids, who might be suspicious of putting green stuff on their chicken, to just say "No" to the sauce. One of our kids did just that. He said "Yes" to the grilled chicken, but "No" to the pesto. The rest of us put the coating on the grilled chicken and loved it.

After the successful chicken dinner, I called up Schlesinger to talk. He is the chef and co-owner of three Cambridge, Mass., restaurants, the East Coast Grill, Jake & Earl's Dixie Barbecue, and the Blue Room. His co-author Willoughby is senior editor of Cooks Illustrated magazine.

Like his cooking style, Schlesinger was quick and to the point. A key to his cooking was using spices, including salt, he said. While researching the book, he and Willoughby ate their way around the world. They came back to America, Schlesinger said, with a new respect for spices.

That appreciation of spices shows up in the book's recipes for mixtures of dry spices that are rubbed on meat and fish. The spiced food is cooked quickly over a hot, wood fire. The result is food with strong, sometimes contrasting, flavors. Spicy on the crust, juicy in the center.

Schlesinger said he liked kosher and sea salt because they brought out the flavors of foods. "When you salt before you cook, the salt blends with the meat," he said. Contrary to popular belief, salting does not make food tough, he said.

Salt is also not the health risk many people think it is, Schlesinger said. If you are not among the small percentage of the population who is sensitive to salt, you can sprinkle salt on your meat and not worry about its causing high blood pressure, he said.

Whether you are grilling fish, red meat or chicken, the principle is the same, he said. Searing heat produces a browning and a concentration of flavor that is the cornerstone of the taste of grilled food. "I go for color" on the crust, Schlesinger said. "The more color, the more flavor."

L Here's the recipe I tried from "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun."

Grilled chicken breasts with cilantro-pecan pesto

Serves 4

1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 cup chopped pecans

6 tablespoons virgin olive oil

1/4 cup lime juice

6 dashes Tabasco sauce

salt and pepper to taste

4 boneless chicken breasts

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Make the pesto by combining all ingredients, except chicken and vegetable oil, in food processor and process until rough paste is formed.

Coat chicken lightly with vegetable oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Grill over medium fire, 7 to 9 minutes per side, checking for doneness by slicing and peeking. It is done when no pink meat is visible.

Remove chicken from fire and coat each breast with generous

tablespoon of cilantro-pecan pesto.

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