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Love of Grilling Goes Beyond the Basic Burger

Fish, vegetables, and even some fruits are fine candidates for outdoor cooking this season

Ever since Ogg the Neanderthal threw a prime filet of woolly mammoth on the coals, man has been fired up by the thrill of the grill. (I say "man" because, for whatever reason, it's still pretty much a "guy" thing.)

My own love affair with grilling doesn't go back quite as far as Ogg's; it began sometime in the '50s.

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Back then, many of our neighbors were constructing towering, brick barbecue structures that rivaled the cathedral at Chartres. My family had a more modest makeshift affair consisting of a large terra-cotta flower pot topped with a grate from someone's refrigerator I found in the trash. At that time, grilling meant hot dogs and hamburgers, and my improvisation worked just fine.

I later graduated to a simple hibachi, then came a round, covered charcoal cooker, and after that a double-burner gas grill. Last year I purchased a state-of-the art electric one that looks like something out of "The Jetsons." (I had had it with lugging canisters of gas and running out of fuel while hungry friends and family circled like snapping hyenas around a batch of semi-raw hamburgers.)

June is the traditional open-the-pool, set-out-the-tomato-plants, and fire-up-the-grill month in this part of the world. Although outdoor grilling is considered a seasonal thing, it doesn't have to be. Somehow a barbecued two-inch-thick steak is mighty appealing on a snowy February night.

I think the best part of grilling is that it's no longer thought of as strictly a hunk-o'-meat-on-the-coals thing. Fish, vegetables, and even many fruits are delicious barbecued. Try fresh pears, halved, brushed with honey and a touch of Dijon mustard, or peach halves brushed with balsamic vinegar.

Remember, with any grilling, cooking times vary greatly depending on hotness of coals, the grill's distance from the heat source, and whether you use a cover while cooking. The most common mistake is using too hot a fire. If you are using charcoal, don't overdo it, and be sparing with charcoal lighter. Wait for coals to be covered with a gray ash before grilling.

Some gas grills offer the advantage of two cooking surfaces that can be set at different temperatures. As a general rule, chicken should be cooked at medium temperature, and turned and basted often; red meat should be done on a hotter fire and turned only once. And proper grilling requires constant attention. A simple hamburger can go from succulent to cement in a matter of seconds.

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