Grill, barbecue, cookout — whatever you call it, now’s the time. Wipe the sweat from your brow, keep your kitchen cool and catch a breeze out on the patio if you can.
And all that’s required is a tray of well-seasoned food ready for the fire — some steaks, burgers, chicken breasts or freshly caught fish. Or is that all? There’s a reason for an aisle of condiments in the grocery. We love that final dash of flavor that rounds out or adds contrast to the simplest foods.
The word condiment is loosely derived from the Latin word “condimentum,” meaning “to pickle.”
Now we think of pickling as a method of preserving overflowing baskets of garden or market bounty in our favorite canning jars, bathed in a vinegary brine. But a pickle once referred to a spicy sauce served with meat.
A-ha! There’s a reason why no backyard barbecue is barren of a bottle of ketchup or a bowl of some sort of spicy-sweet relish or savory “umami-ish” something (sautéed mushrooms, a steak sauce spiked with Worcestershire sauce) to shake or spoon onto a grill-roasted brat or rib-eye steak, all in the name of that last touch of deliciousness that melds into the smokiness of outdoor cooking.
My pantry includes my collection of condiments based on the wilds. Whether chilled or stashed on a shelf, these seem to multiply like garden bunnies. It’s easy to think about them as a bunch of unruly jars and bottles, but I view them as my own kitchen crew —the hardworking staff that a chef leans upon to prepare the complex sauces and seasonings for nightly restaurant magic.
With only a spoonful of a tangy mustard concoction or a splash of seasoned vinegar, I can transform anything hot off the grill into something more than dinner in a dash. Think of it as your summer wardrobe for the table. Unbreakable plates? Check. Frosty brew, enticing cocktails? Check. A jar of hoisin sauce mixed with a spoonful of almond butter to slather on barbecued chicken kebabs? Or a crock of good mayo doctored up with mango chutney for dipping chunks of grilled sweet potato fries? Check.
Think about strategically building your own pantry of grill magic — a collection of ingredients that create a home base you can tap into at a moment’s notice.
I have to admit we have a very conventional division of labor at my house — I control the kitchen, while my husband is the grillmeister. He’s much more patient than I am, resulting in grilled food that’s more than just torched.
That frees me up to play with easy side dishes and to make my own tailor-made sauces and toppings if the spirit moves me. Which is often, since there’s a never-ending stash of seasonal produce that I’ve overbought at the farmers market. Overrun with onions, bunches of herbs, baskets of pickling cucumbers, and more gorgeous berries and stone fruits than we can eat at breakfast or in pies, that’s when a shelf of vinegars, jars of spices, and dishes of garlic cloves, lemons and limes jump into action.
Making your own grill toppings is not only easy, it doesn’t take much time. Your own custom-created relishes are nothing more than a melding of finely diced vegetables and fruits, tied together with the tartness of vinegar, balanced with something sweet.
“Quick” pickles are a version of this idea — thinly slicing sweet red onions or cucumbers and marinating them in a mild rice vinegar with a spoonful of sugar can be all you need to top a grilled brat. Salsa (the Spanish word for sauce) doesn’t have to come out of a jar. The grill is hot, so why not roast tomatoes or tomatillos, hot chiles and onions around the edges while the fajita meat is cooking? Chop them up, stir in a squeeze of lime juice and you’re good to go.
Sautéed onions a given? How about taking an extra 15 minutes to slowly bring out their natural sweetness, heightened by a splash of balsamic vinegar and dried cherries? You’ve got a natural partner to the deep, smoky flavor of dark meats or a personality-plus side for milder chicken breasts.
Sometimes all grilled foods need is a sprinkle of flaky salt, some freshly ground pepper or a lemon wedge. But I do really love diving into those abundant bunches of fresh herbs to zip up uncooked sauces: pesto, chimichurri or a Mediterranean salsa verde that’s not only herbal, but has the tang of pickled capers and umami of an anchovy fillet.
Or how about an Italian gremolata — an assertive mix of finely chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic — that’s not a purée, but has a nice sprinkling texture that is as addictive as salt. It’s a bold, final statement for fish and can be prepped in about three minutes, depending on how skilled you are with a knife.
My last thoughts about DIY grill condiments are about expanding my repertoire related to ketchup and barbecue sauce. I am never without a few jars of exceptionally good mustards, but just good old garden variety ketchup was once one of my food groups. I graduated to barbecue sauce, but the common denominator seemed to be tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and some spices —none of which I could actually identify.
I grew up with my grandmother’s homemade ketchup (she simmered it for hours in the oven), and I owe her a debt of gratitude for her heartland wisdom about preserving food. And it’s her sparkling jars of pickled beets and berry preserves that led me to make beet “ketchup,” with a handful of berries tossed in. Texturally it’s not as silky smooth as a commercially made ketchup, but it’s deliciously vinegary-sweet with the zing of ginger — spread it on toasted buns for burgers or dip in grilled veggies.
My final advice to you: Spend those few extra minutes in your cool kitchen, making something that will heat up even the simplest weeknight grilling, taking it someplace new.
Lisa Golden Schroeder is the co-author of “Untamed Mushrooms: From Field to Table” and is a food stylist and culinary journalist. Find her at www.foodesigns.com.