May 19, 2017
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Your Grill Needs a Cast-Iron Sidekick
Around the Fire_Grilled Sea Scallops[1]

A cast-iron skillet on the grill brings the versatility of stovetop cooking outside.

Who among us has not unwittingly sacrificed a particularly slender asparagus stalk or rebelliously rolly carrot through the grates of a grill while cursing quietly? I for one don’t even mess with grilled shrimp and scallops out of fear of the small, expensive sea creatures plunging into the flames and meeting their end. Sure, there’s aluminum foil to solve this problem, and grill baskets of varying shapes and sizes, but the most elegant solution is a tool that’s probably sitting in your kitchen cabinet: the cast-iron skillet.

We often associate these pans with indoor cooking—pancakes, stovetop steaks, and roasted spatchcocked chickens—but when you team your cast-iron skillet up with your grill, you get the best of both worlds. The food is permeated with smoky flavor, but the pan catches the flavorful fats and juices and creates a nice caramelized crust. You can impart a grilled flavor on foods that normally would never come in contact with an open flame, like peas, berries, small mushrooms.

At Portland restaurant Ox, Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton incorporate wood-fire cooking into almost everything they serve, from cocktail hour to dessert, so the two chefs are no strangers to the beauty of skillet grilling. In one of the recipes from their cookbook, Around the Fire, a whole trout is roasted in a cast-iron skillet, surrounded by potatoes. The smoke from the grill, combined with the hot, oiled surface of the pan, leaves the trout skin crispy, salty, and almost bacon-like. In another recipe, the skillet is a vessel for a bed of salt, into which Manchego-topped oysters are nestled. Once the oysters are cooked ever-so-slightly, they can be pulled off the grill and onto the table in one fell swoop.

They think of the technique as a way to widen the scope of what’s possible with an open flame. “You can basically do everything you would normally do in a cast-iron pan or in a saute pan,” says Greg. “But you’re going to get an additional smoky flavor to it by putting it on a grill, especially if it’s a charcoal or a wood-fired grill.”

For a low-maintenance dessert, Greg and Gabrielle like to toss some whole strawberries or marionberries (an Oregon specialty) into a skillet with a bit of salt and sugar and let the berries cook down while dinner is being served. When it’s dessert time, the berries have usually cooked down into a warm sauce that can be drizzled over ice cream. “You get that light smokiness that adds just a savory touch to it, but really good caramelization, and it makes a really delicious strawberry compote,” says Gabrielle. In the fall and winter, they recommend caramelizing pears in butter over the grill for dessert.

You can even use a skillet to add a touch of charred flavor to cocktails—another version of the old bartender trick of running a flame along the edge of an orange peel to coax out some of its aromatic oils. Just toss sliced oranges or lemons onto a clean, hot skillet for about a minute on each side over the grill, until the fruit looks (and smells) lightly burnt. No hints of residual meat flavors from the grill, and no threat of your citrus escaping between the grates.

Ingredients

  • 5 medium fingerling potatoes
  • kosher salt
  • 2 12-ounce whole boneless trout (preferably head-on, tail-on), fins removed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons rendered animal fat
  • 2 tablespoons drained caper
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • ¼ cup fresh marjoram leaves

In Around the Fire, Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton explore the many ways of cooking with fire that come into play in their Portland restaurant Ox.

Smoke is famously good with trout, and this preparation takes advantage of that. This particular whole fish can also be a good gateway if the idea of whole fish freaks you out: Most seafood shops and grocery counters sell trout already gutted and deboned, so you can enjoy all of the drama of presenting a whole fish but without the messiness of the guts or paranoia about swallowing bones.

Primarily the pleasure of a whole trout or any grilled whole fish is the bronzed, crispy skin. Done properly, the skin takes on the texture of a thin, well-done slice of bacon and a little of its saltiness, too—a nice contrast to the tender, mild-flavored flesh. We balance out the richness of the skin with plenty of lemon, some briny capers, and fresh herbs.

It is very important that you have all the ingredients for the recipe prepped in advance and at the ready beside the grill, since the fish takes just a few minutes to cook.

  1. Put the potatoes in a small pot and cover with water; season with salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer the potatoes until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well and let cool enough to handle. Slice into 1⁄4-inch rounds, then chill.
  2. Prepare a grill to high heat. Preheat a cast-iron pan or any pan that can withstand high heat from the grill by placing it directly on the coals or over the hottest area of the grill.
  3. Meanwhile, using paper towels, pat away any excess moisture from the trout. Brush the outside and inside of the cavity with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Close the fish cavity.
  4. Add the animal fat to the preheated pan, then add the fish. Cook until browned on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Gently flip the fish using a metal spatula. Add the potatoes and capers (removing the pan from the heat and then returning it to the heat, if needed). Cook until the potatoes have started to brown, 3 to 4 minutes more. Squeeze the lemon into the pan, then add most of the parsley and all of the marjoram.
  5. Remove the fish from the pan and transfer to a platter or two plates; divide the potatoes and capers between the plates. Taste the pan juices and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Spoon it generously over the fish. Garnish with the remaining parsley leaves.

Ingredients

  • Chimi Mayo
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 tablespoons minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon finely grated or minced garlic
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Oysters
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 ounces Manchego cheese, finely grated (1/2 cup firmly packed)
  • 24 live oysters, scrubbed clean
  • coarse rock salt, for lining the pan
  • crusty bread, for serving

In Around the Fire, Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton explore the many ways of cooking with fire that come into play in their Portland restaurant Ox.

Put us near a raw bar, and Gabi will happily eat oysters by the dozen. Greg, not so much: He prefers the transformed texture of a cooked oyster. This grilled preparation is the best of both worlds—it maintains all of the fresh oceanic flavor of raw oysters and complements that inimitable flavor with satisfying char, fire, fat, and a meatier texture. Because of the richer flavor, you can get away with buying and shucking far fewer of these oysters to feed your clan.

For such a limited cook time on the grill, the oysters pick up an impressive amount of smokiness. But the real surprise is how well the Manchego cheese works with them. We recommend having some good crusty bread on hand to dab at the savory juices and bits left behind in the shell.

    Chimi Mayo

  1. In a small bowl or medium jar, mix all the ingredients well until combined. Store for up to 3 days.

Oysters

  1. In a bowl, combine the chimi mayo, lemon juice, and Manchego and mix well.
  2. Prepare a grill to high heat. Meanwhile, shuck the oysters (see How to Shuck an Oyster, below), preserving their juices in the shells.
  3. Line the bottom of a cast-iron or other heavy-duty skillet with coarse rock salt and nestle the oysters on top. If you don’t have rock salt, set down a bed of uncooked lentils or lightly crumble some aluminum foil and nestle the shells into it to keep them in place. Place a dollop of the mayo-Manchego mixture onto each.
  4. Flatten the surface of the hot coals and place the pan directly on the coals. Close the lid of the grill. Roast the oysters until they are just warmed through and the mayo begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with oyster forks and crusty bread.

Anna Hezel

Anna Hezel is the senior editor of TASTE.

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