Cucumbers are not the first thing you think of when choosing something to grill. Neither is butter or watermelon or bread.
Would they even grill well?
If you ask Kyle Mendenhall, chances are he’ll say yes. When he heard the lyric, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” he took it to heart. He has applied fire to nearly everything edible during his cooking career.
“I’ve grilled bananas. A lot of flatbreads. Every kind of meat,” Mendenhall says. After stints at The Kitchen and Arcana, the chef is now culinary director at Boulder’s Big Red F — that’s Zolo Grill, West End Tavern, Centro, Jax and The Post. He has also been a private chef cooking meals at rugged mountain locations and has strong family ties to Western Slope farming.
“I will always take an open fire. It’s trickier to manage but the flavor is unbeatable,” he says.
Mendenhall grills fresh bean pods, artichokes, firm peaches, romaine lettuce, endive, mustard greens and the hot new brassica on local menus: spigarello with long, tender stalks like broccoli raab. He uses whole charred cucumbers in a simple summer salad. If you roast whole unpeeled bananas in the coals, they emerge as dessert.
“Smoked butter. That’s really a thing. You put it in a pan off to the side and smoke is gradually infused into it,” Mendenhall says. Try that on your grilled sweet Colorado corn on the cob.
There is one item he kind of regrets grilling. “Once I put a whole duck egg on the grill grates. It blew up. It literally exploded,” he says, laughing. The less messy approach is pinpricking the duck eggs before putting them in a pan on the grill.
Grilling over wood isn’t the same as hot or cold smoking. “Oak is my standard go-to wood. Adding some fruit wood like peach is nice,” he says. It’s easy to overdo it with mesquite and end up with grilled salmon that tastes like chewing on charcoal.
“There are times you need the flash heat of a flame, like for meats where you need a char. Some vegetables like zucchini need fast high heat so they don’t turn to mush,” he says.
The key is to build a bed of coals with some flame so you can move items to different places on the grates according to temperature. “You never grill everything for a meal at the same time at the same temperature,” Mendenhall says.
You can get a similar effect using hardwood charcoal as long as it is not soaked in lighter fluid, which flames and infuses your food with petrochemicals. It fracks your wild salmon.
Mendenhall uses the cover over the grill at the end of cooking to infuse a little extra flavor. Some foods like lamb go in a cast-iron pan over the coals and then finish on the fire. Cast-iron cornbread on the grill is almost a must.
“Grilling breads directly on the grates, you really have to pay attention and have a set of tongs ready. There is a magical toasting point where it gets that caramelized flavor but isn’t burning,” he advises.
“Don’t walk away. The thing about grilling, especially over wood, is that it is an event and someone has to tend the fire,” Mendenhall says. It’s like babysitting, except incendiary.
What if a vegetable ends up directly on the coals? Mendenhall is all in favor. Don’t waste the bed of coals you worked to create after you are done with the meal. Cook whole potatoes, cauliflower, round eggplant, winter squash and whole onions directly on the coals.
For carrots, turnips, beets and radishes, wash and trim them and seal them in a foil envelope and set on the grill. The result is a vegetable in a subtly sweet, self-made sauce.
“I’ve done coal cabbage. You stick the whole head in the coals and it steams and roasts itself. It tastes really sweet. You sacrifice the outside part,” Mendenhall says. The result is that wood-fired taste you pay so much for at bistros, trattorias and pizzerias.
On a summer work night, gas grills are often the answer. One mistake cooks sometimes make is heavily marinating chicken breast (or tempeh or shrimp) in oil and not draining it before they put it on the gas grill. “The food will taste like burned oil, not nicely charred,” he says.
About those chestnuts roasting on an open fire: Mendenhall says you need a metal pan with holes in it or a screen so they can be moved around as they roast and not fall between the grates.
That’s also the best way to roast the bumper crop of sweet and hot peppers coming after the state’s wet spring. Using a pan with holes over a wood flame lets you replicate the effect of those tumbling gas-fired metal drums that chili roasters use. Roasting is also essential for chilis to remove the tough outer skin, and it makes them tastier. Place warm peppers from the grill directly into a closed bag to steam, making the skin easier to remove.
Don’t underestimate the power of the char to transform flavor. “Grilling citrus is one of my favorite things. When you grill a halved lemon, orange or grapefruit, you caramelize the sugars,” Mendenhall says. Grilling also makes citrus much easier to juice, whether squeezing over grilled scallops, using in a mojo marinade or adding to cocktails.
Local Food News
The Empire Restaurant and Lounge is back. Shuttered since May for renovations, the Louisville landmark — formerly Colacci’s — is dishing dinner again under chef Jeff Osaka. His notable Denver establishments include 12@Madison, Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama. … Le French Cafe in Boulder is now open for dinner. That means steak frites, wine and more Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. … The Rocky Mountain Tea Festival — a quiet, distinctive local food event — has concluded after 20 years, but the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and its many traditions continue. … The Taste of The Middle East Aug. 3 in Centennial’s Center Park features shawarma, kibbeh, felafel, hummus, fool, kanafi and baklava from some great Denver eateries. tasteofthemiddleeast.com
Summer Food Gossip
Some cafes have kids menus. At Kingbird restaurant at Washington D.C.’s Watergate Hotel, children go on a scavenger hunt including the room where the Watergate break-in was planned. I think they get a brownie sundae if they find a co-conspirator in a closet. … Consumers are more likely to order food from healthy restaurants when the menu font looks handwritten, according to an Ohio State University study. The opposite is true at chain eateries.
Words to Chew On
“I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” — Ernest Hemingway
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org).