Not Your Usual Barbecue: 10 Offbeat Foods You Should Grill Right Now


Guilty as charged. Of grilling the same familiar foods over and over—you know, steak, salmon, bratwurst. We all do it (even me), when the wide wondrous Planet Barbecue beacons. It’s time to break out of your comfort zone: to try some different foods on your grill and new techniques for grilling them.

To get you started, here’s my top 10 list of offbeat foods to fire up your grill for right now.

  1. Halloumi: This snappy salty white cheese from Cyprus is designed not to melt at high temperature. Which makes it ideal for grilling. Cut it into wide 1/2-inch thick slabs. Brush with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper and dried mint. Grill until both sides are sizzling and browned, turning with tongs. Serve with grilled pita or flambe it with ouzo. Learn more about grilling cheeses.
  2. Mortadella: This monster Bolognese sausage (some come as thick around as cannon barrels) was the original bologna (a.k.a. baloney). The Italian version—fragrant with nutmeg and studded with pistachios and cubes of pork fat—has a complexity and finesse you just don’t find in the American counterpart. Cut it crosswise into 3/4-inch thick slices. Sear to brown for a minute or two per side over a screaming hot fire. Cut into cubes and serve at the end of knotted skewers or toothpicks.
  3. Octopus: Grilled octopus turns up at edgy restaurants from Milan to Miami, but you rarely see it at home. Which is too bad, because the cephalopod’s delicate meat (think cross between shrimp, calamari, and scallop, but milder than all three) absorbs the smoke and fire flavor like a proverbial sponge. Buy it from a good fishmonger or Whole Foods (make sure it’s pre-tenderized). Season with salt, oregano, hot pepper flakes, and minced garlic, and toss with extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Grill until browned over a hot fire, serving grilled lemon halves for squeezing. Get the recipe.
  4. Sardines: There was a time when sardines meant budget fish in a can. But more and more American restaurants are following the example of Portuguese and North African grill masters, searing this small, oil- and flavor-rich fish, head on, on a hot grill. Brush with extra virgin olive oil and season with my Mediterranean Rub, or Moroccan-style, with ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, and sea salt. Once grilled, serve with lemon juice and harissa (Moroccan hot sauce).
  5. Bacon: You cook cured pork belly in a smoker. But most of us fry the finished bacon in a skillet. Grilling is a lot faster, more flavorful, and more dramatic, and it keeps the spattering bacon fat off your stovetop. Set up your grill for two-zone grilling: one side medium-high and one side fire-free. Lay the bacon slices (the thicker the better—1/4 inch is ideal) on the diagonal on the grate over the fire. Grill until browned, moving the bacon slices with long-handled tongs to the fire-free safety zone as needed to dodge the inevitable flare-ups. While you’re at it, grill bread and tomato slices to make the world’s most awesome BLT.
    Bacon on grill
  6. Ground lamb: Hamburgers dominate North American grills, but on any given day, probably more people are grilling ground lamb around Planet Barbecue than ground beef. Try lamb burgers at your next barbecue: flavor ground lamb patties (15 to 20 percent fat is ideal) with minced onion, garlic, and chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or mint. Grill over a hot fire and serve on grilled pita bread with sliced cucumber and tomato and plain Greek yogurt. Get the recipe.
    Lamb burgers
  7. Flat iron steak: T-bone? Been there. Skirt steak? Done that. The next time you’re jonesing for steak, try a flat iron. Cut from the shoulder (adjacent to the beef shoulder clod), this flat, rectangular, remarkably tender steak offers generous marbling and a rich beefy flavor at a price that seems downright affordable next to a New York strip or ribeye. Grill cowboy style—seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and chili powder—over a hot fire and serve rare to medium-rare. (Prolonged cooking makes it tough.)
  8. Polenta: Most Americans think of polenta as Italian grits, but in northern Italy, this thick cornmeal mush is chilled, cut into rectangular slabs, and grilled. The drawback? The hours of boiling and stirring it takes to cook polenta the traditional way. The task just got easier thanks to premade polenta sold in thick plastic-wrapped cylinders at most supermarkets. OK, maybe it doesn’t taste quite as good as what your Italian grandmother makes, but cut it crosswise into 1-inch slices, brush it with extra virgin olive oil or melted butter, and season it with sea salt, pepper, chopped sage and minced garlic. Grill until golden on a well-oiled grate over a hot fire and serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. You’ll never think of polenta quite the same way again.
  9. Kale: To call kale over-exposed would be understatement (kale crisps? kale smoothies?). But perhaps you’ve never experienced this nutrient-rich, corrugated green grilled, in which case you’re missing out on one of the best ways to enjoy it. Cut away the thick stems and brush the leaves on both sides with sesame oil and soy sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and diced shallots. Grill over a hot fire until the leaves are browned and crisp.
    Kale on grill
  10. Watermelon: Most of us serve this refreshing fruit raw at the end of barbecue. But grilling adds a smoky, toffee-like flavor that takes watermelon to another dimension. Grill 1-inch slices over a hot fire (preferably wood or wood-enhanced charcoal), oiling the grill grate well. Serve by itself or drizzle with honey and top with fresh mint and optional crumbled salty cheese, like feta or ricotta salata.

What unusual new foods are YOU grilling this summer? Make our mouths water with descriptions, recipes and photos.

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