While browsing the grocery store shelves, Vinoy chef John Pivar shows the rest of us that it's easy to put flavor in the fire.
By PAMELA DAVIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2001
With the Fourth of July smack-dab in the middle of the workweek this year, it's best to plan and shop for the annual cookout early or risk fighting over the last bag of hot dog buns Tuesday night.
But early planning doesn't have to mean spending a lot of time, or money, at the grocery store. We want to celebrate Independence Day, not spend two days and all our cash trying to have the world's greatest grilling experience.
To help hurried, budget-minded cookout shoppers choose the best ground beef or the freshest fish, the St. Petersburg Times turned to a local chef who is as good a sport as he is a cook. John Pivar, the executive chef at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg, agreed to walk us through a St. Petersburg Kash n' Karry, offering tips on what to buy for a simple holiday cookout.
Pivar, 36, is a big fan of outdoor cooking and during the summer grills at home about five times a week. He recently conducted a grilling class at the hotel for members of the Vinoy Club.
When cooking at home, Pivar (pronounced Pee-var) makes things as simple as the rest of us do, except he kicks up the flavors of basic cookout fare. It's not hard to do, he promises.
"If I grabbed pineapple, a red onion and a little bit of cilantro and then chopped that up and added a touch of vinegar, I could make a simple relish that, with a piece of grilled grouper, would be awesome," Pivar says.
Freshness is the hallmark of Pivar's cooking. "I would rather squeeze a lime than get some lime juice out of a jar," he says. "You don't know what's all in there. It's obviously been preserved. Squeezing a lime is not that hard."
When Pivar goes to the market, he usually buys one of his main cooking staples: fresh garlic. The chopped garlic in a jar? "It's horrible," he says and recommends that all cooks avoid it.
Though we couldn't actually go shopping with him, we talked to grilling guru Steven Raichlen by phone. Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible, is on a tour to promote his latest book, How to Grill (Workman Publishing, $19.95).
Raichlen says he shops for food every day. "Very often when I cook, I don't decide what I'm going to make until I have been shopping," he said.
At the grocery store, start your shopping excursion in the meat and poultry department, since hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and chicken are what people grill most often, according to the Barbecue Industry Association.
When it comes to buying ground beef for grilling hamburgers, the more fat in the meat, the better the flavor.
"If I'm doing a burger, I don't like the really lean ground beef," Pivar says. "I don't think it has the flavor. It almost has a chewy texture. I like the sweetness of some of the fat. I'd do a ground chuck."
When buying ground beef, look for a bright red coloring and prepare it no later than the day after you buy it. If you can't use it that quickly, freeze it.
With steaks, focus on marbling, Pivar says. That's what gives the meat flavor and makes it tender. Keep in mind, if there's a lot of blood on the padding under the meat, it's been sitting for a while, so you may want to avoid that piece.
Pork also requires a color inspection. "It's not a bright red, it's more of a crisp, lightish pink," the chef says.
With poultry, author Raichlen warns, "Sometimes a chicken has been bruised in the processing, and there will be a soft or wet spot on it. But usually they package them skin side up so you don't get to see that."
Salmon and grouper are also good for grilling. "You want something that's firm," Pivar says. "You don't want a strong fishy smell, and you don't want it to be slimy. Pick it up, smell it and feel the texture. If you push in the side with your finger and there's an indentation left behind, that means the flesh is starting to break down and it's not a fresh piece of fish."
When it comes to making everything tastier, reach for the marinades. Most grocery stores carry a wide range of flavors and brands, or you can make your own.
Before buying a marinade, read the label, Pivar stresses. The job of a marinade is to flavor and tenderize. Vinegar, lemon juice or some other type of acid is needed to get the tenderizing done.
Pivar recommends jazzing up bottled marinades with fresh garlic and herbs. One of Pivar's marinade secrets is using a packet of Good Seasons Italian dressing.
"All you do is add a little more vinegar and a little less oil and it makes a great tenderizer," Pivar says. "You can dress it up by adding some jerk spice. If you want to get creative, you can use balsamic or cider vinegar. Whatever you have at home."
Raichlen always makes his marinades from scratch, using salt, pepper, garlic, hot pepper flakes, rosemary, lemon juice and olive oil, among other things. For those who don't want to whip up their own concoction, Raichlen says, teriyaki-style marinades survive the bottling process better than Italian, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil marinades.
"I don't think those other ones taste very convincing," he says. "The teriyaki seems to taste the least synthetic."
Selecting marinades is easy compared with picking a commercial barbecue sauce.
"To me, choosing a barbecue sauce is probably the biggest headache because there's so much out there," Pivar says. "I like a little tang and flavor, and a lot of them are just heavy with liquid smoke flavoring and it just doesn't taste barbecue-y."
Pivar is partial to the Open Pit brand of barbecue sauces.
"I add a little bit of mustard, horseradish and a touch of vinegar to it to make it really tangy."
He usually waits until his meat or poultry is 85 to 95 percent done before applying the barbecue sauce. He then turns down the heat and lets the sauce cook into the flesh.
Again, Raichlen only makes his own but says, "There happen to be some fairly decent commercial barbecue sauces on the market. KC Masterpiece is the quintessential American barbecue sauce, and the Jack Daniel's folks have just brought out grilling sauces."
To make your own sauce, like Raichlen, you'll need to buy ketchup, brown sugar or molasses, cider vinegar and Dijon mustard or hot sauce.
When it comes to dry rubs (a mix of spices used to flavor meat), you may already have lots of goodies in your kitchen cabinet.
Pivar does not recommend buying five different kinds of spices to make your own dry rub, because that can get expensive. Instead he encourages people to use whatever they have at home and supplement it with one or two new spices.
"Most people have pepper, paprika, and onion or garlic powder," the chef says. "Then it's a matter of if you like thyme, tarragon, oregano or basil. But you don't want to get too carried away with your flakes, because using too much will make it bitter."
In the produce department, keep an eye out for quality mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, corn on the cob, potatoes, tomatoes or eggplants to place on the grill.
"You can use regular mushrooms or portobellos," Pivar says. "I'd get them in bulk because they're a little bigger."
Remember that packet of Good Seasons dressing?
"I'd take a little bit of that, add a little olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and brush them. Grill them lightly, not using too high of a flame. Don't keep turning them to death."
Thinking about grilled fruit? Not all fruit will work on the grill. Stick to firm-fleshed fruit such as mangoes, pineapples or Asian pears, Pivar says.
"Grilling will caramelize the sugars and give it another flavor," he said.
If all else fails and you don't have enough energy to make your way through the crowded grocery store aisles or set up the grill, there's always a rotisserie chicken. Buy one, put the grill away and consider doing some outdoor cooking on Labor Day.