Extra Virgin: Tips for Tuscan-Style Grilling
Gabriele Corcos and his wife Debi Mazar star in Extra Virgin, premiering tonight at 10pm ET/ 9pm CT.
Italy is a microcosm of regional cuisines, but all Italians love to grill. Where I come from in Tuscany, people have a pretty straightforward way of thinking when it comes to seasoning and cooking meat on the grill. Steaks are not overly salted or oiled—maybe some pepper, that's about it. Then a touch of salt if you really feel like it, when it gets to your plate.
We never season sausages, as we only eat pork sausages and they are pretty salty already. Yes—for the Tuscan, the idea of a turkey or a chicken sausage is something very out of the ordinary, basically non-existent. Poultry is usually the meat that lends itself to a wider range of options: it can be marinated and grilled, it can be roasted on a rotisserie while brushed with oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. However, very often, it is treated like a steak and just tossed on a very hot grill.
In general though, if you are visiting friends in Tuscany and they decide to have a BBQ, it is a rule of thumb to show up either with great steaks, sausages or ribs. If you pull chicken breasts out of the grocery bag, your friends will think you have digestive problems. In any case it is true what Mario Batali says about poultry: the breasts should go to the dogs. They are dry, flavorless and useless—at least when grilled, chicken cacciatora is a whole different ballgame.
If you want an authentic Tuscan-style grilling experience, follow my advice:
Focus on the quality of the meat you purchase, rather than the kind of BBQ sauce you'll be using. Remember that the real flavor is in the meat and not in the flavorings used in a sauce from the supermarket. Pick your favorite butcher and establish a relationship; learn to shop for the good stuff.
There's no need to marinate a steak—good quality beef has plenty of flavor on its own. Tuscans don't usually marinate chicken before grilling, either, but this crispy lemon one is one of my favorite flavors, so I indulge.
Many Tuscan friends of mine look at me sideways when I salt my steaks before cooking them; they believe that salt dries up the meat and affects its tenderness in a negative way. In general, salt is responsible for pulling water out of meats, but I always season my steaks the moment before I toss them on my super hot grill, and I don't believe the salt has time to pull his dirty trick on my piece of cow. If you want a Tuscan-style steak, do not over salt.
For the Tuscan, the fire is much more important than the seasoning! My personal favorite is the wood fire grill. When in Tuscany, I like to select the different woods that will create my charcoal, as I find the preparation of the fire one of the steps in the cooking process.
For a perfect grilled steak, it is best for the meat to be at room temperature and not cold from the fridge. Good cuts of meat should spend a few hours on the kitchen counter to lose their chill before making a trip to the grill.
Temperature is very important when grilling. If you start barbecuing your steaks too early, they will cook too much inside and you will kiss your dinner goodbye. Be patient and let your grill get to the right searing temperature, between 450-550°F.
In Tuscany we cook chicken al Mattone, meaning that the poultry is pressed on the grill under clay bricks. It is a great way to achieve crispness and accelerate the cooking time.
Keep your grill clean. It is a pain sometimes, but it is absolutely necessary for two main reasons. Fat and food residue build up underneath your grilling grid. They drip inside your grill on the way down to the tray at the bottom. You can discard the tray after cooking, but may of the drippings can cool and solidify on their way down, and they can catch fire the next time you grill. This happens when you make hamburgers, too, as cheese always drips into the cracks of the grill. The flames will rise from underneath your grill and attack your meats or veggies, burning your dinner and giving it a bad flavor!
Editor's note: Watch Gabriele and his wife, Debi Mazar, cook meals from their home tonight at 10pm ET/ 9pm CT on Cooking Channel.