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Bypass the Grill Grate and Cook Right On the Coals

Julia Bainbridge

For two weeks, we’ve got top chefs sharing their little-known tricks for backyard cooking.

Bypass the Grill Grate and Cook Right On the Coals

Photo credit: Peter Carlsson / Getty Images

Los Angeles native Josiah Citrin, of Michelin-starred Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica, plans to open an all fire-cooked food restaurant next February. So yeah. He can tell us a thing or two about grilling.

His primary tip is to “go right into the coals” for vegetable side dishes. Just wrap them in aluminum foil first so they don’t get too charred—and so that you don’t end up with ashy food.

“Not many people have room on the grill to cook vegetables if they’re also cooking protein for a crowd,” says Citrin; this method solves the space problem by moving the veggies off of the grate and into the depths of the grill. You want the coals hot but not on fire—“flames are not coming up”—and you want to bury your foil packet in the (preferably hardwood) charcoal.

Here are three of Citrin’s suggested flavor combinations. 

Fennel + Orange + Coriander: Remove the stalks of the fennel and either save for another use or chop them, fronds and all, and add to the rest of the mix. That mix should include: a whole fennel bulb, orange zest, a sprinkling of coriander, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Wrap it all in aluminum foil, so it’s really encased, and cook it for 45 minutes. To serve, slice the fennel crosswise and layer on a platter with a fresh drizzle of olive oil and some more orange zest.

Leek + Bacon + Star Anise: Mix the whole leeks, white parts only, with chopped bacon, whole star anise, and olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 35 minutes. The bacon is just for flavoring, and since it’s steaming, essentially, in the foil packet, it won’t get crispy, so it’s best to discard. The outer leaves of the leeks might need to be removed, as they can get tough; just use your best judgment. After that, what you do with the leeks is up to you: sliced lengthwise and served them on a platter with some extra oil, salt, and fresh herbs would be our side dish of choice.

Tomatoes + Onion + Rosemary: “This comes out a little more like a stew,” says Citrin. “It’s great with thick Greek yogurt and grilled wild salmon, or sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs and grated Parmesan.” You want a nice film Beefsteak tomato, lots of thick-sliced sweet onions—“more than you think”—and a couple rosemary sprigs. Again, toss it all with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and encase the mixture in aluminum foil. This should cook for 35-45 minutes. “All tomatoes are different, so it’s hard to say what exactly it will look like, but you don’t want it too broken down.” Remove the rosemary, mash the tomatoes and onions with a fork, and serve as sauce alongside your main course.