A hot topic: Downtown Grille’s Sam Rochester serves up grilling tips

Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

It’s backyard barbecue season. But before you fire up the grill, it’s important to be prepared. Sam Rochester, executive chef at Downtown Grille, offers this advice for grilling restaurant-worthy food at home.

First, know your grill. “Propane is fast and easy, and gives food a more crisp finish,” he says. However, charcoal grills give food a deeper, grilled flavor. And there’s the telltale aroma, of course. “You turn on your charcoal grill and the whole neighborhood knows you’re grilling.”

Next, Rochester advises having three items on hand: a small, flat pan, a meat thermometer (“You don’t want to get anyone sick.”) and a good pair of tongs.

“Your tongs should be like another set of fingers—they should be that comfortable,” he says. “You should be able to pick up food with them effortlessly.”

While some home cooks are taught that food should marinate for hours before grilling, Rochester says not to marinate an item for more than 25 minutes. Marinades are high in acid, which can cook the food and change the flavor.

When you’re ready to begin, Rochester says to have your ingredients grillside. “If you forget something and have to leave, all of a sudden you’re going to have flames rising out of the grill,” he warns.

Next, start the grill hot and adjust the temperature as desired. Using the meat thermometer to check for doneness, cook meat, poultry and fish according to these guidelines: “Rare is 110 to 115 degrees or below, medium rare is 120 to 130, medium is 135 to 145, medium well is 150 to 155, and well done is 165 and above,” he says. Pay special attention to temperature when grilling delicate items, such as fish, he advises. “It gets more delicate as it cooks,” he says.

With any item you’re concerned about overcooking, “It’s important to have an exit strategy,” Rochester says. This is where the small pan comes in.

While a lot of people grill until the food is done, often it’s better to cook food on the grill until three-quarters done and place it on a pan to finish it. “A small pan gives you the flexibility to move items off the direct heat while still keeping them warm,” says Rochester. You can also use the grill rack, a feature of many grills, to let the food rest until you’re ready to serve it.

And don’t be afraid to grill something besides meat. “I love grilling pineapple for margaritas. Or you can grill tomatoes, celery and onions, pop them in a blender and you’ve got a great bloody mary.”

Above all, successful grilling begins with quality ingredients. Says Rochester, “You can’t grill bad food and hope it comes out good.”—Jennifer Senator

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Fill your grill

Bone-in pork chops at JM Stock Provisions

Skip the marinade and season with salt 45 minutes to an hour before searing these thicker-than-usual chops (cut 1.25-1.5 inches) over direct heat for two to three minutes per side, says owner James Lum. He also suggests trimming some of the fat before cooking to avoid flare-ups on the grill.

“These trimmings are great to use in the pan for sautéed veggies, or the classic cookout side, baked beans,” he says. To get a delicate crust on the fat, Lum says to use tongs to continually move the chops around the grill until both sides have a nice sear. Next, move them to indirect heat and apply a glaze of lemon zest, lemon juice, black pepper, crushed red chili and olive oil to both sides while they finish cooking. Remove once the center has reached 130 degrees, and let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Spring Gate Farm goat kabobs, available at Foods of All Nations and Croftburn Market in Culpeper (above)

To grill the leanest of all red meats (a six-ounce serving has just 5.2 grams of fat), Jane McKinney, owner of Spring Gate Farm in Barboursville, suggests first rolling the meat in a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and chopped chives, cilantro and parsley. “Add a dash of paprika and cardamom and refrigerate the meat for several hours,” she says, “then place the meat onto metal skewers and place on the grill. Grill at a high temperature for seven minutes, turning the skewers until the meat is browned.”

Polyface Farms’ chicken thighs at Rebecca’s Natural Foods

“Keep the skin on, brine for a few hours and add a basic dry rub, like Paleo Powder seasoning, an hour or so before grilling,” says Bill Calvani, store co-manager and grocery buyer at Rebecca’s Natural Foods. Once the thighs hit the grill, “turn them as little as possible” and apply barbecue sauce with a brush every 15-20 minutes. Calvani recommends Wahoo Q’s Sweet n’ Spicy sauce, which is locally made and organic. All products are available at Rebecca’s.

Alaskan salmon at Seafood @ West Main

“The simplest preparation is best,” says owner Chris Arseneault. “Rub it with olive oil, maybe some sea salt and pepper and don’t overcook it. Turn it just once; when it easily flakes with a fork, it’s done. Add rosemary or thyme from the garden after it’s finished.”

Shiitake mushrooms from North Cove Mushrooms, at Charlottesville City Market

“Brush them with Soy Vay Teriyaki sauce, or barbecue sauce, or soak them in a balsamic vinaigrette before grilling two to five minutes per side,” says Robin Serne, owner of North Cove Mushrooms. Rebrush with marinade when you turn them, she says, and grill until mushrooms are “a nice dark golden brown color, not quite burned.” She suggests slicing the mushrooms for roasted veggie sandwiches, or serving on focaccia with tomatoes.

Lamb chops from Cestari Sheep & Wool Company at Foods of All Nations

“We’re Italian, so we like to rub them with garlic and basil, with a little balsamic vinegar before we grill them,” says Francis Chester, owner of this Churchville sheep farm. He advises grilling the chops 10 minutes on each side, until medium. “Rare to medium is best for lamb chops—you don’t want to overcook them,” he says.—J.S.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Garnish respect

Sam Rochester’s grilled pineapple margarita

3 limes, halved crosswise

3 lemons, halved crosswise

Kosher salt

Ice

12 oz. silver tequila

4 1/2 oz. simple syrup*

6 pineapple slices

Grill the halved limes, lemons and pineapple over high heat, cut side down, until lightly charred and juicy (about five minutes). Transfer to a plate to cool. Juice the limes and lemons into a cup. You should have about four ounces of each juice.

Using a lime wedge, moisten half of the outer rim of six rocks or margarita glasses and coat lightly with salt, then fill each glass with ice. Fill a pitcher with ice and add the tequila, simple syrup and the lime and lemon juices. Stir well and strain into the prepared glasses.

*To make simple syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil; simmer until the sugar is dissolved, and the syrup starts to thicken. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. To add extra flavor, color and zest to your drinks, put some diced pineapple or grilled jalapeños in the syrup as it cooks. The syrup can be refrigerated in a glass jar for up to one month.