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The Food Network chef on how to heat up your barbecue
By Marianne Aleardi

If you’re planning a summer barbecue, take note of these grilling words of wisdom from the Food Network’s Chef Aaron McCargo Jr. Born and raised in Camden, McCargo hosts the cooking show “Big Daddy’s House” and also appears as a guest chef on other television shows like “The Chew” and “Rachael Ray.” He’s got a cookbook and a line of spices, but best of all, he’s got the goods on grilling.

First note for improving your grilling: Stop moving the food around. “Let the heat do its job,” he says. “Don’t rush it. Don’t play around with the food. If you leave the food on the hot grill and move it as little as possible, there will be nice char marks, and it won’t stick.”

But before you even start cooking, it’s essential to prep the grill, McCargo says. Brush the grill and use an oiled towel to wipe it. “That’s what we call seasoning the grill. It helps the food not stick. A lot of times, people are texting and emailing me saying, ‘Hey my food is stuck on the grill.’ It’s because they didn’t wipe it down with an oiled rag, or they’re moving the food around too much.”

McCargo also says to avoid packing the grill with too much food. “We’ve grown up on bad habits, thinking the more you have on the grill the better, because it looks full and it looks like you’re grilling a lot. In reality, space out your food so heat can circulate the proper way. For hamburgers, you only have to leave about a half inch in between, so you can still have a full grill. Also, when it comes to flipping, it’s easier because you’re not trying to squeeze your spatula or tongs between a tight spot. And when you overcrowd your kabobs and you put your vegetables too close together, they tend to be a little more rare than you’d like, because the meat is so close to the vegetables. You’re supposed to leave some space in between vegetables and meat. Don’t overcrowd the skewers, and definitely don’t overcrowd the grill.”

One of McCargo’s favorite foods to grill is an inside-out burger. He says it’s a crowd favorite because people can get adventurous and try a burger that’s like no other burger they’ve had before.

“To make an inside-out burger, take two very thin pieces of ground beef patties and put condiments that would normally go on top of the burger inside the burger – anything from mushrooms, bacon, Swiss cheese, pepperoni, pizza sauce or mozzarella cheese. Choose two or three toppings, because you only have four-and-a-half to five ounces of meat – both pieces of the patty should be very thin. Once you have more than two or three, you tend to have your burger pop open and the stuffing comes out. Then you just have a mess. Put whatever you choose between those patties, then seal them very tight and grill them. That’s one way you don’t have to worry about your condiments falling off the top, because they’re all inside.”

To liven up a party, make inside-out burgers with various stuffings, but don’t label the burgers. “As long as people are open to the idea that they might get a pepperoni burger or a veggie burger, or they might get one with some feta cheese and tomatoes, it’s a way to really have fun. Nine times out of 10, the crowd will enjoy it.”

Chef knows that guests at barbecues are often a mixed crowd, so he suggests creating a menu that will please lots of people. If you like to add spicy flavors to your food, that’s ok, as long as you offer an alternative.

“I try to be mindful of three kinds of folks: those who like spice, those who don’t and those who are vegetarian. When I’m putting it all together – the burgers, the hot sausage, the kabobs, whatever you have – I’ll write on a little card ‘spicy pan.’ The other dish will be pretty much for anyone; it will be mild in spice, not overpowering but they’ll have a little sweetness to it. Everyone can feel comfortable, and parents won’t have to stress over whether it’s too spicy or not for their kids. You should concern yourself with making sure everyone is pleased by the food you’re putting out. You shouldn’t have just your favorites. I know, because I want to make everything spicy, but it doesn’t work.”

If you’re planning a barbecue this summer, the McCargo has menu suggestions for both daytime and nighttime gatherings.

“During the day, I would do a hot dog wrapped in bacon, which appeals to everyone. And you could partly grill that, then move it to the side to make it crisp. Whether or not you’re a novice griller, put hot dog wraps stuffed with cheese on a sheet tray and then close the grill’s lid. It works as an oven. I would also make grilled pizza and the inside-out burgers, but I would do maybe mini inside-out burgers, so no one is weighed down trying to eat a whole one.

“At night, I would maybe make grilled fajitas – grilling some vegetables and some steak, shrimp or chicken, and serving them as fajitas. You could also just do a grilled protein, whether it be beef, chicken or fish and add some grilled tomatoes, peaches or pineapples. Add some jalapenos and some diced red onions to make a salsa or a chutney that goes right over top of that protein. It’s gonna be nice and sweet, and the jalapenos are gonna bring the heat.”

McCargo says he grills year-round. His gas grill sits on his back porch, just outside the door, so he can access it even if the weather is poor. “I’ll grill three, four, five times a week. Whether it’s summer, spring or fall. My neighbors are my witnesses. They watch me and they yell across the gate, ‘What are you cooking today?’”

The grill on McCargo’s porch is a gas grill, which he says he uses for convenience. “I can have my kids cook on that, and all they have to do is turn a knob.”

He suggests having three or four back-up gas tanks “as opposed to waiting for the gas to run out, because that’s the worst thing: running out of gas in the middle of cooking for your family or when you have a whole bunch of people coming over.”

McCargo also warns against putting charcoal in a gas grill. “I know a lot of people who do, and they damage the pilots in the grill. They think they can go ahead and load up to get that charcoal taste. I definitely don’t suggest that. Go out and buy a traditional, old-school grill with charcoal. I have both.”

One key note to remember when grilling at your barbecue is to set your expectations correctly. “Many people make the mistake of rushing. They think grilling is a 15- or 20-minute job, but it’s not something you want to take casually.”

And even though the party may be starting, McCargo says to cook first, and enjoy the festivities second. “A lot of people want to drink while grilling, but you tend to make more mistakes then. I like to get all the grilling out of the way before I decide to start cocktail hour. You have to be aware what temperatures you’re serving your steak and your burgers. You don’t want to burn anything, and you don’t want to undercook anything. You don’t have to be out there all night but you have to understand it’s not going to be a 15-minute job. Hold off on the cocktail hour, so you cook your food properly.

“You have to remember that grilling takes technique,” McCargo says. “I see it as an art.”

July 2013
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