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Grills gone wild 

Make the most of our limited grilling season on the East Coast with expert tips and hot recipe ideas

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Photography by J.P. Mullowney

Recipes Featured In This Article

Cucumber Salad

This refreshing salad is simple and surprising.  ...

Best Kind Sauce

If you want more than just the basics topping your burger, this is a fresh flavoured combo...

Veggie Burger

Veggie burgers can be hard to grill because they tend to fall apart. The oats and bread cr...

Seto Burger

When dressing this burger, use in-season vegetables such as lettuce, tomato, and cucumber ...

In the long days of our short Atlantic Canadian summers, the party can start well before the meat is ready to eat.

Chef Ken Pittman owns Seto, a restaurant in downtown St. John’s, N.L. that stays open late with a gourmet snack menu. Last winter, he made his customers long for the sunny days of grilling when he added a waygu burger to the menu (waygu is a Japanese beef noted for its marbling and high level of unsaturated fat).

But when grilling for fun, Pittman likes longer-cooking cuts: brisket and lamb leg. “Pick something you can cook all day,” he says. He wants people to come over and drink while it’s cooking, and then to “eat with your hands and have a laugh.”

Amy Anthony is the chef at The Ship Pub, tucked in an alley just around the corner from Seto in St. John’s. It’s a long-running local favourite for live music and fish and chips. She’s expanded the menu with a vibrant weekly specials board now famous for its saucily-named weekly burgers. The “Blanche burger,” named after a character from the Golden Girls TV show, features southern fried chicken breast with spicy slaw. Or the Christmas time “Ralphy” burger with “put-your-eye-out sauce.”

When cooking for friends over a fire, she plans whole meals “in flow over the grill.” She makes a two-zone charcoal fire, built on an incline. “[You] start on the high side then move over,” she says. She soaks wood chips overnight in beer to give the food a different taste. “Throw them right on one side of the coals…I just love the taste of smoke in everything,” she says.

Anthony is a forager and loves gathering local ingredients. She suggests starting with chanterelles, garlic, and herbs in foil on the grill. Pulse it with tomato paste for a dip, and make flat bread to throw on the grill. “People can eat that while they are smelling the rest cooking,” she says.

While the main course is being devoured, she’ll throw throw fruit (grapefruit, melon, pineapple, “anything that will hold texture”) on the grill. A smear of maple syrup caramelizes and smokes it. “It’s a great finisher,” she says. “Of course, I always keep a can of Fussels [cream] in the back of the fridge to go with. It can go in the cupboard. But I love it so much I want it always ready.”

Steve Curtis sold his restaurant, The Casbah, when he had his fourth child. Instead of continuing the time-consuming restaurant business, he started making condiments and sauces to sell at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market, held each Saturday morning from June through December.

But Curtis still spends every spare minute thinking about food. “A hamburger is a pretty humble thing, but there’s no reason not to do a good job,” he says. “If you can master it, it will carry over into other things. It will make you into a better cook overall. And it’s a lot of fun…to play with fire.”

For him, the most important thing for a perfect burger is to grind the meat fresh yourself. “Hamburger meat is generally chuck,” he notes. “Sixty per cent sirloin, 40 per cent rib. Chop it into small pieces and put it in a food processor. Pulse a few times…You can cook it as rare as you like.” Make one third of the meat pork to get a little more fat in it.

He also insists that you don’t need to add anything to your hamburger meat. “Maybe a little salt and pepper over the top. If you add salt [inside] it will draw moisture out.”

To form the patty, take a fist-sized piece of meat. “Don’t press it out, dimple it with your fingers until it becomes round and it will stay perfectly formed,” says Curtis. “Leave dimple imprints on top so it won’t buckle. Keep [it] loose so it will stay juicier.”

To get cross-hatching grill marks, he suggests flipping it three times so it cooks twice for 2.5 minutes on each side. This also gives a more consistent heat inside the burger. Don’t add barbecue sauce (see recipe online at eastcoastliving.ca) until the very end or it will burn.

Curtis keeps his toppings as simple as his patties. His pickled jalapeños and onions work as well on fish tacos as on burgers.

But there are as many ways to make a burger as there are grills on back decks in August. Neither Pittman nor Anthony are patty purists. Pittman uses plenty of eggs and panko crumbs and what are, to him, “traditional” ingredients (e.g. gochujang, a Korean fermented chili paste that is a common spice in kimchi).

But, like Curtis, Pittman firmly believes that a burger “should be structurally sound; it should not fall apart.”  Size-wise, “it should be no more than three fingers high.” He says this, then looks at his large hands and laughs, “no more than three Pittman fingers high.”

Anthony also adds more than beef to her burgers. “I like spice, so I spice the hell out of everything…herbs [from] the back yard, anything fresh I have pumpin’ [laying] around will go in there: local eggs, fresh basil, sage, thyme, rosemary for lamb. I like beef best, but [I’m] also a big turkey fan. [It’s] light in summer, fruitier with a tapenade.”

A vegetarian for years, Anthony is as playful with a veggie burger as she is with everything else. “If you can’t have a laugh and enjoy what you’re doing…” she shrugs, noting that she gets a kick making burgers inspired by characters from classic TV shows like The Golden Girls and Three’s Company.

“You can flavour something based on a personality,” she says. “[I have] friends with kids who have birthdays in the summer, so [I might make] a ‘Billy burger’ with spicy red curly carrots on top like her hair [and] funny faces [on it]. Kids like to play with their food, and I like to play with my food too, so I guess I like to keep it entertaining.”