Use your grill like an oven

Scott JacksonComment

There’s a short window of time when the weather is fine enough for anyone with even a sliver of garden, roof or deck space to want to be outside as much as possible. That’s when I move much of my nightly cooking out of the house and into the garden, turning my grill into the centerpiece of a makeshift outdoor kitchen.

And by this I don’t mean just grilling the usual roster of meats, fish and vegetables until they are flame-licked and charred. I do that, too. But I also take things one step further. With the help of a cast-iron skillet, a roasting pan and a rimmed baking sheet, I’m able to cook things on my grill that I would, in less delightful weather, happily roast in the oven — everything from cornbread to sliced peaches to roast chicken.

In fact, for my favorite roast chicken recipe — a splayed bird cooked in a cast-iron skillet — the grill works even better than the oven.

What I love about the recipe is the golden, brittle-crisp skin and supremely tender meat I can achieve by splaying the chicken’s legs (popping the thigh bones out of their sockets) before pressing them flat into a sizzling, preheated pan to roast. This gives the thigh meat and drumsticks a jump start while letting the breast cook more slowly. Everything finishes at the same time, and you end up with juicy white meat, succulent dark meat and bronzed, crunchy skin.

What I don’t love is the extremely high roasting temperature can make a splattering mess inside the oven and send billows of smoke into the kitchen.

Moving the chicken to the grill solves these problems. On the grill, splatter doesn’t matter, and smoke is actually a good thing, seasoning the chicken without setting off the smoke detector.

It’s the best of both worlds, with all of the burnished appeal of roast chicken, augmented by a hit of smoke from the grill. And I get to tend to it under the open sky.

A byproduct of the splayed-chicken recipe is that after the bird is cooked, I end up with a pan full of meaty, rich chicken drippings, in which I caramelize garlic and ramps to serve alongside the bird.

I can achieve this on the grill, too. Since the bird is cooked in a skillet, the juices and rendering fat accumulate in the pan instead of disappearing through the grill grate into the fire.

In this recipe, I use the drippings to quickly saute spinach spiked with garlic, anchovies and fresh dill, then pile those velvety greens on top of ricotta-smeared crostini. But you can stick with garlic and ramps if you’d rather, or choose any other hardy green to saute — kale, chard, mustard and the like.

One of the key factors in being able to use your grill like an oven is using indirect heat. For avid grillers, it’s a standard technique. You create two heat zones — a hot side of the grill and a cooler side. This allows you to cook larger, denser ingredients or slower-cooking things (like baked goods) over the unlit but still plenty hot side of the grill without scorching. If a sear is required, the pan can be slid over to the lit side for a fast and furious blast of heat.

But you can also use direct heat if you’ve got quicker cooking ingredients that will finish in minutes. Just plop your skillet or any other flameproof pan onto your grill directly over the fire, cover the grill and use it for small items that would otherwise fall through the grates.

Cherry tomatoes work beautifully. Glossed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and surrounded by herbs, they become condensed and wonderfully sweet, picking up a smoky flavor and turning mahogany brown in spots. Toss them with pasta or a grain salad, stir them into a salsa or serve them as a side dish. Asparagus is another option, and you don’t have to worry about keeping the spears perpendicular to the grill grates, lest the skinny ones fall through.

Then for dessert, try grill-roasting sliced peaches. Toss them with butter and a little raw sugar, spread them out on a rimmed sheet pan, put the pan on the grill and let the peaches turn caramelized and syrupy — and perfect to spoon over ice cream.

Then eat it outside, under the stars.

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