By Ben Ford
There’s nothing I love more than a backyard barbecue, whether it involves an intimate group of four or the whole neighborhood. And as a Los Angeles native, we always consider it grilling season—regardless of what the calendar says!
But navigating a barbecue may not always come naturally to everyone. My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) when I was young, so as I grew up and found my passion in cooking, I saw the impact certain symptoms could have on her ability to cook—something we did together. She never wanted her diagnosis to limit her creativity as a cook, and I want to help others feel the same way.
In my book Taming of the Feast, I explore my love for outdoor grilling, smoking, and roasting and also share tips on DIY gadgets that I love to use when grilling. Below are some tips on how you can reimagine your basic backyard barbecue to impress your guests. I consulted Dr. Ann Cabot, a board-certified neurologist from Concord, NH, to make sure that these creative tips also work for those living with a disease like MS, and she also shared some insights on the disease.
“Symptoms of relapsing MS—like dexterity issues, fatigue, and heat intolerance—can have implications on common aspects of life, including cooking and grilling,” Dr. Cabot explained. “This shouldn’t prevent you from hosting and spending time with family; it’s all about finding the balance that works for you. While there’s no way to know when symptoms likes these will occur, I always tell my patients about the importance of reimagining how they navigate tasks like cooking, to make sure it goes well for them.”
Be creative: Living with MS doesn’t have to limit how you approach cooking on the grill. There are lots of creative techniques that anyone can do, regardless of physical limitations or cooking experience. Grilled fish can be a challenge, and it’s usually one of the first menu items ditched, because it can be too risky when hungry guests are gathering. Here are a few tips that might just turn that around for you.
Some fish are just better suited for the grill because they are dense and oily—like swordfish and tuna, which are both meaty fish that hold together well on the grill. Try either of them skewered, lightly marinated in a little olive oil, pulled thyme, and rough chopped garlic. Grill on a bed of a little charred rosemary and voilà—a unique, crowd-pleasing meal straight from the grill. Here are two techniques to get you started:
- Probably my favorite technique is to use herbs to protect the fish from sticking. Start by soaking some woody stemmed herbs like rosemary, thyme, or oregano in water for about 20 minutes. Place the herbs directly on the grill and place your piece of fish skin side down on top. The herbs will protect the fish from sticking to the grill and add flavors to the fish your guests will surely appreciate. Bass and other fish with skin, along with shell fish like shrimp, clams, or mussels all benefit from this technique.
- Another technique is to use cedar planks. They make small planks 3”x 6” that are user-friendly and great for one portion. The fish is cooked faceup for the entire cooking time, saving you the hassle of turning the fish or worrying about it sticking. Salmon is the original planked fish, but other hard-to-handle, more buttery, and fragile fish like trout, halibut, and cod are also delicious when cooked on a plank.
Now that you have the technique, experiment and have fun.
Pick the right grill: Food is the centerpiece of the barbecue, so it’s important to pay attention to not only what you’re cooking, but how you’re cooking it. There are a few options to consider:
- Gas or electric grills are an ideal, user-friendly choice for those who may have challenges using their hands or carrying heavy charcoal from indoors, like those who have dexterity issues.
- If you prefer charcoal, try a round Weber Kettle grill, which is a great height to work on standing or even with a chair pulled up for resting.
- For something a little bit different, you can also get great flavor from grilling over a real wood fire. Some manufacturers have started making grills with this purpose in mind, including Cowboy Cauldron. If you’re feeling adventurous, I would definitely give this a try.
Expand your horizons: Most people think of the grill as a way to cook meat, but it’s also a way to prepare all of your food and still be social among your guests, instead of making several trips to the kitchen. Being outside creates a bigger kitchen, so don’t be afraid to use that to your advantage. You can find specific pans and skewers made for use on the grill to prepare vegetables and seafood—and even popcorn as an after-dinner snack. I recommend a grill basket made by Lodge, which has two large handles that are angled well for lifting off the grill, even if heavy. If a single-handle basket is more your style, I suggest checking out options made by Man Law. Another tools that is traditionally used in outdoor campfire cooking but is a lot of fun to cook with is the Pie Iron, which can be filled with almost anything between two pieces of bread and toasted to perfection on the coals.
And while you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, consider a “nontraditional” barbecue recipe. Hot dogs and hamburgers are always a crowd-pleaser, but they’re a little basic. Especially if you’re using these unique grills and DIY tricks, it’s a fun opportunity to try something new.
Versions of these chicken skewers are very popular in one form or another throughout the Mediterranean and Caucasus regions of the world. This recipe is from my travels through Turkey.
Turkish Chicken Kabob
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground Urfa red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon ground sumac
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper, to taste
- 1 lb ground chicken
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1-2 tablespoons ice-cold water
- 6 pieces pita or Turkish bread (pide or pita)
- 1 cup picked fresh parsley and mint leaves
- 2 medium tomatoes, quartered and roasted
- Blistered long sweet pepper
- Make a charcoal fire or warm grill on high, or start a charcoal fire in your tandoori oven.
- Make a spice blend with cumin, coriander, sumac, Ufra red pepper flakes, dried oregano, kosher salt, and fresh ground black pepper.
- Combine chicken with garlic, onion, parsley, tomato paste, and half the spice mixture and reserve the rest of the spice mix to season the meat during cooking. Knead by hand or in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix until mixture turns tacky and starts sticking to the side of the bowl. Add water and continue kneading until incorporated. Place in refrigerator and chill well.
- Using wet hands, divide chicken mixture into even balls. Using wet hands, form each ball into a long, flat kebab around a skewer.
- If your skewers and grill allow for it, remove the grill grate and suspend the skewers over the fire using the side of the grill for support. Or, if you have a tandoori oven like the one above, insert the skewers. Just make sure to form the meat on the skewers about 6-8 inches above the coals.
- Place kebabs on the grill or suspend over the coals, cook, turning occasionally and sprinkling with spice mixture until charred on both sides and kebabs are cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.
Serve with Turkish Yogurt Sauce (Haydari) and Sumac Onions.
- 2 red onions, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons ground sumac
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Combine remaining 2 teaspoons sumac and red onions in a medium bowl. Season with salt to taste and set aside.
Turkish Yogurt Sauce (Haydari)
Yield: about 1½ cups
- 1 cup greek style yogurt
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ bunch dill, chopped
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until evenly combined. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
- Cover and chill until you are ready to serve. Garnish with mint leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.
Consider the time: Most barbecues begin in the afternoon, the warmest time of day. If the heat is an issue for you, consider positioning your grill in the shade to create a personal oasis. Or, mix it up and host an evening barbecue once temperatures drop. With a few strings of outdoor lights and a few tiki torches, it will be just like grilling during the day. You can also play around with this theme and prepare recipes more appropriate for nighttime, like a grilled shrimp salad:
Toss shrimp with chilis and salt, and briefly grill until cooked medium. Grill half an avocado to bring out its nutty flavors and grapefruit with its bright acidity to create a nice salad starter with arugula. Follow the perfect starter with a nice ribeye steak, my personal favorite for the grill, along with some grilled potatoes and chimichurri (a green sauce used for grilling meat, originally from Argentina). Grilled dessert? Why not! Grill peaches with a great ice cream and crumbled nut brittle. I’m hungry just talking about it.
Don’t forget to put your guests to work, too. Recruit a partner to help work the grill to ensure a few breaks throughout the day. Barbecues are meant to bring people together and have fun, so I hope my tips have inspired you to reimagine your next barbecue to up-level the creativity and fun to make it a truly memorable experience.
Snap a photo of your most memorable barbecue moment and use the hashtag #ReimagineMySelf—I’ll be looking for some new inspiration all year long.
Ben Ford and Dr. Cabot are paid spokespeople for Biogen.
Biogen does not endorse the external companies and products contained within this post, or any services that they provide. Biogen does not control the websites associated with these entities and is not responsible for their content.
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