Grill talk: barbecue without getting burned

As summer days lengthen and temperatures soar, it’s the perfect time to eat – and cook – outdoors. But fears over carcinogenic compounds may have some of us retiring the barbie for good. The problem: when meat, poultry or fish are cooked at high temperatures, cancer-causing compounds called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are formed. But you don’t need to resign yourself to baked burgers for the season; a few simple rules can make your grilling experience healthier. Try the following seven steps to minimize risk:

1. Get skinny. When juices and fats from meat, fish or poultry drip onto hot surfaces, the resulting smoke contains carcinogens. To minimize fat drips, choose leaner cuts of meat, trim visible fat before cooking, and avoid sausage and other fatty meats; use very lean ground beef, wild game, or ground turkey instead.

2. Lose the burn. Charred, blackened or burned meat, fish or poultry contains more cancer-causing compounds. To lessen risk, cook cuts of lean beef, bison, game or lamb to medium rare and remove any charred portions before serving. And stick to thin cuts of meat and patties, to shorten time on the grill.

3. Scrub it clean. Keep your grill scrupulously clean to avoid the buildup of carcinogens from previously grilled food (and it makes your food taste better). Scrub grill grates thoroughly with a sturdy brush, before and after grilling.

4. Soak it up. Marinating meat, fish and poultry before grilling reduces the formation of HCAs by as much as 99 percent. Marinades probably work by forming a physical barrier against cancer-causing compounds; acidic ingredients typically used in marinades, like vinegar or citrus juices, and herbs and spices also seem to help prevent HCA formation.

5. Lose the drip. To minimize drips, always use tongs or a spatula to turn meat – a fork can puncture flesh and allow juices to drip. If you do have a flare-up, slide food to a cooler part of the grill to avoid exposing it to the resulting smoke.

6. Flip frequently. To reduce bacteria in burgers, turn them often; a few studies have found that flipping frequently – about every 30 seconds – reduced E. coli bacteria. And skip the rare burgers: cook ground beef and bison to at least 160 degrees, 165 degrees for chicken or turkey.

7. Go veggie. Grilling vegetables, fruit, low-fat cheese and bread doesn’t pose the same health hazards as grilling meat. For a simple vegetarian dinner, marinate chunks of tempeh, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms and onions, thread on a skewer and grill. Or try grilling whole portobello mushrooms, halved tomatoes or thick slices of eggplant. Grilled bread and cheese makes a fast, delicious appetizer, or serve grilled peaches or pineapples for a healthy dessert.

Try some of these simple, safe-grilling recipes; you’ll be thrilled with your grill again.

Grilled Baby Artichokes with Oranges and Thyme Serves 4
16 baby artichokes
1 medium lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar
Juice and zest from one large orange
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 large oranges, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
Whole thyme sprigs for garnish

1. Fill a medium glass bowl with cold water. Halve lemon and squeeze juice into the water. Working quickly to prevent browning, cut off and discard stem of artichoke near the base; remove and discard all of the tough outer leaves, leaving only softer, yellowish-green inner leaves, then cut off and discard the top third of the artichoke. Immediately place trimmed artichoke into lemon water to prevent browning. Repeat with remaining artichokes.

2. In a large bamboo or stainless steamer, or in a large pot with 1/2 inch water, steam artichokes for 7 minutes, or until bottoms are just tender.

3. While artichokes are steaming, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, orange zest, thyme leaves and white pepper in a small bowl. Add steamed artichokes and orange slices to the marinade, and gently toss to coat. Let stand at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.

4. While artichokes are marinating, preheat grill. Grill artichokes and oranges for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until artichokes are tender, basting with marinade several times.

5. Transfer grilled artichokes and oranges to a serving platter, drizzle with additional marinade, garnish with sprigs of fresh thyme, and serve immediately.

Grilled Peaches with Cherry-Balsamic Sauce Serves 4
1 cup fresh cherries, pitted and chopped (or substitute frozen and thawed cherries)
2 to 3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon lime juice
4 medium peaches, halved and pitted
2 tablespoons coconut oil
Organic crème fraiche or dairy-free coconut ice cream
Fresh mint for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat grill to medium-high.

2. Combine cherries, 2 tablespoons honey, balsamic vinegar and lime juice in a small saucepan on medium heat. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes, until the cherries are soft, stirring frequently. Add remaining 1 tablespoon honey if cherries are tart. Remove lid, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 3 to 5 minutes, until thickened.

3. While sauce is cooking, coat peaches with coconut oil. Grill, flat sides down, until grill marks appear and peaches are heated through and just tender, about 5 minutes.

4. To serve, transfer peach halves to individual plates. Fill centers with ice cream or crème fraiche. Top with warm sauce, garnish with mint, if desired, and serve.

Grilled Halloumi Sandwiches with Mango Chutney
Serves 4
4 slices whole-grain rustic bread or gluten-free bread
8 ounces halloumi* cheese, cut crosswise into 8 slices
Sweet mango chutney (substitute fig jam or preserves)
2 cups baby arugula leaves

1. Preheat barbecue to medium-high and lightly oil racks.

2. Arrange bread and halloumi on grill racks, and grill for 2 minutes per side, until bread is lightly toasted and halloumi is golden. Transfer to a platter.

3. Spread one side of each piece of bread with 1 or 2 tablespoons of mango chutney or jam. Layer with arugula leaves. Top with warm halloumi, and serve.

* Halloumi is a firm, salty cheese made from goat’s and sheep’s milk; it has a very high melting point, and can be fried or grilled. You’ll find it at many local natural foods markets.