A Spice Guru's Top Tips For Summer Grilling
Lior Lev Sercarz is one of the world’s most sought after spice purveyors and has crafted spices for everyone from Eric Ripert to David Chang to Ina Garten. Spices are certainly Sercarz's focus, which is evident in his NYC-based spice emporium La Boîte, along with his two acclaimed cookbooks, including most recently The Spice Companion. However, he also has a passion for grilling, which stems from working as a chef for 20 years and from growing up in grill-centric Israel. He recently shared some of his favorite tips for summer grilling with us, including why he focuses on fruits and vegetables first and the super secret crowd pleaser you should definitely make this summer.
It’s summertime; use hotter spices.
For Sercarz, summer is the perfect time to experiment with chilies and bold, forward flavors, like onions and garlic. However, it’s the versatility of these ingredients that Sercarz really loves, “Items like onions and garlic translate really well raw, in salads, in lightly cooked preparations or grilled, you really can’t go wrong in your choice.” Sercarz also likes using one of his favorite spices, cumin, to transform vegetables into meatier dishes, a trait that grills are also great for.
Make a blend with whatever spices you have at home.
When it comes to getting your ingredients together for the grill, a great place to start is by assembling a spice blend, which Sercarz says you can do with whatever spices you have available at home. Not only are they perfect for grilling meat, vegetables and fish, but blends are also great for seasoning a quick salad or just the salad dressing. Above all else though, the important thing is making sure the blend is balanced. “The first thing you want to do is taste each of the spices separately,” he says. “You’re looking for three to five spices that when combined have notes of acidity, heat, sweetness and also different textures. Your spices don’t need to be ground completely to powder as some are best left a little bit coarse.”
Focus on produce and prepare it ahead of time.
While Sercarz is certainly a fan of meat and fish, it’s fruit and vegetables that he gets most excited for when summertime arrives. Peaches, nectarines and figs are three of his seasonal favorites and he treats each of these fruits almost as he would meat when it comes to preparing them for the grill, including using more savory spices like garlic and cumin. “Definitely season the fruit pretty heavily ahead of time and let it sit so the spices kind of glue to whatever produce you’re using,” he says. Sercarz also swears by finishing grilled dishes with a little bit more of the raw spice blend because the cooked spice is going to somewhat change in terms of its flavor and scent profile.
Throw some pita bread on the grill, your guests will love it.
Whenever Sercarz grills for his friends and family, he throws one surprising thing on the grill that his guests always go crazy for: pita bread. “I flatten the pita bread and brush it with oil and spices before putting it on the grill,” he says. “You can eat it by itself or use it as a base for whatever grilled fish and meats you have. By the end of the meal, the pita will have soaked up all of the juices up from the meats themselves and people just love it.”
Your grill is super versatile; experiment with different ways of cooking with it.
Grilling has a tendency to strike fear into the hearts of home cooks who aren’t used to cooking over open flame, but in reality, grilling is really simple. As Sercarz points out, you can basically grill any food you want and there are many more ways to use a grill besides simply throwing ingredients on the grates. “Sometimes I also like to cook over coals with a pot or pan, but that’s just one additional way to use the grill,” he says. “Grills also allow for a quick smoking process, which is also very nice.” Sercarz also likes to bury foil-wrapped onions and potatoes in the coals so they automatically cook while he grills. He even grills directly on the coals with clay pots, elevating dishes like mussels with a hint of smoke.
Try out one of Lior Lev Sercarz's favorite grilling blends below the next time you have friends over for a cookout (and don't forget the pita).
Yield: 1/3 cup
3 tablespoons Garlic slices, dried, coarsely ground
1.5 tablespoons Savory leaves, dried
1 tablespoon Thyme leaves, dried
1/2 tablespoon Green peppercorns, dried, coarsely ground
Stir this blend into yogurt and use for marinating chicken thighs to keep them moist on the grill.
Yield: 3 tablespoons
1 1/2 tablespoons Cumin seeds, toasted, coarsely ground
1 tablespoon Coriander seeds, toasted, coarsely ground
1 1/2 teaspoons Caraway seeds, toasted, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon Oregano leaves, dried, crushed
1/2 teaspoon Black peppercorns, coarsely ground
This blend is great for dry marinating a whole rack of lamb before roasting it; serve it with yogurt sauce made with a pinch of the blend. It also adds a warm, savory element to Israeli couscous.
Yield: 1/4 cup
2 tablespoons Pimentón (Spanish paprika), sweet, ground
1 1/2 tablespoons Oregano leaves, dried, crushed
1 tablespoon Yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon Caraway seeds, toasted, ground
Marinate a duck breast with this sweet, herbaceous blend before grilling. It also adds vibrant color and texture to tuna kebabs.