Fire up your taste buds—grilling season is here! Nothing says summer quite like the smell of burgers and brats wafting on the breeze. But like many others, you may have health concerns about this form of cooking. So why is grilling an issue? It has to do with the interplay of protein, fat, and fire.
Common grilling conditions can produce two compounds that can form from protein foods that have the potential to increase cancer risk: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are created when protein-rich foods are cooked at high temperatures—such as the 400 plus degrees typical of a grill. PAHs form when fat burns or when charring occurs; the resulting smoke also contains PAHs and these can be deposited on any food on the grill. But while grilling can lead to the formation of these compounds, it doesn’t have to. And it can be a great method for making healthy, fast, and flavorful meals, especially if you include plenty of phyto-rich plant foods on the menu! So if your mouth is watering but your brain is wondering whether you should retire the BBQ, take heart; there are many ways to have your beefcake and eat it too! The following are a few guidelines that will help you grill happily ever after.
Lean towards lean: It’s animal fat that’s the issue, so leaner is definitely better! Fish and chicken have less of the amino acids that can lead to the formation of HCAs than red meat has, but PAHs and HCAs can form on chicken and fish. Minimize fat by removing skin from chicken, choosing fillets or removing the skin from fatty fish, or using leaner cuts of red meat like pork loin or flank steak, and trimming fat. Each of these will reduce harmful flare-ups and charring.
Timing is everything: The shorter the cooking time, the less time there is for PAHs and HCAs to form. Shorten the amount of time the food is on the grill by pre-cooking in the microwave, oven or stove for 5 minutes. Finishing on the grill will give that great grilled taste with none of the downside. Choosing thinner cuts of fish, chicken, or red meat is another option to reduce the cooking time.
Wood is good: Using a method that creates a more indirect heat greatly lowers the possibility that HCAs or PAHs will form. Many people are familiar with using a cedar plank to cook salmon, but wood planks are also great for barbecuing chicken and red meats as well as other types of fish. Soaked wood infuses the food with a wonderful aromatic flavor and keeps it moist. Try branching out (pun intended) with apple, mesquite, or maple wood. A thin slab of slate is another indirect method that retains moisture, as is a piece of foil with holes punched in it.
Clean up your act: Don’t let the ghost of meals past visit charred bits upon your present meal. If using a gas grill, turn the heat up for 5-10 minutes prior to cooking. This burns off the food residue, and a quick scrub with a wire brush completes the cleaning. If using charcoal place the (cooled) rack in a plastic garbage sack with water and liquid dish soap. This will loosen the residue overnight, making cleaning much easier.
Be well seasoned: There is increasing evidence that marinating meat for as little as 30 minutes before grilling can reduce the formation of carcinogens. Using marinades that include phytonutrient dense seasonings such as garlic, red pepper, thyme, sage, and rosemary can be particularly protective. In fact some studies have shown that rosemary contains significant amounts of powerful phenolic compounds like rosmarinic acid, carnosol, and carnosic acid, which help to block HCAs before they can form during heating.
Grill Green: Fill the grill with plenty of produce! Make grilled salads, side dishes, or desserts the real star of the meal. Grilling plant foods produces no HCAs or PAHs, and the phyt might of plant-based foods will help lower cancer risk. The recipes below will help you create a healthy, phytonutrient-packed, palate-pleasing feast—all from your grill!
Grilled Haloumi and Lemons
Haloumi cheese is a semi-hard cheese that has a high melting point so it can be grilled or fried without melting. It’s creamy, slightly salty flavor goes well with fruit or vegetables. When grilled, lemons soften and lose their extreme tartness.
- 2 lemons
- 1/2 pound Haloumi cheese
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 (3/4-inch-thick) baguette slices
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
- Cut 8 thin slices from lemons. Squeeze 2 tablespoons juice from remainder; put in a bowl.
- Cut cheese into 1/3-inch-thick triangular shaped slices.
- Mince garlic and use a spoon back to mash to a paste with a pinch of salt; add to lemon juice. Whisk in remaining salt and sugar until dissolved, then add 1/4 cup oil, whisking until combined.
- Separately toss lemon slices and cheese each with 1/2 tablespoon dressing.
- Brush both sides of bread with remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
- Grill bread, cheese, and lemon slices on grill rack, over moderately high heat, covered. Grill until bread is toasted (2 to 3 minutes total), grill marks appear on cheese (3 to 4 minutes total), and lemons begin to wilt (4 to 6 minutes total).
- Whisk rosemary into remaining dressing. Divide bread among 4 small plates and top with cheese and lemon slices. Drizzle with dressing and serve immediately.
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
Bottled dressing can be used (thin with buttermilk if needed) however fresh homemade Caesar dressing is quite simple and well worth any extra effort!
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 4 (6 ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Vegetable oil spray
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 4 romaine hearts (each around 6 ounces), each cut in half lengthwise
- 4 (1-inch-thick) baguette slices cut on extreme bias
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Olive oil spray
- 1 ounces grated parmesan cheese (~8 tablespoons) plus 4 shaved curls of parmesan for garnish
- Salt and pepper
- Dissolve salt into 1 ½ quarts of cold water in large container. Submerge chicken breasts in brine and refrigerate covered for 30-60 minutes.
- Place buttermilk, mayonnaise, lemon juice, water, anchovies, garlic, mustard and Worcestershire sauce in blender; process until smooth. Continue processing while gradually adding oil until well blended. Transfer to a bowl and stir in grated parmesan, salt and pepper to taste.
- Remove chicken breasts from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Spray with oil and season with pepper. Spray romaine hearts and both sides of bread with oil.
- Heat grill until hot. Leave main burner on high; reduce other burners to medium. Place chicken breasts on hottest part of grill.. Cook for ~ 8 minutes or until well browned (should reach temperature of 160 degrees), turning once. Transfer to a cutting board and cover with foil.
- While breasts are cooking place bread on cooler part of grill and cook both sides until golden brown. Transfer to cutting board with chicken.
- Place romaine heart halves on cooler part of grill and cook until slightly charred on all sides (3-5 minutes) turning as needed.
- To assemble salad:
- Slice chicken into ½ inch strips. Toss with enough dressing to coat. Place one romaine heart half on plate; drizzle with remaining dressing. Top with chicken and cheese curl. Place grilled baguette slice on plate.
Caramelized Bananas and Peaches with Grilled Pound Cake
- 2 ripe but firm large bananas, peeled and cut on bias into 8 slices each
- 1 ripe peach, pitted and thinly sliced
- 6 tablespoons brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons orange juice
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4th teaspoon cinnamon
- 4 slices of pound cake, each 1 inch thick
- Preheat a heavy 8-inch skillet on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add sugar, juice, and butter. Cook about 1 minute or until butter is melted and sugar begins to dissolve.
- Add the banana and peach slices and cook just until are tender (3 to 4 minutes), stirring only once. Add in nutmeg and cinnamon.
- Set skillet to the side of the grill rack.
- Add pound cake slices to grill rack; grill cake about 1 minute or until golden brown, turning once halfway through cooking.
- To serve: Place pound cake slices on separate plates. Top with bananas, peaches and sauce. If desired, garnish with shredded orange peel and additional nutmeg. May also be served with small amount of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Kim Jordan is the Manager of Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.