Grill Better with Chef Joe Turkaly

By April Blake
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It’s summertime, and the grillin’ is easy, even if you think beyond your typical all-American burger-and-hot-dog-style cookout. When it comes to finding a grill master in Columbia, one chef comes to mind: the ubiquitous Joe Turkaly, currently working at Gervais & Vine, who also does his own catering on the side for local arts events and fundraisers around town. With tons of enthusiasm for the topic, Turkaly offers up plenty of advice and stories on all aspects of grilling that he’s gathered from his years of manning hot grates.

There are two ways to cook on a grill, one being the most popular: direct-heat cooking, which is quick and easy, and best used on smaller, more tender items like burgers, New York strip or filet mignon, and fish. To make sure you’re cooking at the proper temperature, hold your hand a couple of inches over the grate, and if you can hold it there for more than five seconds, it’s not hot enough, Turkaly says. Another tip he offers for direct-heat cooking is to leave the meat or vegetables alone for two to four minutes after placing them on lightly oiled grates, or the food will stick to the grill and you won’t get those nice charred grill marks.

But if you’ve got the time and inclination, indirect heat cooking is just the ticket for some kinds of meat. And smoking on the grill — indirect cooking plus smoke — is a slow way to infuse food with a smoky flavor without burning the exterior of the meat. Tough or fatty cuts like pork roast or beef brisket need to be cooked at 215 F for four to eight hours, then they just fall apart, says Turkaly. Once the meat is on the grill, try not to mess with it for at least three to four hours.

So what’s good to smoke? Turkaly recommends oysters, pork loin, chicken legs and beef tenderloin, for starters.

“And smoked wings are so much better than fried, and I guess they’re healthier?” he muses. “I do a lot more smoking than grilling.”
Meat isn’t the only thing that benefits from a long rest over a smoky grill grate.

“Smoking tofu is a great idea,” he says. “Make sure you get extra firm and cook it longer off the heat.”

If you just like the idea of putting a bun on it, think outside of the beef box. Turkaly suggests using a meat grinder on salmon or chicken to create a different twist on the burger. But, he cautions with a laugh, “Everyone’s sick of turkey burgers, though!”

Other alternatives to traditional burgers are sausages, grilled eggplant sandwiches, and zucchini and squash.

“When I was a little kid,” Turkaly recalls, “my mom would take the squash and cut them longways, dip them in an egg wash and cornmeal, then fry it in cast iron and tell us it was fried fish! We didn’t think we liked squash, so this is how she got us to eat it.”

Of course, the most important thing in the grilling process is the grill itself, and the gas-versus-charcoal debate has been known to spur many an argument. Both have their places in a chef’s repertoire, depending on the desired outcome. Indirect heat cooking benefits most from charcoal and wood chips, though Turkaly isn’t knocking gas grills. Gas grills are good for those who don’t want as strong of a smoke taste infused, as it can sometimes be overbearing.

“You want the taste of smoke, not the smell of smoke,” he says.

Beyond the machine itself, other handy tools include a long-handled spatula for flipping burgers and long-handled tongs for grabbing anything from steaks to vegetables. Spray oil, he says, is a tool itself, acting like a catalyst to help crisp up surfaces to make a nice fried-like crust. It also keeps leaner cuts of meat and vegetables from sticking to the grates when sprayed directly on the grates, before the fire is lit.

One last important tool is attention. In the follies of his youth, Turkaly recounts a time when he learned that lesson the hard way.

“I got burnt up catering for Hootie and the Blowfish when I was young, before they got really big,” he says. “We had a big party out on the lake, and my boss filled up the grill, turned it on and shut the lid. I opened the grill and the flames poured out. You can still see the scars when it gets cold. Be careful and don’t shut the grill while you’re starting the charcoal!”

With a set of tongs at the ready and your choice of gas or charcoal, you know where to send an invite for your next cookout. Just make sure your stories are as entertaining as Chef Joe’s. 

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