Tex-Mex marinade gives a nice southwest flavor to chicken breasts. (Lucy Vaserfirer)
How do you put more flavor into your summertime grilling and save money? Here’s an easy solution: marinades. With the right combinations of spices, oils, vinegars, herbs and seasonings, you can dress up meats, chicken, fish or vegetables and turn inexpensive cuts of beef and pork into tender, delicious meals.
Granted, there are several varieties of prepared marinades available, but why go to all that expense (and suffer preservatives and additives) when you can easily make your own at home in the time it takes to grab a measuring cup and spoon?
Marinades can be thick like a paste or in liquid form with elements of sweet, salty, sour and bitter and what food lovers appreciate: umami, described as the fifth element to taste that adds richness, heartiness and savory elements (think garlic, anchovies, soy and fish sauce and Worcestershire).
Just as a craftsman painstakingly uses the right tools to create a finished work of art, so must a grill cook, or at least one that wants to earn the title of master griller, use the right ingredients and technique — and that means going a few steps beyond simply seasoning with salt and pepper. You need to create a flavor foundation (whether wet or dry as in rub) to give grilled food that soul that everyone expects, but few can achieve.
In her book “Marinades,” Lucy Vaserfirer illustrates myriad ways of dressing up a dinner with a minimum amount of time and energy using ingredients readily available in your pantry or fridge and giving a boost to more affordable cuts of meat.
“I kept a notepad with me all the time and jotted down ideas,” says Vaserfirer, speaking by phone from her home in Vancouver, Washington. Vaserfirer, who along with the help of her brother, Andrew Vaserfirer, a chef, head butcher and master of all things meat at the Revival Market in Houston, Texas, dreamed up enticing flavor combinations for the 200 marinades, as well as ways to use them.
“I grew up on marinades,” says Vaserfirer, who says her favorite marinated meal is shashlik, from her native country, Uzbekistan. It is a version of shish kebab.
“I left Uzbekistan when I was just a baby, and it’s one of the few things I have from my native country. It also happens to be the very first marinade I was ever exposed to,” she says. “It’s traditionally made with lamb, the fattier the better, such as a leg of lamb with the fat cap on or lamb leg steaks, but beef and pork cubes can also be used and served with the traditional accompaniments of thinly sliced onions seasoned with white vinegar, sugar and salt.”
“It’s convenience cooking,” says the culinary educator, blogger (hungrycravings.com) and cookbook author, who cleverly includes a recipe with each of the marinades in the book. Basically, she does the work and you get the reward. She also includes a chapter on dessert and sweet marinades for fruit (here she says the fruit is macerated not marinated), which are lovely grilled, simply served raw on their own or spooned atop fresh ice cream or shortcakes.
One of Vaserfirer’s tricks is to use zippered plastic bags so cleanup is a breeze and the marinade is easily “smooshed,” (the author’s term) around the protein or vegetables. And it also reduces the amount of marinade necessary when you press out the air as you seal it.
But her suggestion of making up a big batch of marinades and freezing them in small amounts in zippered plastic bags really amps up the convenience quotient, along with the flavor boost; it’s something I will be doing from now on. Just think of the time savings when you pull a bag of marinade out of the freezer, pop in some chicken breasts or meat and let it sit overnight or during the day in the fridge. When it’s time for dinner, all you need is heat and add a simple side or salad.
Vaserfirer basically has never met a food she hasn’t tried to drown, and I mean that in a good way.
“I always tells people to taste the marinade,” she says. “It needs to be boldly seasoned, but making a marinade is definitely a matter of personal preference.”
Sadly, summer is more than half gone, but there still are plenty of opportunities (officially more than five weeks’ worth) to make this the best outdoor barbecue season in your grilling history. These tips and recipes can help.
Marinade tips from Lucy Vaserfirer
What to marinate: Practically any protein, including chicken, pork, beef, lamb, veal, fish, scallops, shrimp, duck and game, as well as vegetables and tofu. Also olives, certain cheeses, such as fresh mozzarella and feta, and fruits.
How much marinade to use: A general rule of thumb is ½ cup of marinade is enough for 4 chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks, fish fillets or thick slabs of tofu. Use ¾ cup of marinade for 4 servings of lamb chops, shrimp, sea scallops, kebabs or cut vegetables.
What vessel to use: A 1-gallon size zippered plastic bag works best. You can press the air out and it takes up less room in the fridge. Blend the ingredients directly into the bag, give it a shake or two and pop the food into the bag. Alternatively, you can use a nonreactive dish so that the food will fit snugly and is submerged completely. You will have to turn the food periodically so that it will marinate evenly.
How long to marinate: Meats should be marinated for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. Seafood is more delicate and should be marinated no longer than 20 to 45 minutes, as the acid in the marinade will “cook” the seafood. Raw vegetables need only 30-60 minutes. Cooked vegetables, olives and cheeses should be allowed to marinate at least overnight, and up to 2-3 days is even better.
What temperature to marinate: If marination time is less than 1 hour, you can leave foods at room temperature. Any longer than that and food should be refrigerated to ensure safety.
Storing marinades: Marinades can be made in quantity and kept refrigerated for several days or frozen for up to a month. Store portions in zippered plastic bags so that when it comes to planning dinner all you have to do is drop in some meat and refrigerate overnight or during the day.
Asian Plum Marinade
This fruity, sweet and savory marinade is delicious with bone-in chicken pieces, especially wings, pork ribs (marinated overnight and grilled) or skin-on duck breasts (marinated 2 hours to overnight). Recipe by Lucy Vaserfirer
¼ cup plum jam
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
2 tablespoons sliced scallions
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1⁄8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
Measure the jam, hoisin sauce, oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sriracha sauce, scallions, ginger, garlic and five-spice into a 1-gallon zip-top bag and shake or squeeze until blended. Makes 1 cup or 8 servings.
Per serving (per 2 tablespoons): 76 calories; 4 g fat (0.3 g saturated fat; 47 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 0.2 mg cholesterol; 450 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.
Grilled Baby Back Ribs
Pour about half of the Asian Plum Marinade into a second 1-gallon zip-top bag. For 4 servings, cut 2 racks pork baby back ribs (2 to 2 ½ pounds each) in half and add 1 rack (2 halves) to the marinade in each of the zip-top bags; turn to coat. Seal the bags, letting out all the air. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Set the bags aside at room temperature for about half an hour. Remove the ribs from the marinade and place them on the grill, meaty side up. Grill the ribs, covered, over indirect medium-low heat until fork-tender, 2 to 2 ½ hours. The meat will have noticeably shrunk away from the ends of the bones when it is done. Tent the ribs with foil and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before carving and serving.
Serve the ribs sprinkled with sliced scallions and toasted sesame seeds and with sides of sticky rice and steamed Chinese greens.
Per serving: 789 calories; 45 g fat (14 g saturated fat; 16 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 192 mg cholesterol; 635 mg sodium; 81 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.
All-Purpose Tex-Mex Marinade
The versatile recipe is as easy as throwing a few ingredients into a blender, and was developed to make a very large batch so that there’s always some on hand in case of emergency Tex-Mex cravings. Suggested uses: chicken breasts or beef (especially skirt) steaks (marinated 2 hours to overnight) or whitefish fillets, shrimp or sea scallops (marinated 20 to 45 minutes), grilled. It can be portioned into zip-top bags and frozen for a few weeks. Recipe by Lucy Vaserfirer
½ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stem ends trimmed
1 yellow onion, cut into eighths
3 jalapeños, stemmed
¼ cup pickled jalapeño slices
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the oil, vinegar, lime juice, cilantro, onion, jalapeños, pickled jalapeños and cumin in a blender and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 2 ¾ cups (enough for 22 servings).
Per serving (per 2 tablespoons): 49 calories; 5 g fat (0.4 g saturated fat; 92 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrate; 0.2 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 127 mg sodium; 0.2 g protein; 0.3 g fiber.
Grilled Chicken Breasts
For 8 servings, combine about one-third of the All-Purpose Tex-Mex Marinade and 8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 8 ounces each), pounded to an even thickness of ½ to ¾ inch, in a zip-top bag and turn to coat. Seal the bag, letting out all the air. Marinate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight in the refrigerator. (Divide the remaining marinade between two 1-gallon zip-top bags and freeze for future use.)
Set the bag aside at room temperature for about half an hour. Remove the chicken from the marinade, pat dry with paper towels, then grill on an oiled grill grate over direct high heat until just cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes, turning once. The chicken will be firm to the touch and the juices will run clear when it is just cooked through. Tent the chicken with foil and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before carving and serving.
Dice the chicken breasts and use in any Tex-Mex favorites — from fajitas and burritos to nachos and quesadillas to tortilla soup. Slice and serve on a Caesar salad. For a particularly satisfying sandwich, stack marinated and grilled chicken breasts, bacon, Swiss or cheddar cheese, garlicky guacamole, lettuce and tomato on artisan-style hamburger buns. Or simply serve the chicken breasts with refried beans and Mexican rice.
Per serving: 325 calories; 11 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 30 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrate; 0.2 g sugar; 144 mg cholesterol; 241 mg sodium; 53 g protein; 0.3 g fiber.
This bright yellow mixture isn’t exactly an authentic Indian recipe, but it’s sure to satisfy fans of curry. Suggested uses: boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pork chops, or lamb chops (marinated 2 hours to overnight) or shrimp (marinated 20 to 45 minutes), grilled. Recipe by Lucy Vaserfirer
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons curry powder
Measure the oil, lime juice, ginger, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro and curry powder into a 1-gallon zip-top bag and shake or squeeze until blended. Season to taste with salt. Makes about ½ cup (enough for 4 servings).
Per serving (per 2 tablespoons): 100 calories; 10 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 90 percent calories from fat); 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 122 mg sodium; 0.4 g protein; 0.5 g fiber.
Grilled Lamb Rib Chops
For 2 servings, add 6 frenched lamb rib chops (about 1 inch thick) to the Curry Marinade in the zip-top bag and turn to coat. Seal the bag, letting out all the air. Marinate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Set the bag aside at room temperature for about half an hour. Remove the chops from the marinade, pat dry with paper towels, then grill over direct high heat until medium rare, 10 to 12 minutes (or until the desired doneness), turning once. Moisture will just begin to accumulate on the surface of the chops when they are medium-rare. Tent the chops with foil and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Serve these lamb chops with dal and basmati rice, or any other Indian-style side dishes you like.
Per serving: 599 calories; 38 g fat (11 g saturated fat; 57 percent calories from fat); 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 193 mg cholesterol; 303 mg sodium; 59 g protein; 0.5 g fiber.
No one can resist fruit soaked with caramel and vanilla. Suggested uses: over grilled fruit, pound cake or ice cream. Recipe by Lucy Vaserfirer
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons water
1 vanilla bean
Combine the sugar and 3 tablespoons of the water in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, brush down the sides of the pan with water, and boil until the sugar is fragrant and a deep amber color, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the remaining ¼ cup water, stirring to dissolve the caramel. With a paring knife, cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. With the tip of the knife, scrape out the seeds, reserving the pod for another use Add the vanilla seeds to the caramel syrup and let cool to room temperature. Makes about ¼ cup (enough for about 6 servings).
Caramel-Vanilla-Brandy Syrup: Stir in 1 tablespoon brandy once the syrup has cooled.
Caramel-Vanilla-Bourbon Syrup: Stir in 1 tablespoon bourbon once the syrup has cooled
Per serving (without alcohol): 32 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 8 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 0.1 mg sodium; 0 g protein; trace g fiber.
For 6 servings, combine the Caramel-Vanilla Syrup and 2 pounds quartered ripe but still firm apricots, peaches, nectarines and/or plums, or pineapple cut into ½- to ¾-inch-thick slices, in a 1-gallon zip-top bag and turn to coat. Seal the bag, letting out all the air. Macerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 45 minutes at room temperature.
Remove the fruit from the syrup. Grill the fruit on an oiled grill grate over direct high heat until just heated through, 3 to 4 minutes, turning once.
Serve the fruit atop vanilla ice cream.
Per serving (without ice cream): 90 calories; 0.6 fat (0 g saturated fat; 6 percent calories from fat); 22 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 0.1 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Vaserfirer writes: “This is my family’s recipe for shashlik, which is Uzbekistan’s version of shish kebab. Growing up, it was required fare at every family gathering and celebration. Shashlik is traditionally made with lamb — the fattier, the better — but beef and pork can be prepared in the same manner. The meat is threaded closely together onto enormous sword-like skewers and grilled until it is seared on the surface and succulent within. Though it may seem as though this recipe yields a ton of marinade, the sliced onion makes it bulky, so a large volume must be used for a relatively small quantity of meat.” Suggested uses: cubes of pork sirloin, beef sirloin or lamb leg (marinated overnight), skewered and grilled. Recipe by Lucy Vaserfirer
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, optional
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
6 allspice berries
Freshly ground black pepper
Measure the vinegar, oil, onion, bay leaves, whole and ground cumin, coriander, peppercorns and allspice into a 1-gallon zip-top bag and shake or squeeze until blended. Season to taste with salt and a generous amount of pepper. Makes about 4 cups (enough for about 4 servings).
Per serving: 59 calories; 4 g fat (0.3 g saturated fat; 61 percent calories from fat); 6 g carbohydrates; 1.5 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 245 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.
For 4 servings, add 2 lamb leg steaks (1 to 1 ¼ inches thick), cut into 1 ¼-inch pieces, to the Shashlik Marinade in the zip-top bag and turn to coat. Seal the bag, letting out all the air. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Set the bag aside at room temperature for about half an hour. Remove the lamb from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels, picking off any onion and spices. Skewer the meat onto skewers (you can use soaked bamboo, but my family always uses flat metal skewers) and grill over direct high heat until medium-rare, 10 to 14 minutes (or until the desired doneness), turning once. Moisture will just begin to accumulate on the surface of the lamb when it is medium-rare.
Serve the shashlik with Middle Eastern flatbread or basmati rice and a salad of slivered tomatoes and thinly sliced yellow onions and Kirby cucumbers seasoned with only salt and pepper.
Per serving: 340 calories; 15 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g sugar; 148 mg cholesterol; 354 mg sodium; 48 g protein; 0.2 g fiber.