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For folks looking to get their grill on this summer, Wednesday evening’s installation of “Live with the Chef,” held at Arden Hills Resort Club and Spa off
Fair Oaks Boulevard, was time well-spent.
Chef Josh McLaughlin, host of the monthly cooking class, taught his 25-member audience how to prepare a meal on the grill, with an emphasis on fresh produce, good nutrition and proper technique.
The menu included beef kabobs, grilled fruit salad, grilled chicken and fresh fruit kabobs with a cinnamon yogurt sauce. On the shrubbery-enclosed patio of the resort's appetizingly named Mangos Restaurant, attendees were able to sample each course after watching a step-by-step demonstration on how to prepare it.
McLaughlin began the tutorial by speaking about meat quality and the benefits of cooking with free-range meat. He noted that often big-name meat brands inject their chicken with salt and other additives, which provides it with a less-than-fresh flavor profile.
In contrast, free-range chicken tastes "fresh and clean," because the animals are allowed to roam freely and eat whatever organic material they want, McLaughlin said. He added that free-range chicken is also free of the antibiotics and preservatives that mass-produced chicken contains. He indicated that Whole Foods Market is a reliable place to find grass-fed, free-range meat to grill up this summer.
In addition to an overview of meat quality, the chef provided his audience with some advice on grilling chicken safely. He said FDA guidelines require that meat must reach a temperature above 160 before it is safe to eat. Because a grill has hot and cold spots, it's important to check every piece of meat individually to ensure it is up to temperature, he said.
In order to prepare the juiciest chicken possible, McLaughlin suggested scattering ice on the grill along with your chicken and then putting the grill’s cover on. The trapped steam created by the melting ice will ensure that the chicken remains juicy as it grills.
He added that once the chicken is cooked white all the way through, even if its juice is still a little pink, you can take it off the direct heat of the grill to avoid over-cooking. Since the chicken will continue to cook in its own heat, you won't risk under-done chicken either, he said.
In order to maintain chicken’s naturally low calorie count, McLaughlin suggested using oil sparingly in the cooking process. His chicken marinade, made from lemon and orange juices, garlic, salt and pepper, was purposefully lipid-free. He applied a small amount of vegetable oil directly to the grill in order to prevent sticking, but explained that using any more than that would add calories and not much else.
"If I'm putting something in my food, it will either be good for me or add real flavor," he said.
McLaughlin also warned the audience not to be fooled by the zero-calorie claims of many vegetable oil cooking sprays. That zero-calorie rating is only accurate for a split second's worth of spray, he said, so if you are applying the spray in a constant stream, for more than a second at a time, you may be unknowingly adding empty calories to your meal.
Rather than using fat to impart flavor, McLaughlin suggests using the smokiness of the grill instead. Even if you plan to cook on a propane rather than charcoal-fueled grill, it is possible to achieve a smokey flavor profile. Using a few drops of Liquid Smoke will help meat cooked on a propane grill "smell and taste like a smokehouse," he said.
As an accompaniment to the grilled chicken, the chef whipped up some grilled fruit salsa using pineapple, mango, red bell pepper, tomato, cucumber, red onion, fresh cilantro, fresh mint, jalapeno chili and lime juice. All the produce besides the cucumber and fresh herbs received a light char from the grill before being chopped roughly and tossed together. As an alternative to hand-chopping, McLaughlin suggested using the pulse function on a food processor for a time-efficient and evenly diced salsa.
Using red bell pepper and pineapple as a base for the salsa, you can get creative with the other fruits you add, McLaughlin said. He suggested adding plums to the recipe, as they are just coming in to season. However, he did caution that fruits with high water content, like watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe may not do as well in a salsa.
The meal’s finale, a fruit kabob drizzled with a cinnamon yogurt dressing, served as a healthy but satisfying dessert. McLaughlin pierced hefty pieces of pineapple, mango, cantaloupe and honeydew with wooden skewers and let them rest on the grill for a few minutes on each side. The heat of the grill enhanced the flavors of the mango and pineapple, giving them a warm, straight-from-the-garden succulence.
The yogurt sauce, made with plain yogurt, was sweetened by agave, which tastes like maple syrup and pours like honey. Agave is a good alternative to highly refined white sugar, McLaughlin said, and because it is extremely sweet, a little bit goes a long way. He also used vanilla bean paste, made from ground up vanilla bean pods, to flavor the yogurt because of its "authentic taste and bits of whole vanilla bean,” but said you could substitute the paste for its easier-to-come-by counterpart, vanilla extract.
The event’s guests seemed satisfied both with their healthy, grilled meal and McLaughlin’s culinary expertise.
“Chef Josh is really knowledgeable about his trade, and he does a good job being health conscious,” said Barry Powell, a “Live with the Chef” regular.
Powell added that he was excited to recreate some of McLaughlin’s recipes at home, including the beef marinade, made with Worcestweshire, soy sauce, balsamic vingear and red onion, among other things, which he described as “complex, with a wonderful taste.”
"Live With the Chef" occurs the first Wednesday of every month at Arden Hills Resort Club and Spa at 6 p.m. and costs $20.
For information about future “Live With the Chef” events, call Arden Hills Resort Club and Spa at 916-482-6111.
Editorial Note: A correction has been made to this story after it was published. The incorrect information has been struck out and the correct information has been added.