Grain side dishes round out a healthy barbecue menu

Grain side dishes round out a healthy barbecue menu.

Think outside the box for better-for-you barbecue

With summer grilling season around the corner, and more of your customers thinking about health when they dine out, we're sharing some tips from chef Renee Zonka.

Are barbecue and healthy dining mutually exclusive? Renee Zonka, dean and resident nutrition expert at Chicago’s Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, doesn't think so. Here are her tips for creating satisfying and better-for-you options during barbecue season.

1. Buy local. Produce grown nearby is at the peak of flavor and nutrition.

2. Trim the fat, and skin the bird. For burgers, try ground sirloin, which contains less saturated fat than 80/20 (20% fat) ground beef. Choose leaner steaks like top sirloin for grilling, and for fattier steaks such as Porterhouse, trim all visible fat. Do the same for whole-loin pork chops. (Pork tenderloin is naturally leaner.) And skin chicken and duck breasts, thighs and legs before marinating and tossing on the grill to lock that just-grilled flavor into the meat.

3. Go fish. Any seafood simply tastes better grilled! Oily finfish like cod and salmon fillets are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Tilapia is not only a sustainable species, but naturally lean, and can accept virtually any flavor from a marinade or rub before grilling. Heartier fish fillets can go right onto an oiled grill, and more delicate fish can rest on aluminum foil or even sturdy lettuce or banana leaves. With any lean fish, watch grilling times, as less-fatty species cook quickly.  And shellfish such as oysters and scallops can grill right in their shells.

4. Grill veggies. From asparagus to zucchini, grilling coaxes out vegetables’ natural sugars. Marinate for an hour in the refrigerator first or brush fresh veggies (including sliced onion, husked corn on the cob, eggplant slices, sliced bell pepper, sliced yellow squash and mushroom caps—and even sturdy long-leaf lettuces like romaine and endive) with olive oil on both sides. Experiment with grill times, turning once for those beautiful caramelized grill marks, until done.

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5. Don’t forget fruit. Stone fruits like apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines, halved and pitted, and seeded tree fruits like apples and pears are a hot commodity when grilled over medium heat. Fruit’s natural sugar caramelizes nicely for a tantalizing smoky/sweet flavor. Pineapple rings, strawberries and even sliced mango and watermelon wedges can go on the grill. When grilling any fruit, make sure to lightly spray a clean grill with vegetable-oil spray to prevent sticking. For softer fruits like stone fruits and mango, leave the peel on to help the fruit stay together on the grill.

6. Marinate! Marinating meats and vegetables in wine, citrus juice, vinaigrette or a simple brine of salted water for a few minutes to a few hours in the refrigerator before throwing on the grill can both tenderize and add bolder flavor. This means you can use less salt while grilling. Adding a little sweetness to the marinade—like fruit juice, brown sugar, molasses or honey—helps balance the flavor. Or consider a homemade spice rub from dry herbs and seasonings for a delicious and salt-free flavor boost. For cut fruits, soak in water with a splash of lemon juice (and, if desired, a little cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove or ginger) for up to a half-hour before grilling to maintain their natural juiciness and color.

7. Whole grains are hot (served cold). Instead of high-fat potato and macaroni salads, a lightly dressed quinoa side dish—like Chef Zonka’s Quinoa & Lentil Salad with Sherry-Dijon Vinaigrette—not only delivers fresh, “bright” flavor, but quinoa is also an excellent source of plant protein. In fact, this whole grain contains all eight essential amino acids for optimal human health. Quinoa—available in white, black and red varieties—is naturally gluten free. Try cold salads featuring other lesser-known whole grains that are increasing in popularity, like farro, barley, wheat berries and freekeh. And, wild rice need not be relegated to autumn and winter; serve it cold studded with fresh veggies and spiked with zesty citrus dressing.

8. Watch your buns. Replace hamburger and hot-dog buns made with refined white flour with whole-grain varieties for enhanced flavor and fiber.

9. Bake beans without the bacon. A hearty and satisfying side dish of baked beans need not rely on animal fat to taste delicious. Plus, beans are a naturally good source of meatless protein and dietary fiber.