Memorial Day isn’t just the unofficial start of summer, but the start of grilling season.

Even with the moderate temperatures in Santa Monica, the last thing you want to do is turn the oven on when temperatures rise. My family practically lives outside during the summer. We’ve designed our backyard into individual living spaces with a cooking/grilling area, dining area and sitting area. Many meals are prepared and eaten in this extension of our home.

I cook, as well as buy my food, seasonally. While I may prepare more stews or baked meals during the winter months to warm our house and our bellies, during the warmer days of summer I plan meals to be prepared on the grill. I say I plan the meals because when it comes to grilling, my husband takes over the preparation. My husband enjoys cooking and when he has the time he works with me in the kitchen side by side, but at the grill he’s the master.

Memorial Day weekend is usually the kick-off for summer, which means it's time to break out the barbecue. But be careful. Grilling meat for too long could produce carcinogens. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

Memorial Day weekend is usually the kick-off for summer, which means it’s time to break out the barbecue. But be careful. Grilling meat for too long could produce carcinogens. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

The trick with grilling is to keep the food moist while cooking it through. The last thing you want to serve or be served is a dried-out piece of chard shoe leather. Not only is the food inedible, but meat mutagens, heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed when meats are cooked to well done and at high temperatures. Marinades and foil pouches help keep meats protected from these potential carcinogens as well as varying your preparation.

We have perfected many grilled meals to include not only our traditional main courses, including grilled lemon and garlic chicken or seafood kabobs, but grilled vegetables, side dishes, desserts and even pizza. Below are a few healthful ideas to expand the use of your grill to more than just the meat course.

Vegetables: Cut your favorite vegetables in half or into large strips and marinate with your favorite oil and vinegar dressing. Grill over low heat until soft and cover in a container so vegetables can continue steaming. My favorite grilling vegetables are zucchinis halved; yellow squash; red, yellow and orange bell peppers quartered; Japanese eggplant halved; and portobello mushrooms.

Sides: Many know how to clean and soak corn on the cob in their husks and steam them on the grill, but how on earth can you make a buttery potato and onion casserole without the saturated fat and oven. The secret is to use a foil pouch and cook the contents with indirect heat on the grill. Coat heavy duty foil wrap with olive oil. Alternate thinly sliced waxy potatoes such as German butterball, yellow Dutch or my favorite the zebra strip, and onion. Cook the foil packet for approximately 20 minutes with indirect heat and flip half way.  It’s like cooking a covered casserole dish in the oven, producing sweet onions and buttery textured potatoes.

Dessert: Grilling fruit allows for the natural sugars to caramelize, creating a new texture and sweetness that’s more intense than in its raw state. The sweet saltiness of soy glazed pineapple is a great accompaniment with teriyaki grilled chicken. But one of my favorites is peach halves brushed lightly with olive oil, dusted with granulated sugar and grilled until warm and soft. I’ll then top them with thinned hazelnut spread (thin with a little milk) and/or a dollop of light whipping cream. It tastes like peach pie without the crust.

Pizza: There’s no need to invest in a backyard pizza oven, unless you just have to have it to complete your backyard kitchen. A fun dinner party meal for kids and adults alike is grilled pizza. You can use store-bought pizza dough or make your own. Roll out to individual sized pizzas, thin or thick crust. Brush hot grill with oil so dough won’t stick. Over indirect heat grill pizza dough until golden brown on the underside. Flip pizza dough and top with your favorite sauce.  I like pesto with my shrimp pizza. Add cooked vegetables and/or cooked meat (maybe left-over grilled vegetables) and part-skim mozzarella cheese. Close lid and cook until cheese bubbles.

Lori Salerno, M.S., R.D.N, C.P.T. is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer who provides medical nutrition therapy to groups and individuals in Santa Monica and recipe and menu analysis for restaurants nationwide. Learn more at www.eatwelldailynutrition.com.

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