A Griller Gets Grilled

Borgna and his Kingsford Patio 2.Photo: Katherine Wolkoff

Dr. Adriano Borgna is more than a practicing grilling enthusiast—you might say he’s an open-flame obsessive. Borgna doesn’t just fire up the Kingsford on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. He grills year-round—three or four times a week in the garden of his Barrow Street townhouse during the summer, and in the fireplace during the winter. Grilling comes naturally to Borgna: He grew up in Orvieto, Italy, where cooking in the kitchen fireplace was a regular occurrence (the garden and fireplace were two main reasons Borgna chose his current home nine years ago). Grilling also dovetails with Borgna’s health beliefs. As a general practitioner turned holistic doctor, he likes the technique’s emphasis on fresh ingredients (he favors organic) cooked with minimal interference. To put Borgna’s skills to the test, and to help would-be Borgnas sharpen their own technique, we asked Borgna to prepare a multicourse meal and to let grilling guru and New York restaurateur Bobby Flay (Bar Americain, Mesa Grill) watch—and critique. The result is a grilling master class that can help even a seasoned cook hone his technique.

The Menu
Borgna planned his meal around the grill, but decided to serve most of it at room temperature, which put less pressure on him to deliver multiple courses piping hot while tending to easy-to-burn food over an open flame. Using organic meat and vegetables, he decided to make marinated crudités wrapped in thinly sliced flank steak, sardines with fresh herbs, and sausages in focaccia to start, followed by chicken alla diavola and grilled vegetables as a main course, plus a green salad with grilled-garlic vinaigrette. For dessert, there are warm sugar-stuffed peaches. “I always think seasonally,” he says, “and I like to serve a variety.” Hence, the sardines, chicken, and sausages are all Tuscan: “The flank steak I learned to cook here,” Borgna says. The idea of wrapping steak around the thinly sliced crudités was inspired by Borgna’s love of sushi.

Why such a feast? Technically, this meal was just for his wife, Michelle Stein, and the couple’s two children, Oliviero, 15, and Alida, 13, but Borgna cooked as if he were having a dinner party. “When friends come over, I like to cook up a storm to make it look opulent, and I like to have leftovers for my family the next day. It’s a tradition I learned from my mother and grandmother.”

Flay: Typically, American grillers cook hamburgers, then move on to bell peppers and onions. Europeans have a different sensibility: I get the sense Adriano grew up in a household surrounded by food, where they used an abundance of ingredients. People always love chicken, and he’s doing it a different way. Most Americans would cut the chicken into quarters and smother it with barbecue sauce; he’s butterflied it and marinated it for a crisp skin. The flank steak is a little off the beaten path, but Adriano got his inspiration from his love of Japanese food. I love the fact that he’s grilling leeks; in this country, they’re used only for soup. This is a well-balanced, simple menu of local food and things Adriano seems comfortable cooking.

Adriano Borgna’s Barrow Street Barbecue
Crudités in flank steak mini-rolls
Mixed sausages and focaccia with seasoned drippings
BBQ sardines

Chicken alla diavola

Grilled plum tomatoes
Grilled onions and leeks
Green salad with grilled-garlic vinaigrette

Grilled sugar-stuffed white peaches

Photo: Katherine Wolkoff

The Prep Work
The night before, Borgna wrote out the menu to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything and to work out the order of cooking. He marinated the steak and chicken and soaked the wooden skewers for the sardines in wine. “It keeps the skewers from burning and gives flavor to the fish. Use white—red stains,” he says. He also julienned the crudités and stored them in an airtight container.

Two hours before he started cooking, Borgna drained the marinated beef and let it air-dry: “If it’s too wet, it won’t sear,” he says. About an hour before lighting the grill, Borgna put the onions, leeks, and tomatoes in grill baskets, then skewered each sardine and stuffed them with garlic and herbs. He coiled the Italian pork sausages in a spiral and threaded them and the merguez sausages onto flat skewers; wrapped a couple of heads of garlic in foil; prepared the vinaigrette and set it aside in a jar; cut the peaches, removed the pits, stuffed them with sugar, and wrapped them in parchment paper and aluminum foil (he doesn’t like food to come in contact with foil while it’s cooking, “because heat releases aluminum into the food,” he says). His plan was to grill the dishes to be served at room temperature first, so they would be ready to snack on. “This is summer food,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be piping hot.” The chicken would go last. “I start that when the guests arrive,” Borgna says. “It cooks over indirect heat, so it doesn’t need the same kind of attention. Then I can relax, have a glass of wine, and join the conversation.”

Flay: “It’s great that Adriano has prepared everything ahead of time. He’s organized, he’s made lots of lists, and he’s prioritized the prep work. It’s not a good idea to experiment too much when you grill for a big group; save trying out new dishes for when it’s just you and a friend. I once put too many chickens on the grill trying to cook fast for a big bunch of people, doused the birds with oil over the high heat, which I would never do now, and closed the lid. The whole thing went up in flames.”

The Gear
Borgna uses a well-seasoned four-year-old oval Kingsford Patio 2 charcoal grill. The cooking space accommodates multiple items much better than a round grill, he says, and he likes the swinging-door grate. “You don’t have to remove the whole grate when you want to add charcoal,” he says. “You just push the food to the sides, lift the part in the middle that opens, and add the new coals.” He prefers an old grill to a new one. “The more you cook with the same grill, the more familiar you become with hot spots and the way it cooks.” His fuel of choice is Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Hardwood Charcoal. “It’s not chemically treated, and it’s environmentally correct because the trees aren’t cut specially to make charcoal.”

For turning the steak, he used a long-handled chef’s fork because he likes the way it pierces large pieces of meat, but he used long-handled tongs or a metal spatula “for anything more fragile.” He used two chimney starters, metal canisters with wire-mesh bottoms, to prepare and hold the hot coals, and cleaned the grill at the start with a brass-wire brush. He kept a tough pair of long leather gloves nearby for handling the chimneys, and he was covered to his knees with a long apron. “Chimney starters get hot,” he says, “and they can topple.”

Flay: Borgna’s grill has no bells and whistles; it’s basically an oval kettle with a grate. That proves you don’t necessarily need the most expensive piece of equipment, especially if you’re using charcoal. A grill, a pair of tongs, a brass brush, the chimney starters, and a spatula are basically all you need.

Many people think poking a hole in the steak with a fork is taboo, but the general rule is to stick the fork in the end of the meat where it won’t matter so much. Don’t pierce the middle, though, or you’ll lose the natural juices.

The chimney starter is the greatest $17 investment ever—it makes your life so easy. The long, narrow shape draws the heat up, which lights the charcoal quickly and evenly, without lighter fluid. Lighter fluid is out of the question—the food will taste of chemicals. I like hardwood charcoal because it has a clear flavor and a more intense heat than briquettes, although it burns faster. It’s also better for you than briquettes. Eighty percent of the market is buying gas grills today—all you have to do is press a button and turn a knob—but the flavor isn’t the same.

Borgna's herb-stuffed sardines. Photo: Katherine Wolkoff

The Setup
Before he lit a single match, Borgna moved his Kingsford well away from anything flammable. In New York, people tend to grill in tight spaces. “Grilling generates intense vertical heat—if you’re under a tree, the leaves wilt,” he says. He put the garden hose uncoiled nearby, and suggested having a fire extinguisher on hand, “especially if you grill indoors.” Borgna lined up the raw food on a long table to one side and made sure there were separate clean platters for the cooked food. He placed salt, pepper, and a bottle fitted with a drizzling spout and filled with olive oil within easy reach. Borgna doesn’t like to drink while he cooks, but he keeps a glass of wine nearby and pretends to sip it, so that guests feel welcome to indulge.

Flay: The secret to successful grilling is to be well prepared, and Adriano seems to have thought of just about everything. There’s nothing worse than having to dash into the house every few minutes, leaving the grill unattended. Things happen very quickly, and you could have a flare-up or overcook something. Bacteria is a problem when you have raw and cooked food in close proximity. By using fresh platters to land the cooked food, Adriano ensures there’s no contamination. Salt, pepper, and olive oil, along with the tongs and spatula, should be part of your everyday grilling equipment. Some food needs to be seasoned before and while it’s grilling, and the vegetables need to be drizzled with oil when they’re right off the grill, because the pores are open to absorb it. Regarding Adriano’s wine trick, he has more self-control than I do; I’d be drinking.

The Coals
Borgna prepared the two chimney starters by stuffing newspaper into the base and filling each with charcoal. Then he opened the grill’s top grate, set one chimney on the lower grate, and lit the base. When the coals were hot, he set the second chimney on top of the first, so the rising heat would light it. After ten minutes, the coals in the bottom chimney were ready. Borgna set the second chimney on the concrete. Every fifteen minutes or so while he was cooking, he lit another chimney to be sure there were enough coals ready to keep the fire hot.

Flay: I like his chain-lighting technique; having hot charcoal prepared and handy gives you continuous cooking. If you add cold charcoal to the grill, it takes ten to fifteen minutes for the fire to come to temperature again, which can ruin any food you’re trying to sear—the surface turns gray and it gets overcooked in the middle.

The main meal: chicken alla diavola, green salad with grilled-garlic vinaigrette, and grilled vegetables. Photo: Katherine Wolkoff

Cooking: Stage One
Wearing his long leather gloves, Borgna emptied the hot charcoal from the first chimney into the grill and arranged it to form a long, narrow ridge with the top coals two to three inches from the grate, to sear the steak. Before putting the meat on, he says, “I always close the lid for five minutes to build up intense heat. Then, anything that’s there burns off and can be brushed away.” He ran the brass brush quickly over the grate, then dipped a handful of paper towels in olive oil and wiped the grate to prevent sticking. Borgna seared the flank steak for a few minutes on each side, and set it on a platter over a pair of crossed chopsticks—that allows the meat to cool on both sides and not sit in its own juices, which would make the crust soggy. He then spread the coals into an even layer to reduce the heat, and put the foil-wrapped garlic at the back of the grill and the basket of leeks and onions toward the front. He let the vegetables sit two to three minutes until the edges started to crisp, then turned the basket and closed the lid to let the vegetables cook through, about three more minutes.

Flay: Adriano’s doing a great job of managing the temperature to suit the dish he’s cooking. There really is no substitute for experience when you’re cooking over charcoal. You have to know about high and medium direct heat as well as indirect heat. People have a tendency to overcook when they grill, but Adriano did the steak perfectly.

Food continues to cook when you’ve removed it from the heat, so if you think it’s done, take it off. Touch the food—a rare steak will have a lot of give in the middle and feel like a soft pillow. It gets firmer as it cooks; when it gets too well done, it feels like a piece of wood. With chicken, you should see the juices run clear; if they don’t, put it back on the grill. It’s a good idea to let meat rest for a few minutes before you slice it; the muscles relax and the juices cool down, so you get moist, juicy meat.

The key to getting great color and caramelization on vegetables is to turn them just once. Flipping all the time breaks up the food. Adriano’s leeks look a little charred, which I like; discard the outer leaf, and the inside is tender, with a smoky flavor. It’s smart to use a basket. Everything cooks evenly, and the vegetables don’t fall through the grate. I don’t use one; I just oil the vegetables and throw them on, but I get about 15 percent attrition with my method.

Cooking: Stage Two
Borgna arranged the peaches next to the garlic and put the tomatoes in the basket, cut side down for the first four to five minutes. When those were done (about ten minutes), he brushed the grill, lifted the grate, and poured in another chimney of coals—the sausages were next, and he needed a hotter fire. After a minute or two, the sausages began to cook, and he pressed focaccia on top of them (he repeated this two or three times). “It’s a quick way to release the juices into the bread, and the less grease that drips onto the coals, the less flare-up you’ll have,” he says. After five minutes, he removed the sausages and sandwiched them between layers of bread.

The sardines went on next. Borgna closed the lid for more intense heat, and turned the fish once during their five minutes of cooking. He took the garlic and peaches off at the same time as the fish; when the garlic had cooled, he squeezed the cloves into the vinaigrette and gave the mixture a good shake. The peaches stayed in the foil until they were ready to serve.

Flay: My mouth is watering! The skewers make it so easy to handle the sausages, as opposed to turning them individually. It’s also smart to stuff the rosemary inside the sardines so the fish pick up the aromatics, and the skewers make them as easy to handle as finger food. I like Adriano’s technique of squeezing the sausage juices into the bread to maximize the flavor. Americans don’t do that sort of thing—I would have slathered the bread with oil. Wrapping the peaches was a good idea, too; it kept the integrity of the fruit, and it’s much better than putting them directly on the grate—the high sugar content tends to make them burn and stick.

Cooking: Stage Three
Borgna wanted to cook the chicken over indirect heat, so he lifted the grate one last time, added one last chimney, and then moved the coals to the sides, clearing the center. “It works like an oven,” Borgna says. “It allows you to cook the meat through without burning the skin.” He put the marinated butterflied chicken in the center of the grill, skin side down, and placed a “diavola”—a three-pound cast-iron weight—on top to keep the bird from curling (back in Orvieto, he’d use a well-washed brick, but he found the diavola in a kitchen-appliances store and figured he’d try it). He turned the chicken after about fifteen minutes, when the skin was golden, then swished some rosemary branches in olive oil and basted the chicken. Those sprigs then went under the diavola. About ten minutes later, he pushed more rosemary between the grill and the chicken; as it burned, the herby smoke infused the chicken with additional flavor.

Flay: Rosemary and lemon—a classic Tuscan combination. The diavola helps cook the chicken evenly, because after ten minutes, it becomes really hot. I like that Adriano cooked this indirectly; over the coals, it would have gone too fast, ending up with charred skin but raw inside. I might have grilled the lemons, flesh side down, and then squeezed them over the chicken for more lemon flavor.

The Final Appraisal
Flay: All in all, Adriano is a really smart cook. He was calm, comfortable, and in control at all times. The dishes arrived at the table without any drama—no flare-ups or dousing the grill with water bottles. He has a European sensibility that transports you back to Orvieto. He should write a book: A Tuscan in the City.

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