Become a grill expert with this simple summer meal

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Summer appetites tend to summon extremes in Sonoma County, especially if you are charged with taming the grill.

Barbecue masters need to know the techniques for searing food quickly on direct heat as well as tenderizing meat on more mild, indirect heat, in the same way that residents need to layer in order to accommodate the blazing, mid-day sun as well as the foggy evenings.

After work, the brash heat of the gas grill provides an ideal environment for a quick dinner of grilled chicken and corn. But on weekends, the long, slow, smoke of charcoal, simmering under racks of tender ribs and tri-tips, provides a more gentle climate and deeper flavors.

That’s why Chef Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins Cooking School in Sonoma is proud to own both a charcoal and a gas grill to meet every fiery challenge.

“If you’re cooking something long and slow, you can’t beat charcoal,” she said. “If you come home from work and want to cook a steak? And veggies? Use a gas grill.”

During the class on Easy Outdoor Entertaining, Lavagetto shared a grilled, Mediterranean menu that was perfectly suited to the summer bounty and climate of the North Bay: Grilled Tomato Gazpacho, Green Olive & Almond Bruschetta, Grilled Smoky Eggplant Salad, Summer Paella with Shrimp and Sausage and Grilled Peaches & Pound Cake with Red Wine Sauce.

“The gazpacho is fun and easy to make, and you can make it ahead of time,” she said. “The secret is good tomatoes, and I like the plum tomatoes.”

The Smoky Eggplant Salad, piled high with greens and finished with Manchego cheese and a drizzle of tomato vinaigrette, makes a perfect starter for a dog-days dinner party.

The Summer Paella, cooked on the grill as well as the stove top, is perfect for people with limited grill space. The vegetables are grilled, then added to the rice mixture simmering indoors on a stove. Then the shrimp, clams and sausage are also grilled separately from the rice.

“The bomba rice from Spain is specific to paella,” Lavagetto said. “You toss it with the olives and peas, then add the grilled seafood and the sausage on top.”

As a rich and decadent delicious dessert, the class grilled peach halves and served them with slices of the pound cake that Elvis Presley’s mom used to make.

“A few years ago, I did a class on Remembering Elvis, and I did a lot of research on how his mother cooked,” Lavagetto said. “It’s the best pound cake I’ve ever made.”

The grilling basics

During the class, students learned how to grill on the outdoor gas grill, the Weber Kettle charcoal grill as well as the Big Green Egg, a ceramic, kamado-style charcoal barbecue cooker that serves as a grill, oven and smoker.

Modeled after the ancient clay cooking vessels of China, India and Japan, the versatile cookers were discovered by Ed Fisher, an American serviceman stationed overseas, who started importing them, then opened the first Green Egg Store store in Atlanta in 1974.

“It’s incredibly easy to use,” Lavagetto said. “There’s a door below for air. Then there’s a chimney at top, to adjust the oxygen intake. The more oxygen, the hotter it becomes. When you are done, you close it down, and you can reuse the charcoal.”

A little less versatile but much more affordable, the Weber Original Kettle is also a breeze to master. For indirect cooking, you simply put an aluminum foil pan on one side, and charcoal on the other. You sear the meat over the charcoal, and then move it to the indirect heat side.

“I do not recommend mesquite charcoal for the Weber,” Lavagetto said. “It burns too hot. And don’t ever buy lighter fluid — use a chimney charcoal lighter.”

Indirect cooking is also possible on a gas grill by placing the heat on either one side or both sides of the food.

“The elements of a gas grill should go perpendicular to the front of the grill,” she said. “That way you can cook indirectly on one side.”

To cook on indirect heat, preheat one or two burners, then sear a thicker, tougher piece of meat on both sides. When the outside is seared, move the meat over to the unlit burners to cook low and slow for a longer period of time.

For extra flavor, you can put wood chip packets in a gas grill, or place them directly in the charcoal of a Big Green Egg or Weber kettle.

To test whether the meat is done, there is a touch test you can learn by touching the fleshy base of your palm under your thumb. A flat hand will give easily, similar to when the meat is raw. When you pinch your index and thumb together it will be firmer, which is similar to rare meat. Touch your middle finger to your thumb, and that feels like a medium rare steak. Ring finger to thumb is medium-well, and pinky to thumb is well-done.

Still unsure? “One of the best things you can have is a really good meat thermometer,” Lavagetto said. “I recommend the Thermex or Oxo.”


Grilled Tomato Gazpacho

Makes 6 1-cup servings

2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes

1 small red bell pepper

1 English cucumber, peeled and seeded, divided

½ cup torn fresh or day-old country bread (crusts removed)

1 small clove garlic

2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

¼ teaspoon hot Spanish paprika or pinch of cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat grill to medium- high.

Grill tomatoes and bell pepper, turning a few times, until they soften and the skins are blistered and charred in spots, about 8 minutes. Transfer the pepper to a plastic bag and let it steam until cool enough to handle. Peel off the skin; cut the pepper in half and discard the stem and seeds. Place one half in a blender. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, core and roughly chop. Add the tomatoes, skins and all, to the blender.

Add half the cucumber to the blender along with the bread, garlic, vinegar to taste, parsley, paprika or cayenne, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Add oil and blend until well combined. Refrigerate until room temperature or chilled, at least 1 hour.

Before serving, finely dice the remaining cucumber and bell pepper; stir half of each into the gazpacho and garnish with the remaining cucumber and bell pepper.

Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Stir to recombine and garnish just before serving.


Green Olive & Almond Spread for Bruschetta

Makes 1/2 cup or 6 appetizer servings

½ cup pitted briny green olives

¼ cup Marcona almonds or other almonds, toasted

1 teaspoon fresh tarragon (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 baguette

Combine olives, almonds, tarragon and lemon juice in a food processor. Pulse until roughly chopped. Add oil in a steady stream and process just until the oil is absorbed. (Alternately, finely chop the olives, almonds and tarragon by hand and combine with lemon juice and oil in a medium bowl.)

The spread should have a coarse but easily spoonable texture. Let stand for about 30 minutes for the flavor to develop. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Lightly slice and toast the bread and top with olive spread. Serve immediately.


Grilled Smoky Eggplant Salad

Makes 6 servings

2 small eggplants (about 1 pound total)

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

— Olive oil cooking spray

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 small plum tomato, diced

1 small clove garlic, chopped

1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika

3 cups mixed baby salad greens

2 ounces Manchego cheese, cut into thin curls with a vegetable peeler

Preheat grill to medium.

Cut stripes in each eggplant’s peel by running a vegetable peeler down the length of it and repeating at about 1-inch intervals. Slice the eggplants into rounds ⅓ to ½-inch thick. Lay them on a baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with ½ teaspoons salt. Let stand for about 5 minutes.

Blot the eggplant slices with paper towels and lightly coat both sides with olive oil spray. Grill the eggplant, flipping halfway through, until soft and caramelized on both sides, 9 to 11 minutes total.

Puree oil, vinegar, tomato, garlic, paprika and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt in a blender until well combined.

Toss salad greens with half the vinaigrette in a medium bowl. Arrange the eggplant slices on six salad plates. Drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette. Place the salad greens over and between the eggplant slices, then scatter the cheese curls on top of each salad. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Summer Paella

Makes 6 servings

1 green bell pepper

1 red or orange bell pepper

1 small red onion, sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds

— Olive oil cooking spray

3/4 pound raw shrimp (21-25 per pound), peeled and deveined, tails left on

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 scant teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups short-grain white rice, such as bomba, Valencia or arborio

12 hard-shell clams, such as cherrystones or mussels

10 ounces raw spicy turkey or chicken sausage links

½ cup frozen baby peas

¼ cup halved, pitted briny black olives

¼ cup halved, pitted briny green olives

¼ cup minced fresh parsley

Preheat grill to medium-high.

Grill bell peppers, turning occasionally, until softened and charred in spots, about 8 minutes. Coat onion slices lightly with olive oil spray and grill, flipping once, until slightly softened and beginning to caramelize, about 2 minutes per side.

Transfer the peppers to a plastic bag and let it steam until cool enough to handle. Peel off the skins; discard the stems and seeds. Chop the peppers and onion.

Thread shrimp onto three 12-inch skewers. Lightly coat with olive oil spray.

Heat oil in a 13-inch paella pan or large, high- sided skillet over medium heat. Add the bell peppers, onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in broth, saffron and salt; bring to a boil. Add rice, stir just to combine and spread to form a thin, even layer in the pan. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook the rice, uncovered for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, gently fold the outside portions of rice into the center of the pan to ensure even cooking. Continue simmering, without stirring, until the rice looks dry and is just tender (it will still be a little toothsome) about 10 minutes more. Watch carefully and be prepared to shift the pan partially off the burner as necessary to keep the rice cooking at the same rate and prevent burning.

Meanwhile, place the skewered shrimp, clams (or mussels) and sausage on the grill. Grill the shrimp until firm and pink, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove from the skewers and place in a large bowl. Grill the clams (or mussels) until their shells pop open, 2 to 4 minutes total. (Discard any clams or mussels that don’t open.) Add to the bowl with the shrimp, keeping them level to avoid losing their juices. Grill the sausage, turning occasionally, until cooked through, 10 to 14 minutes. When cool enough to handle, thinly slice and add to the bowl with the seafood.

When the rice is done, remove from the heat, cover with a lid or heavy kitchen towel and let stand for 5 minutes. Gently stir in peas and black and green olives. Scatter the sausage and seafood plus any accumulated juices over the rice and sprinkle with parsley.


To make this cake, you will need a 10-inch tube pan (4½ inches deep, not with a removable bottom) or a 10-inch bundt pan (3¼ inches deep and 3-quart capacity.)

Best Pound Cake

Makes 10 to 12 servings

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for buttering pan

3 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring) plus additional for dusting

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 cups sugar

7 large eggs, at room temperature for 30 minutes

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup heavy cream

Put oven rack in middle position but do not preheat oven. Generously butter pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess flour.

Sift together sifted flour (3 cups) and salt into a bowl.

Repeat sifting into another bowl (flour will have been sifted 3 times total.)

Beat together butter (2 sticks) and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment or 6 to 8 minutes with a hand-held mixer.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add half of the flour, then all of the cream, then remaining flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down side of bowl, then beat at medium-high speed for 5 minutes. Batter will become creamier and satiny.

Spoon batter into pan and rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles. Place pan in (cold) oven and turn oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering, about 1 to 1¼ hours. Cool cake in pan on a rack for 20-30 minutes.

Run a thin knife around inner and outer edges of cake, then invert rack over pan and invert cake onto rack to cool completely.


Grilled Peaches & Pound Cake with Red Wine Sauce

Makes 6 servings

1 cup fruity red wine, such as merlot or shiraz

1 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons Triple Sec or other orange-flavored liqueur

2 tablespoons brandy

1-2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

6 ripe but firm medium peaches, peeled and halved

6 slices pound cake (1 inch thick)

Combine wine and orange juice in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until reduced to ½ cup, 15 to 20 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium-low and stir in Triple Sec (or other orange liqueur), brandy and 1 tablespoon sugar. Simmer until the sugar dissolves and flavors combine, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in lemon juice.

Taste and stir in remaining sugar if needed for a pleasantly sweet but not cloying sauce.

Preheat grill to medium. Oil the grill rack.

Brush peaches lightly with 2 tablespoons of the wine sauce, reserving the rest. Transfer the peaches and cake slices to the grill.

Grill the cake over indirect heat or the coolest part of the grill until lightly toasted, about 1 minute per side.

Grill the peaches over direct heat until softened and browned in spots, 3 to 5 minutes per side. In the last minute of grilling, brush the peaches with 2 tablespoons more of the wine sauce.

Arrange 1 cake slice and 2 peach halves on each dessert plate and drizzle with the remaining sauce. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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