Grilling fires up flavor in a healthy way

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynonei

While charcoal flames burn brightly year-round in restaurant kitchens, Memorial Day weekend signals the official start of the summer grilling season.

This year, everything from wagyu beef to watermelon is hitting the grill.

“Grilling is one of the most popular preparation methods in restaurants,” said registered dietitian Joy Dubost of the National Restaurant Association, “partly because of its appeal to health-conscious consumers and its impact on enhancing the flavor of food items.”

All fired up

At the newly opened King + Duke restaurant in Buckhead, the dining room features open-hearth cooking. Chefs expertly tend hickory wood fires as they grill octopus, steaks and artichokes over high heat on one grill, and slowly roast chicken, rabbit and beets over calmer embers.

The menu describes the North Georgia brook trout as “boy scout style,” which means sauteed in a pan over the fire. Carrots, kale, eggplant, scallions and the vegetables for ratatouille are roasted on the hearth.

“Just about everything is cooked over the fire here,” King + Duke chef and restaurateur Ford Fry said. “It’s an art and a science, but the flavors are worth it.”

Why grilling is healthy

Grilling is considered a healthy cooking technique because excess fats drip off meats, lowering the total fat and calorie content. The fire concentrates flavors and adds textural contrast, so small portions are satisfying and the high heat caramelizes natural sugars in fruits and vegetables, making them taste a bit sweeter.

Registered dietitian Katie Sullivan Morford, the author of the blog Mom’s Kitchen Handbook, says there’s some concern about carcinogens in grilled meats,

“The key is to avoid burning and charring,” she said. “Research has found that using marinades as well as serving meat with antioxidant-rich vegetables helps offset the damage.”

Take these precautions and grilling can be one of the tastiest and healthiest ways to cook.

Bigger can be better

Ordering a petit filet may seem like the smartest choice for weight-conscious diners, but chef Dave Zino of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association suggests a new twist on portion control.

“Why not order a larger steak with ‘planned overs’ in mind?” Zino said. “Restaurant steaks are high-quality and fired at temps consumer grills can’t reach, so are more flavorful.”

Considering entree price per ounce, larger cuts are often more economical. Ask the server to box up the portion you want to take home, and the next day you can make a steak salad or sandwich for lunch. (Tip: Enjoy leftover grilled meats cold because reheating can create an undesirable “warmed over flavor” and make them less tender.