Whether using charcoal or gas, Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield makes the most of the season’s bounty with his imaginatively delicious summer cookout ideas.
Chef Steven Satterfield appreciates the fatty sizzle of a quick-seared ribeye and the slow-smoked succulence of a bark-encrusted pork shoulder as much as the next carnivore. But what really gets him fired up is a summer cookout starring the season’s bounty.
“Grilling is a great way to impart a meaty, umami flavor to vegetables, especially if you’re using wood or charcoal,” says the chef of Atlanta’s Miller Union, whose honed knack for coaxing maximum flavor from the local harvest has helped earn him three James Beard Award nominations.
Even when Satterfield is off duty, he is a familiar face at neighborhood farmers markets, where he’s accustomed to planning menus on the spot for casual get-togethers based on whatever beckons from the vendors’ booths. Once he’s gathered his produce, he figures out the protein and other ingredients he’ll need to flesh out the meal.
Following Mother Nature’s cues—rather than a shopping list—stirs his creativity and rewards his senses. But more than that, it allows him to honor the hard work of the growers while contributing to the health of the planet he serves and the bodies he feeds. That’s the philosophy he preaches in his restaurant, at public events, and on every page of his first book, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, released this past spring.
This strategy works especially well for outdoor entertaining during the peak of summer, when fresh-picked options are most plentiful. Satterfield has two grills in his backyard—one charcoal and the other gas—and he often employs them both so he can cook the entire meal, vegetables and all, while enjoying cocktails with guests on the deck.
“For flavor, you can’t beat wood or charcoal,” he says. “But you need to be more organized and ready to start cooking as soon as your grill reaches the ideal temperature. Once the heat’s gone, it’s gone. Gas gives you more control and freedom to walk away if you need to.”
He will more likely use gas to grill a pizza (to minimize the risk of burning), or a large item like a whole eggplant, which needs more time and space to cook until tender enough to peel and purée. Using gas for these particular parts of the meal frees up the charcoal grill for quick-seared items such as okra, halved peaches, or most any sliced vegetable—from summer squash to onions.
Adding wood to the fire provides another layer of nuance. “I’m least drawn to mesquite,” he says. “That to me is more of a Texas barbecue flavor. Apple and hickory are more my taste. They are more Southeastern. I really like pecan wood, though it can be hard to find.”
One rule he’s adamant about: “I never, ever use lighter fluid. It has a chemical flavor that doesn’t go away.”
There are few fruits and vegetables, he says, that don’t benefit from a hint—or a full blast—of smoky flavor. Denser vegetables such as eggplant and summer squash are naturals, but even those you’d normally expect to find in the salad bowl, like cucumbers, can take the heat.
Satterfield continues to put his grill to work even as the coals are dying down. He halves fresh, ripe tomatoes, sets them on the grate, and closes the lid long enough for them to absorb enough residual smoke to add a surprising layer of flavor to a quick, puréed soup.
“While you’re cleaning up from Saturday’s cookout, Sunday’s lunch is already figured out.”