Grilling on a wooden plank is a lot like using a pan, except the plank has the ability to produce smoke. This method is great because it provides a stable surface to put food on while giving an authentic smoke for flavor. This is particularly good if you are grilling something delicate like fish fillets. In fact, this method was developed to accommodate fish, though you can cook a wide variety of foods using a plank.
Start with a clean untreated piece of wood, about 1 inch thick, making sure the length and width is sufficient to hold the item being grilled. Typically people use cedar, but many woods like alder, oak, maple, cherry or apple are acceptable. However, make sure the board is not chemically treated. You can buy cooking quality wood planks either online, specialty food stores, and grocery stores.
Before placing the plank on the grill, make sure to soak it in water for at least an hour. This will allow the wood to absorb as much moisture as it can, giving the time needed to get the fish completely cooked before the board starts to burn. If you notice that the board has caught fire on the grill, spray it down with water to staunch the flames, but keep in mind that it should burn a little. The smoldering of the wood is what creates the smoke and helps flavor the fish. You just don’t want the board actually on fire.
To prevent your fish from sticking to the board, very lightly brush it with cooking oil on the side that the fish will sit. There is no need to flip the fish. Plank cooking is indirect because the food is insulated from the direct heat. You do want the board exposed to the direct heat of your grill so that it can smolder. This style of grilling is a very basic process and since you won’t be flipping the fish or really doing anything to it while it cooks, this offers the opportunity to prepare other meal components like side dishes, sauces, and appetizers.
Once you have the grill burning and the planks soaked, place the fish on the board, season and place the whole thing on the grill. Because the fish is being cooked indirectly it will take longer than if it’s grilled directly. Plan on about 50% more cooking time versus regular grilling when cooking on a plank. During the cooking time you can baste the fish with lemon juice, butter, or just about anything that isn’t flammable. You don’t want to inspire the flames.
Once the fish is done, either remove the whole plank and fish with a pair of grilling mitts or slide the fish off onto a platter using a spatula. You get one use out of each plank. If using a gas grill, try to get the plank off the grill quickly because you don’t want a lot of ash falling into the grill. If you are using a charcoal grill you can just let it burn off and clear out the ashes later.
Plank grilling really is a convenient and easy way to grill. The flavors and the ease have always made this a popular method. Once you’ve given it a try you will want to grill lots of dishes on a board. You can plank grill roasts, poultry, particularly those things that require a longer grilling time. Quick items won’t gain much from the plank because they won’t be exposed to the smoke long enough to get the flavor. Also, it’s best not to plank cook items that need to be grilled hot and fast, like steaks or chops.
Cucuzza and vegetables in a Giovanni DeSimone ceramic dish
In my region of Sicily, a popular preparation for cucuzza squash is known as “ghiotta di cucuzza” which I loosely translate as a kind of cucuzza stew. This mouth-watering dish is easy to make, filling, economical and, according to all the grandmothers of Sicily, quite good for you. Cucuzza squash (also known as Zucchino Rampicante) is available now in many parts of the United States, but if you have a green thumb and lots of space you may want to try your hand at growing it. If growing your own, it is quite tempting to allow the squash to get large before harvesting, as it can reach staggering proportions sometimes larger than a baseball bat. For cooking purposes, however, it is best to harvest it while it is still somewhat small and tender, before it gets too large and goes to seed.
Start by taking a whole cucuzza squash, about 1½ pounds; wash, peel and quarter it and then chop it into large chunks and place it in cold water while you continue preparations. (If you do not have cucuzza, you can substitute zucchini or opi squash.) If your cucuzza is harvested while it is still young, you will not have to worry about seeds. If your cucuzza has gown large on the stalk, you may want to half it first and scrape the seeds before proceeding.
You will need a large red onion halved and sliced coarsely; one or two raw medium tomatoes of any variety chopped coarsely; one or two large baking potatoes peeled, quartered and chopped into large chunks and placed in cold water while continuing preparations; about ⅓ cup olive oil, along with a generous handful of freshly picked basil, salt and a small, whole Italian red chili pepper, called peperoncino to be removed later.
In a wide heavy-bottom pot, heat the olive oil and begin to sauté the onions to release their flavor. When they are limp and translucent but not browned, add the potatoes, cucuzza, tomatoes, peperoncino; stir well and continue sautéing. Cover the pot and allow it to simmer at low to medium heat, stirring often. The cucuzza will release water and the consistency will become that of a dense soup. Should it become a bit dry, just a half glass or so of water. Continue cooking for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the cucuzza and potatoes are tender to the fork. Remove the peperoncino and adjust the salt. Turn off the heat, and add the fresh whole basil leaves. I always reserve some whole basil leaves with which to garnish the bowls. This dish is eaten with crusty country-style bread and we do not add cheese to it.
My mother, who like her mother is very health conscious in her cooking, always makes this dish “in bianco,” an Italian phrase indicating that all the ingredients have been added raw, without first sautéing. The results are slightly different and I personally enjoy both versions. When cooking this dish “in bianco,” mix all the ingredients together in a pot with a small amount of water and allow to cook until tender. I like to add the olive oil raw toward the end of cooking for added flavor and health benefits. My mother also adds home-made pasta, which she cuts in short, irregular shapes and adds to the soup toward the end of cooking. My favorite pasta for this dish is a cut of pasta known as “strozzapreti” or “priest strangler”! I suggest that if you are using freshly made pasta, add it directly to the soup a few minutes before cooking is complete, as it requires very little cooking time. If using dried pasta, cook it separately, drain and mix together with the cucuzza when it has finished cooking, stir and serve.