Meat, veggies, people benefit from flavorful marinades

Before Julie Widmer tosses anything on the grill this summer, she'll toss it in a marinade.

The Streamwood mom knows that marinades infuse flavor into shrimp, pork or whatever else she might be planning for dinner. And they also could help protect her husband and daughter from cancer that has already ravaged her appendix.

According to the National Cancer Institute, HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when muscle meat from beef, pork, poultry and fish is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. The American Institute of Cancer Research adds there is “limited, but suggestive evidence that compounds produced in meat through the grilling process factor in human cancer.”

Studies have suggested that marinating meat and fish before grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs; scientists point to antioxidants in marinades as possible HCA blockers.

Though doctors never pinpointed a cause for her cancer, Widmer can't help but wonder about all the charred meat she ate over the years. While living in Arizona after college and working as a disc jockey, she frequently fired up the grill.

“Every night of the week I was grilling. I was burning and charring my food constantly,” recalls Widmer.

Widmer now relies on marinades — for the potential health benefits and the flavor.

“Food tastes a lot better,” she says.

Food experts concur.

“A marinade can add flavor in as little as 20 to 30 minutes, and can be used on vegetables as well as meats, seafood and poultry.” says cookbook author Lucy Saunders, who wrote this year's “Dinner in the Beer Garden” and 2006's “Grilling with Beer.”

Fellow author Lucy Vaserfirer adds, “for me it's the ultimate in convenience cooking. Put something together the night before, then you just have to toss it on the grill.”

For “Marinades” (2014 Harvard Common Press), Vaserfirer came up with 200 marinades as well as suggestions for how to use them.

“In the quest for 200, I found myself really having to get creative,” she says. The book's chapters cover herb mixes, island-style marinades, Middle Eastern-influenced blends as well as marinating basics.

Still, she says, what you need for a marinade is probably already in your pantry or refrigerator. The basics include oil — she gravitates toward olive oil and canola oil — and vinegar — like red wine or a good balsamic.

“Lemons and limes are good to have around. And herbs. I see the herb garden as an extension of the pantry. And soy sauce ... it lends so much umami,” Vaserfirer says. “I like to use jams and jellies, what's ever in the pantry or fridge, to give fruity flavor and sugar that balances against salt or soy.”

Beer and wine, even sparkling wine, make marinades special.

“Champagne seems really special to me and has those grapefruit notes,” says Vaserfirer, who developed a Champagne-Grapefruit soak for the book. It works especially well with scallops, white fish, shrimp and chicken.

Saunders is partial to beer in marinades and adds this advice, “if adding a malty amber ale or stout to a marinade, the malts will add to the caramel color of the food, turning white onions or pale lobes of endive into gilded and browned beauties.

“I prefer milder kolsch or weissbiers for grilled fruits and tender vegetables, and brown ales or stouts for richer flavored grilled onions, eggplant or sweet potatoes,” she says. “I use fresh beer, but not the most expensive or rare beer. Very hoppy beers can make food too bitter.”

Here's another reason to use your favorite brew in a marinade that circles back to the health benefits.

A study in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry earlier this year showed beer, wine or tea marinades can reduce the levels of some PAHs in cooked meat.

Researchers grilled samples of pork marinated for four hours in pilsner beer, nonalcoholic pilsner beer or a black beer ale, and cooked to well-done on a charcoal grill. Black beer had the strongest effect, reducing the levels of eight major PAHs by more than half compared with unmarinated pork.

Seeking your favorite summer side dishes

Salad with Green Goddess-Marinated Chicken

Grapefruit-Champagne Marinade with Swordfish

Dunkel Weiss & Spice Marinade

Sunshine Chicken

Grilled Vegetable Salad

Vegetables sit in an herby marinade before hitting the grill, and then get tossed back in it for a lively summer salad. Courtesy of Jennifer Marx/from "Dinner in the Beer Garden"

Marinating mistakes

For a successful experience, experts Lucy Saunders and Lucy Vaserfirer have these tips:

• Use a locking plastic bag and press out as much air as possible. “The meat doesn't need to be floating or drowning in a gigantic quantity of marinade. It just has to be coated,” Vaserfirer says.

• Taste the marinade before you add your food, and adjust the seasonings to your liking, Saunders says. Don't taste the liquid after the meat or fish is in it.

• If your meat, fish or vegetables will soak for one hour or less, you can keep it on the counter, Vaserfirer says, erring on the side of caution. Food safety guidelines state food should not be in the danger zone — between 40 and 140 degrees where bacteria can thrive — for more than two hours.

• Don't think acid (like lemon juice or wine) will tenderize meat. “It's a general misconception,” Vaserfirer says. “A marinade enhances the flavor and paired with the correct cooking method it will not be tough.” Buttermilk and yogurt, however, do contain an enzyme that tenderizes protein, as does papaya and pineapple.

• Pat food dry before it hits the heat. Excess moisture prohibits browning.

• Reserve a few spoonfuls of the fresh marinade to use in plating, or make a double batch so you can serve it as a sauce at the table. Never brush meat with marinade that just had raw meat or fish in it. Boil the marinade first; if you cook it long enough it will reduce to a nice, flavorful glaze.

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