New twists on grilling to kick off summer from chef Kathy Gunst

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Grilled cod with basil on a lemon and scallion 'bed' (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Grilled cod with basil on a lemon and scallion 'bed' (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Memorial Day weekend means the summer season has officially started and, if you’re anything like me, you want to hold on to every last second of it. This holiday has also become the beginning of the grilling season, a time to cook and eat outside, and focus on meals that are fresh, seasonal and simple.

Sure you can always cook up a burger or a hot dog, chicken or steak, but I decided to take a look at a few of these favorites and give them a new twist.

The first recipe focuses on grilled chicken. But in this new spin, I rely on Asian ingredients to marinate and flavor boneless chicken thighs – ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and chili paste. The marinade is simmered down and acts as a dipping sauce for the chicken. This is an interactive dish where the chicken is grilled and then thinly sliced and served with bowls of lettuce leaves, peanuts, fresh cilantro and mint, grated carrot and lightly pickled cucumber. Everyone creates their own chicken wraps using the lettuce leaves as the wrapper.

The second dish is for whole eggplant that is grilled until it blackens and deflates. It’s then peeled and served on a cumin and cinnamon-scented tomato sauce and topped with spiced yogurt, toasted walnuts, and scallions. The dish is an ideal main course for vegetarians (or anyone who loves eggplant). It can be served as a side dish to grilled meats and fish.

And finally a new technique for grilling particularly tender cuts of fish. Lemon slices and scallions create a “bed” for cod (or any other fish) so the fish doesn’t come into direct contact with the fire. The result is a moist piece of fish with a beautiful lemon flavor.

Asian-inspired grilled chicken lettuce wraps

Asian-inspired grilled chicken lettuce wraps, (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Asian-inspired grilled chicken lettuce wraps, (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

This is an interactive food, ideal for a summer gathering. Boneless chicken thighs are marinated in a rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic and soy sauce mixture and then grilled. The marinade is simmered down and used as a dipping sauce. The chicken is thinly sliced and served with bowls of mint, cilantro, peanuts, pickled cucumbers, and steamed rice with lettuce leaves as a wrap. Everyone wraps their own chicken “sandwich” in the lettuce leaves and adds their own toppings.


The chicken and marinade:

  • ½ cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon chili paste, hot pepper sauce or dried chili flakes, depending on how spicy or mild you like it
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce, optional
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs

The lettuce wraps and toppings:

  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut lengthwise and then into ½-inch pieces cut on the diagonal
  • 1 ½ tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup white or brown rice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint, plus ⅓ cup fresh whole mint leaves
  • 1 large carrot, grated, about 1 packed cup
  • 1 cup salted peanuts
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • About 12 large soft lettuce leaves, like bibb or red leaf lettuce


  1. Make the marinade: in a small saucepan heat the vinegar and sugar and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is fully dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the garlic, ginger and chili paste. Let cool.
  2. Meanwhile, place the chicken into a non-reactive large bowl and toss with the soy sauce, sesame oil and fish sauce, if using. When the vinegar is room temperature, mix it into the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
  3. Meanwhile get the garnishes ready: place the cucumber in a small bowl and toss with the vinegar, salt, pepper, and 1 tablespoon chopped mint. Set aside for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
  4. Make the rice according to the package and your choice of white or brown rice.
  5. Place the peanuts, grated carrots, whole mint leaves, and cilantro in small bowls or on a large platter alongside the pickled cucumbers. Place the lettuce leaves on a large plate.
  6. Preheat the grill to around 400 degrees. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the marinade in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer for 8 minutes. Let cool in the refrigerator.
  7. Grill the chicken on the hot grill for around 6 to 7 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the thigh. Remove, let cool for a minute, and then thinly slice on the diagonal.
  8. To serve: everyone takes a lettuce leaf and fills it with a bit of rice, chicken slices, and toppings. The lettuce leaf can be folded over like a taco and served with the cooled marinade as a dipping sauce. Serves 4.


Middle Eastern-inspired grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and spiced yogurt

Middle Eastern-inspired grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and spiced yogurt. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Middle Eastern-inspired grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and spiced yogurt. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Here’s the trick with this dish: a whole large eggplant is grilled on a hot grill (charcoal or gas) and the skin acts as a kind of wrap to protect the flesh of the eggplant. When it’s fully cooked the eggplant will be blackened and deflated and feel totally soft when tested with your fingers or a small sharp knife.

The grilled eggplant is peeled and quartered and served on a spiced tomato sauce. It’s then topped with yogurt and scallions and toasted walnuts and fresh dill sprigs. The whole dish can be made ahead of time and assembled just before serving. Although it can be served hot, the dish is best served at room temperature, particularly if it’s a hot summer day.


The tomato sauce:

  • 2 cups canned tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Dash red chile flakes or hot pepper sauce to taste

The walnuts and yogurt:

  • ½ cup walnut halves
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

The eggplant:

  • 1 large eggplant, about 1 to 1 ½ pounds
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
  • Handful fresh dill sprigs, optional
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters


  1. Make the tomato sauce: in a medium saucepan stir together the tomato sauce, cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper and chili flakes and place over low heat until simmering. Set aside.
  2. Toast the walnuts: in a medium skillet set over moderate heat, toast the walnuts for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until you can smell them and they begin to turn a slightly darker color. Remove and coarsely chop; set aside.
  3. Make the yogurt: place the yogurt in a fine meshed strainer for about 15 minutes to thicken. Place in a bowl and mix in the lemon juice, scallions, salt and pepper to taste; set aside.
  4. Grill the eggplant: heat a charcoal or gas grill until hot, about 400 to 425 degrees. Place the eggplant whole (do not trim it) on the hot grill and grill for about 20 to 28 minutes, pushing it from side to side every 5 minutes or so, or until the skin is blackened and the eggplant has deflated. It may look overcooked but it’s not. The skin will crack when it’s done and when you gently press on the skin the eggplant should feel soft everywhere. Remove from the grill and cool for 5 minutes. Carefully peel off the blackened skin and discard. Cut the eggplant down the center lengthwise and then cut each half in half lengthwise; you should have 4 long strips.
  5. To serve: place the tomato sauce on a large platter. Top with the eggplant strips. Spoon the yogurt across the middle of the eggplants. Spoon the olive oil over the eggplants and then sprinkle with the toasted walnuts and scallions. Season with salt and pepper and place the lemon wedges around the edge of the platter. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.

Grilled cod with basil on a lemon and scallion 'bed'

Grilled cod with basil on a lemon and scallion 'bed' (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Grilled cod with basil on a lemon and scallion 'bed' (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

This is a great way to grill delicate types of fish that tend to fall apart on the grill. The technique can be used for virtually any type of fish, but you’ll need to alter the grilling time depending on the thickness, freshness, and type of fish you use. This recipe focuses on cod, a moist white-fleshed fish available in much of the country. I’ve also tried this with swordfish, bluefish, halibut and other types of fish. The fish is rubbed with olive oil and topped with tender basil leaves. Thin slices of lemon are placed directly on the grill, topped with long pieces of scallion and the fish is placed on top of the lemon and scallion so it grills but doesn’t come into direct contact with the fire. The result is a moist, lemony piece of fish.


  • 1 pound cod or other fish, see note above, about 1 to 1 ½ inches thick*
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • About 5 to 10 basil leaves, depending on the size
  • 1 large or 2 small lemons, cut into fairly thin slices
  • 3 scallions, ends trimmed and cut into 4 inch pieces

*Ask your fishmonger for a thick piece of fish. If it’s thin it is more likely to fall apart on the grill.


  1. Place a grill rack (used for vegetables or fish) on top of your grill grates. Light the fire, charcoal or gas, until hot about 400 degrees.
  2. Rub the fish on both sides with the olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Gently press the basil leaves on top of the fish, leaving the leaves whole or cut in half.
  3. When the fire is ready, fan the lemon slices out directly on the grill rack and place the scallions on top. You want to create a “bed” for the fish so the lemons and scallions arrangement on the grill needs to be as long and wide as the fish is. Place the cod, with the basil leaves on top, on top of the scallions, gently pressing down so it’s stable. Close the lid and grill for about 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. If you place a kitchen fork into the center of the fish it should feel cooked through and almost flaking. You want the fish to just flake without falling apart. Using a wide spatula remove the lemons, scallions, and fish onto a serving plate. Serves 2 to 3.

Find more favorite grilling recipes and tips:

This segment aired on May 30, 2022.


Headshot of Kathy Gunst

Kathy Gunst Resident Chef, Here & Now
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.



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