– GOOD WOOD

TO SEE ALL of the flavors sold by Maine Grilling Woods and check out some recipes, go to mainegrillingwoods.comCHEF JOHN CROATTI, also known as “Big Grill Johnny,” shares his favorite barbecue sauce recipe. To see Croatti in action, tune into the premier of “GrillSeekers” at 8:30 p.m. June 7 on Comcast SportsNet.

BIG GRILL JOHNNY’S BBQ SAUCE

Makes 1 1/2 quarts

INGREDIENTS

2 medium onions

3 cloves fresh garlic

1 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 cup your favorite bottled steak sauce

1/2 cup honey

1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

1 ounce fresh ginger

1/4 cup hot sauce, optional

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup Liquid Smoke

IN A BLENDER OR FOOD processor, puree ginger, onions, garlic and vinegar until smooth. Pour into sauce pan, add remaining ingredients, and simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, or until mixture thickens. Baste cooked meats and vegetables during the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking.Grilling used to be so simple.

Just throw a few burgers and dogs over some burning coals, and that satisfied your inner caveman (or woman).

Today, home grills are as tricked out as the hottest cars, and home cooks are experimenting with flavors and techniques usually seen only in restaurants.

“I think people are getting more adventurous,” says John Croatti, also known as “Big Grill Johnny” on the cable TV show “GrillSeekers.” “There’s a lot of things happening. It’s almost like a sport, I think.”

Need some new ideas to wow your friends this weekend, the kickoff of grilling season? Here’s a look at what’s hot this year:

START WITH THE GRILL

People are investing a lot in their equipment, buying grills loaded with extra options and all the latest accessories.

Grills now come with food prep areas, multiple burners, infrared rotisseries, lights for nighttime grilling, built-in sinks and — whoever thought of this idea, we love you — cocktail bars.

Tired of scrubbing the grill after your party? Grill Daddy makes a high-end grill brush that cleans with steam.

WHAT ABOUT FUEL?

Natural charcoal is big now. Natural charcoal is made of 100 percent hardwood and does not contain the additives that you find in charcoal briquettes. It ignites easier and burns hotter.

FLAVOR FIRST

Every year the experts at McCormick — you know, the spice people — develop a “Flavor Forecast” they use to spot trends and develop new products. Here’s what they say will be the hottest flavor combinations this grilling season:

n Applewood and plum

n Cilantro and lime

n Rosemary and fig

n Chipotle and maple

n Brown sugar and bourbon

n Cinnamon and coffee

n Red chili sauce and mango

Croatti says he’s also seeing people being more adventurous with flavors.

“There’s a lot of Latin I’ve seen out there and Thai and even some Indian cuisine with cardamom and cinnamon added,” he said. “A little more exotic spices, but they still have combinations that tend toward the sweet and the smoky. I’ve seen coffee used in rubs quite a bit. It develops a nice flavor once it’s put on the meat.”

Use heavier flavors on roasts, or other meats that take longer to cook, so they will really develop a flavor profile.

“A really nice sirloin steak doesn’t need much more than kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, it’s got such a nice flavor to begin with,” Croatti said.

HAVE SOME RUM WITH THAT MOJITO MARINADE

Lots of folks sip a little something on the side while they’re flipping burgers or searing the steaks. Now grillers are using spirits in place of vinegars and other liquids. Try some bourbon-spiked pork tenderloin. Soak a cedar plank in chardonnay and then grill your salmon on it.

SPEAKING OF GRILLING PLANKS

You’ve heard of the cedar-salmon combo before. But how about grilling your meat on other kinds of wood — local woods like black cherry, wild apple, sugar maple or northern beechnut?

A Maine company offers these and six other “flavors” of wood in grilling planks, smoking logs, chunks, chips and smoking dust.

Maine Grilling Woods purchases wood from woodlots within a 20-mile radius of its facility in Brooks, just north of Belfast. None of the trees has been sprayed with pesticides, so the wood is all organic.

“We don’t buy any wood from commercial loggers,” said Kenneth Theobald, whose family owns the company. “It all comes from family-owned plots — wild apples growing along their stone walls that they want to be trimmed back.”

The grilling planks come in several sizes, from 3 by 5 to 6 by 18. They’re cut on an angle to release more of the flavor of the sap, which gives the food a more intense flavor.

Pork works well with the apple planks, beechnut is best paired with beef and game, and poultry is tasty on sugar maple, Theobald said. Acadian oak and black cherry are also great with beef.

“It’s not a cherry flavor,” Theobald said. “It’s more of a fruity flavor. The nuts like oak and beechnut would give you kind of a nutty flavor.”

Seafood works well on golden alder, and lamb is good grilled on an olive plank.

The olive wood is actually Atlantic ash, which is part of the olive family. It grows clusters of little green berries, but they are not harvested as olives. Still, the olive plank is “very popular because it does have the same smoke flavor and the same taste as a Middle Eastern olive tree,” Theobald said.

Theobald says his customers experiment not only with different meats on different woods, but they try soaking their planks in different liquids to add flavor. Soaking a plank in apple juice or apple cider, for instance, intensifies the wild apple sap flavor when grilling pork. Or try soaking beechnut planks in beer and using them to grill sausages and peppers.

“The thing I like about plank cooking,” Theobald says, ” is that you can’t screw it up.”

LOTS OF COURSES, OF COURSE

More grillmasters are showing they are truly masters of their domain by cooking entire meals on their grills.

They start with an appetizer of grilled flatbread, pizza or foccacia, then move on to a grilled vegetable antipasto.

For entrees, Croatti said, “everybody’s stepping away from the burger and the hot dog, even though those are probably still the most popular items.”

What’s in is cooking a whole roast, prime rib, turkey or chicken on the grill using indirect heat. Start by searing the exterior of the meat. Keep one side of the grill on high heat, and move the meat to the side with lower heat. Close the lid and let the grill act as an oven.

FOR DESSERT? GRILL SOME FRUIT

Grilled fruit has made its way from restaurant menus to backyard grills.

It’s being pureed for marinades — pineapple is a great tenderizer — and used in salsas and relishes.

Strawberries, mangos and bananas are good right on the grill. Croatti has even seen bacon-wrapped bananas.

“The bacon kind of takes over,” he said, “but the banana gives it its sweetness.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]