Seasonings & Wine Pairings for a Great Summer Barbecue

May 26, 2022 | by Naomi Tomky

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Photo courtesy Willards Kitchen

After a stretch of dismal spring weather, the sun is coming out, just in time for it to hang high in the sky well into the evening – a time of year also known as barbecue season. If those months of rain have made you feel a little rusty in front for the grill or little foggy on white wine varieties, worry not: we have some great tips and recommendations from local experts.

Get Spicy

Photo courtesy Willards Kitchen

“Avoid cold food on the grill,” says Will Russell, of his best advice for good grilling. He recommends taking it out of the fridge about half an hour before you plan to cook it. And when you pull it out, he adds, is the perfect time to apply a spice rub so that it marinates and creates a nice crust. Rubs are Russell’s area of expertise, as the founder of Willards Kitchen.

He grew up on Mercer Island, learning to cook first from his mother and then, before he was even a teenager, out of a need for extra meals to fuel his many athletic endeavors. He found a place for himself as the grill-master at his UW fraternity and then in his career when he followed up an internship at El Gaucho by opening his own catering company. But within a decade, his favorite place to grill was the outfield of his own children’s baseball games, and catering hours meant less time with his family. So, he closed the catering company and spun off the spice rubs into a new business.

The simple, easy-to-use spice rubs fueled his professional kitchen as steak seasoning, the base for soups and stews, and a stand-in for smoking because his kitchen wasn’t equipped to actually smoke anything. Willards Kitchen sells its four spice mixes at The Boutique Lounge, as well as online – which includes free delivery for anyone on Mercer Island.

Photo courtesy Willards Kitchen

Russell’s experience running a professional kitchen means he is full of recipe ideas and grilling tips. “All chefs use an instant-read thermometer,” he points out. Sometimes he sees home cooks feel like it’s a novice move, but he says it’s the most professional move possible. When it comes to figuring out the right temperature for the grill itself, though, he has an easy way to remember: the thinner the meat, the higher the heat. Finally, he suggests making your food look as good as it tastes by adding a bunch of vegetables to the grill, being careful to use a variety of colors, like yellow squash, red onions, and broccoli.

Pair Perfectly

The grill might be the star of the barbecue, but when Joe Kennedy, owner of Barrels Wine Bar, invites friends to the back patio, he starts the party by opening a white wine. An inexpensive Vinho Verde from Portugal will pair well with light hors d’oeuvres, whether crudites, cheese, or sushi, he explains, and the slight effervescence helps put guests in a festive mood.

By the time he moves on to the grilled food, he gravitates toward Zinfandels for hamburgers and lamburgers, and GSMs (blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre) for other meats. “Look to the southern Rhone region of France for some excellent examples of GSM or no further than our own Columbia Valley,” says Kennedy. The best Zinfandels come from California’s Napa, Dry Creek, Sonoma, and Russian River Valleys, though he suggests budget-minded shoppers look to places like Lodi and Amador, which tend to offer lower-priced Zinfandel options.

Finish the day with something sweet, Kennedy suggests – not dessert, but a Port: “A good 10-year tawny will work well and save you some spare change.” Even if you spring for something more expensive, the small glasses mean that a bottle will last you through many barbecues, since you can just re-cork and save it for the next party – and perhaps even more after that.

After all, each summer barbecue is a great chance to spend time enjoying the outdoors among friends and family, and that is the most important part of throwing a party. But getting to support local businesses in pursuit of a better recipe for the grill or a new favorite bottle of wine makes for an excellent bonus.