Gas vs. charcoal
There are many purists who will insist that you aren't really grilling unless you're using hot coals from various aromatic woods (maple, applewood, etc.). And there is some truth to that. However, I believe that not everyone has the luxury to start a fire, wait for the coals to reach the right temp and then cook. If you do, great, more power to you (invite me over, will you?). But for those of us who still crave a burger or brat after a long day of working, firing up the propane grill and tossing on the patties and dogs gets us where we need to be faster.
But again, this is one of the great things about grilling: It can be as simple or as complex as you're willing to make it. Want to build your own barbecue smoker? Go forth! Do you prefer to just slap a couple burgers on your George Foreman? You're still doing right!
Clean your machine
If you didn't clean your grill post-season, now's the time. Brush out the old charred-on gunk, clean out the oil trap, wipe down the grill, and then make sure it's freshly oiled. This way your food will taste better, and you're reducing your risk of a fire.
The first thing that comes to mind when it comes to outdoor cooking is meat, meat and more meat. But not only is that not fair to our vegetarian and vegan friends, it's denying yourself some really awesome recipes you should be trying. And let's remember, a balanced diet isn't a bad thing.
There are some unbelievably delicious recipes that don't include meat. And they're quick and easy. Don't believe me? Think of grilled corn on the cob, portabella mushrooms served on a bun, grilled vege-kababs and more.
The Food Network has some tummy-rumbling recipes for a spinach salad with grilled peaches and grilled sweet potatoes seasoned with lime and cilantro.
One of my favorite ways to make a side-dish is by creating potato pouches. You cube a potato and stick it into an envelope of aluminum foil, add a couple pats of butter, a clove of garlic and salt and pepper to taste, and stick it on the upper rack while you grill the rest of your meal. Let them cook until tender and you have a yummy, garlicky potato side that's as easy to make as it is to clean up (provided you don't poke holes in the aluminum foil). If you're feeling daring, add a bit of hot pepper to kick things up a notch.
GrillGrrrl.com is featuring an amazing grilled red-pepper salad and another for herbed grilled veggies (covered in parmesan ... drooool).
You can also find recipes for how to create entire desserts on the grill - everything from pineapple upside down cake to a rotisserie rum-soaked pineapple with a cinnamon sugar glaze.
Magical marinades and rocking rubs
If you're cooking with gas, marinades and dry rubs are where you're going to get a lot of your flavor. They do two things for your meat: flavor it and tenderize it. Again, you can go all out and make your own marinades - which is actually pretty easy. Or you can just as easily rely on store-bought magic. Whichever method you prefer is fine.
Worcestershire sauce, Teriyaki sauce, Red wine vinegar, Italian dressing - these are all things that make for a quick and easy marinade or the beginnings of a more involved one. Worcestershire sauce is my go-to marinade for all things red meat. I grab a re-sealable plastic bag, toss in my steaks or kebabs before I go to work, and when I come home I have something I can toss on the grill and munch on before the sun has even thought about going down.
Dry rubs are mixtures of herbs, spices and salt that usually create a flavorful crust on your meat. They also keep the moisture locked in during the cooking process, which helps you avoid leathery dinners.
An easy way to spice up your barbecue is to get a little creative with your condiments. The old standbys are great: catsup, mustard, relish ... but restaurants are making money by adding a funky toping to a burger - and you can too.
Try these toppings on for size, or let us know what you like to add to your burger or dogs to make them extraordinary.
Avocado - This squishy green fruit has garnered a massive following in the past couple years. It's one of those items that takes on the flavor of whatever surrounds it. Some people can't get over the texture, but I love the creamy smoothness of some avocado in just about anything. This is great on burgers and dogs, especially if you have some other toppings like salsa and sour cream.
Pineapple - This can take a burger to a whole new level. The tart fruit adds a fun counterpoint to your savory burger. This is great with a smoky cheese.
Sauteed mushrooms - This almost doesn't count as insane. I mean, mushrooms and barbecue just about go hand-in-hand. That said, if you sautee some mushrooms in butter and garlic and top your burger or dog with them - perhaps with a drizzle of smoky barbecue sauce - I will think I have died and gone to heaven.
Jalapenos/salsa - Chop up some onions, fresh tomato, jalapenos, a bit of cilantro and sprinkle generously with lime juice, and you will have made a salsa verde that will turn your red hot dog into a party.
Bleu/gorgonzola cheese - If you're not a fan of strong cheeses, I don't really know why you're reading this part. If you are, you have probably already tried topping your burgers with these flavor explosions. This pair is great with ranch dressing or a mild horseradish sauce.
Potato chips - This might sound strange to some, but layer some chips on your next burger and you may be surprised at how much you enjoy the crunch.