Boss cuts like a dry-aged, mega-marbled steak need nothing more than salt, but most everyday meats like chicken, flank steak and pork chops can all benefit from some marinade love. And since it’s the height of summer, what better to lend your marinade sweet, tangy flavor than fresh fruit?
But the problem with fruity marinades is that once the grilling goes down, it’s always about the meat, and not the bright fruit. It’s summer, people! It’s time to let the fruit shine! So I came up with a simple solution to making both the meat and the fruit co-stars of the meal—you make a bright, savory fruit “salad,” to serve alongside the meat, then blend half of it to use as the marinade. This way, you get the best of both worlds: tender meat subtly seasoned with the flavors of summer and a juicy, colorful side.
What about tenderizing with marinades?
Certain fruits— papaya, pineapple and kiwis—are high in an enzyme that breaks down muscle fibers and collagen; in fact, that enzyme is the main ingredient in commercial meat tenderizers. And most other fruits contain acid, which will break down bonds between proteins in the meat.
But there are things to keep in mind when you use a marinade for tenderizing. It is possible to marinade too long. When you’re marinating to tenderize (especially with highly acidic citrus fruits or vinegar), the protein coils unwind to form a loose net in the meat fibers that traps moisture. Eventually, however, this net will re-tighten and then you’ll have a tough, chewy piece of meat. (Or if you use one of the tropical fruits listed above, the meat can turn mushy.) So the key is marinate smart—if you want to leave it the meat in its flavor bath for longer, use fewer sour, acidic ingredients. In general, use these guidelines when using fruity or acidic marinades:
Fish: about 10 minutes – make sure you’ve got only 1 part of acid to 4 or more parts of something else, otherwise you’ll make ceviche.
Pork and chicken: up to 12 hours
Beef / lamb: up to 24 hours
And if you’ve got a thick cut of meat, consider cutting it in half or butterflying it. When acids or enzymes tenderize meat, they don’t penetrate far below the surface, so if you have a piece that’s thick (2 inches or more) you may over-marinate the surface of the meat before any flavor gets to the center.
Ok, I’m ready to get marinating. What should I use?
Here’s a handful of fruity marinade recipe ideas. Marinades aren’t an exact science, so taste as you mix to see if you need more onion, more fruit, more acid etc. All marinades need salt, pepper and (to my taste) garlic and olive oil, so add accordingly. What you’re looking for is something sweet, savory, a little tart, and that, of course, highlights the freshness of the main fruit.
Peach, basil, red onions, champagne vinegar
Mango, cinnamon, chives, white wine
Strawberries, thyme, shallots, ginger
Plums, parsley, lemon juice, crumbled feta (add the feta to the unblended “salad”)
Apricots, cilantro, soy sauce, sesame seeds, rice wine vinegar
Grilled Cherry Chicken
1½ pounds cherries, pitted and sliced (any variety)
3 limes, zested and juiced
¼ cup olive oil
10 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped, stems discarded
5 scallions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 pounds chicken, bone-in
Make the marinade: Combine all ingredients except the chicken and garlic cloves in a large bowl. Toss well. Take ½ of the mixture and add to a blender along with the garlic cloves (we only want to add the garlic to the mixture that will be cooked). Pulse 5-6 times, until smooth. Cover the unblended fruit mixture and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
Marinate: Pour the blended marinade over your chicken and turn a few times to evenly coat. Let it marinate in the fridge for 6-12 hours. Take it out to temper about 30 minutes before cooking.
Grill and serve: Since it’s summer, rev up the grill. You can also roast the chicken at 375 F, but then you won't be outside and drinking a beer with tongs in your hand. Grill over a medium heat until the juices run nearly clear, and then finish and crisp the skin on high heat at the end. Since there’s fruit in the marinade, be careful not to char too much; the sugar burns easily. Serve topped with the fresh fruit chutney you’ve got waiting in the wings.