06/17/2013 11:21 EDT | Updated 08/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Cream adds flavour, depth and texture to grilled meats, sides and desserts

TORONTO - The new secret ingredient in your arsenal for providing depth, texture and flavour to grilled dishes is as close as your grocer's dairy fridge.

Cream may seem like an unusual item to add to fare prepared on the barbecue, but a Halifax chef says the dairy product infuses savoury and sweet dishes alike with a luxury and elegance that will make your guests sit up and take notice.

"It adds flavour and texture to food ingredients you wouldn't normally have without it," chef Richard Julien said in an interview from the East Coast city.

Whether you're a home cook or someone working in a Michelin-starred restaurant, he says cream can take your food to the next level.

"As a chef, cream has always been a component of our kitchens. There's always been pushback for healthy lifestyle, but we're saying that used in moderation — and a little goes a long way — it will be part of our lifestyle choices when we're cooking," he said, adding he likes that it's a local ingredient produced by Canadian farmers.

But Julien, 42, didn't always use cream in the variety of ways he does now in his catering and culinary entertainment business, Chef Live!, which sees him and staff prepare meals for people in their homes in the manner of cooking shows.

"Growing up in Maritimes, blueberry grunt was all I knew. Whipped cream, sugar and vanilla. Or chowder, obviously being from the East Coast, cream is a big part of what we do for our hodgepodges and chowder," he says. Hodgepodge is generally a thick stew to which a variety of vegetables can be added.

Julien — who was recently commissioned to create grilling recipes with cream by various dairy organizations — has come up with a recipe for spiced chicken drumettes. Using 10 per cent cream with some tandoori-style aromatics, such as ginger, garlic and toasted cumin, he devised a marinade.

"A marinade can tenderize and it can produce aromatics, so whenever I'm imparting flavour to a dish that has either meat or vegetables, those are the two things I'm looking for," he says.

"In barbecue recipes, cream is a natural choice because it's going to be more forgiving on the grill than, say, just using herbs and spices and juices alone because it has a higher moisture content."

Chicken needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 83 C (180 F) to be safe to consume, but it can get dried out. The cream in the marinade adds moisture.

Yogurt with a few tablespoonfuls of cream plus garlic, ginger and spices can also be used in marinades for grilled chicken or pork.

Marinade that has been in contact with raw meat must be used once and discarded, Julien cautions. Health Canada recommends setting aside some marinade separately in the fridge ahead of time if you want to use it for basting.

For the barbecue, cream can be added to mild, semi-soft fontina cheese and white wine for a sauce to top pork tenderloin or combined with spices and yogurt to team with shrimp. It highlights potato salad and lends richness to delectable cake that can be topped with grilled seasonal fruit.

Cream is what naturally separates from and floats on top of the milk layer of freshly gathered milk. It can be whipped, drizzled or simply added to dishes to dress them up.

Cream ranges from five per cent milk fat up to 35 per cent milk fat.

Light cream, at five per cent, is a blend of milk and cream that is slightly richer than whole milk but lighter than other creams. Ten per cent, or half and half, is an equal blend of whole cream and milk, while 15 per cent or 18 per cent table cream is a blend of cream and milk with a higher proportion of cream. Whipping, or 35 per cent, cream is thick and pourable, with a velvety texture.

Whipping cream can also be combined with ginger or maple and sage to create a savoury foam or cream to garnish soup, says Julien, who recently filmed a segment for the new cooking show "The Illegal Eater" with host Steven Page, formerly of the Barenaked Ladies. The show is slated to premiere on Travel + Escape this fall.

In addition to grilling recipes, Julien uses cream in ice coffees, milkshakes and blender drinks as well as cold soups, such as strawberry with fresh mint.

Cream can be used to thicken sauces and aerate desserts. Fold a little sour cream into the mixture for brownies or substitute 10 per cent or 18 per cent cream for milk for more richness.

For finishing a dessert, a simple chocolate ganache can be created using 35 per cent cream and a little butter, and only a thin layer is needed for flavour.