For grilled vegetables I like a hibachi or other small grill – tabletop or freestanding, it suits my outdoor grilling space. Still, big box stores often lure me with the curbside proximity to those gleaming stainless monsters with side burners, smokers, griddles, thermostats and all the bells and whistles a Master Griller could dream of. But I no longer like using gas/propane. There have been too many times when the dripping fat from burgers, pork, or salmon have flamed the gas jets and left a repulsive petroleum-flavored residue on my food.
Now I grill with natural brickets or real wood scavenged from nearby stands of trees. On my berry walks I keep an eye out for recent tree falls, and go back with the car, because green hard wood is heavy. I stock up with dry branches and let the new wood dry.
I use a combination of charcoal and wood to build my fires in an inexpensive standing grill on the porch entrance just outside the kitchen, under cover but very open for ventilation. The smoke drifts up and the aroma fill the master bedroom with the scent of campfire. Not to everyone’s liking, I understand that, but it’s sensual and evocative for me. If the nights are cool, the windows are left wide open and the lingering smoke fuels my dreams with contented, friendly wild things.
Before lighting the fire, I recommend you remove the grill from the barbecue. Do not put the vegetables onto the grill until the coals have a grayish outer coating of ash and are glowing red-orange inside. Flickering flames would be too hot for vegetables.
Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables. I sliced ½” thick rounds of eggplant. I like them thinner because I prefer a drier finish to eggplant – and I think that the mushy texture is what turns a lot of people off to eggplant. Slice small zucini in half legnthwise. For smaller vegetables and sliced onions you have the option of wrapping the grill in foil and placing the sliced vegetables on top. But I like grilling marks if I can get them. Drizzle/toss the vegetables with olive oil – you can use flavored oil if you wish. You can also rub the firmer vegetables with a garlic clove. Sprinkling with a pinch of sea salt and ground black pepper (remember that pepper intensifies as it cook. That’s why it is usually added at the end.)
Place the grill back on the barbecue. You can leave the barbecue lid open or closed; closing it will enhance the moisture and smoky flavor (this is especially true for meats). The rule is to check every ten minutes and turn the veggies once. All should be cooked within 20 minutes*. If you prefer well-cooked vegetables, leave them on for another ten minutes.
*In the time it too me to write the above sentences my eggplant was charred. They look great to me but perhaps blacker than I’d like to serve to guests. So this fire was hotter than I thought. I’m glad I didn’t close the lid.
I’m having so much fun I think I’ll make a second Sambuca fresco (digestivos being a masculine noun):
1 shot of Sambuca
3 ice cubes
1 tall glass
Top with sparkling mineral water or seltzer
Go back to work, if you can.
Tonight’s dinner is a variation on a Vegetable Napoleon – in this case grilled eggplant brushed with pesto, wilted Swiss chard with paper thin slivers of fresh garlic, prosciutto crisps, fresh sliced heirloom tomato and a dollop of fresh soft goat cheese. Since we have an abundance of green beans, they became our side garnish. A sprinkling of pignoli make a nice counterpoint, with a very dry grated parmigiana
Dinner is ready and I have hours left on these beautiful coals. I wish I had something to ready to grill – plums, peaches, pound cake, pineapple, pork tenderloin – but nothing is in the house and defrosted.
For 2 dinners or 4 appetizers. Add more vegetables and serve more people
1 large eggplant – sliced, grilled or roasted
You can also add grilled, roasted or sautéed: sweet onions, red peppers, Portobello mushroom caps, zucchini slices. The more vegetables you grill the more people you can feed.
2 oz fresh goat cheese or soft ricotta
3 c fresh Swiss chard or spinach, tough stems removed, and coarsely topped
1 – 2 large fresh garlic cloves, slivered very thin
2 slices prosciutto
1 perfect tomato, sliced in rounds
2 t pesto
3 T (or more) olive oil
¼ c toasted pine nuts (optional)
salt and pepper
shaved parmigiana (optional)
Slice eggplant into ½ to ¾” rounds. Drizzle with oil, salt and pepper. Set aside while the coals heat. (You do not have to salt, press and drain eggplant. There is no difference in the texture if you go straight to the heat.)
While the eggplant grills, prep your other ingredients. You can add slices of onions, pepper halves, Portobello caps. Or zucchini slices to he grill with eggplant. Brush everything with a little olive oil.
In a skillet, add 1t olive oil and when hot, toss in the slivers of garlic. When the aroma of cooking garlic rises (well before they brown) toss in the roughly chopped greens and 2T water, stir to wilt the greens completely then remove from heat.
Set greens aside. Using the same skillet brushed with oil, crisp up two thin slices of prosciutto, turn once and when just golden remove to a cutting board and roughly chop into crispy chips.
Build your Napoleon: drizzle or brush the plate with a little pesto. Place an eggplant round, in the middle of the plate, top with 1-2 t goat cheese and a slice of tomato. Add another eggplant round and a mound of garlic greens and a sprinkle of prosciutto chips, add another eggplant round with goat cheese and tomato, finish with eggplant, prosciutto chips and a dollop of goat cheese a dribble of pesto. You can garnish with toasted pignolis and a shave of imported sharp parmigiana. I served ours with poached green beans I finished in the garlicky prosciutto pan, and tossed with the pignoli.
Make this a more substantial dinner by serving with angle hair and a salad of spicy or bitter greens. This would also be great served in a puddle of tomato or romesco sauce, accompanied by a scoop of cheesy polenta.
The Napoleon can be served hot or room temperature. All these components can be used to make caponata, so grill up everything while you have a hot fire and plan to use the leftovers tomorrow.