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Real Entertaining: A sundown supper on the grill

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 5:39 PM

I knew the heat had gotten to me when the mere sight of my partner putting the kettle on for Saturday morning coffee sent me into hyperspace. Apparently he hadn't received the No Stove, No Oven, No Way! memo.

Perhaps I was taking things too far, but the incident sparked a thought. Could I produce a full-on dinner party without heating up the kitchen - or inducing a meltdown? I resolved that each dish had to be cooked, somehow. In other words, composing a green salad, throwing a steak on the grill and plopping whipped cream on berries wasn't going to cut it.

That meant the old Weber Performer grill was in for a workout, of course. But cooking would take place only in the early morning and late afternoon. After all, you might as well set the kitchen oven at full blast if you're willing to stand over a grill in the middle of a hot day. Most of the prep work would be done at least a day ahead of time, definitely a selling point for any host.

The challenge presented an opportunity to inaugurate a new dining table we'd bought for the deck. I invited a couple of friends over for a sundown supper. Cocktails and nibbles would be served in the cool indoors, and dinner would be served alfresco at dusk, when it was pleasant enough to be outside. The stage would be set with floral cushions on the benches, vivid placemats and napkins on the glass-top table and manifestations of my partner's green-thumb aptitude.

In planning the menu, I focused on seasonal produce readily available in stores and farmers markets. A recent meal at Posto in Logan Circle provided inspiration for the first course, served chilled: smoked-tomato sauce, chunks of grilled eggplant formed into a neat disk, a dollop of garlic-flavored goat cheese and a drizzle of basil oil. (Posto's salad featured tomato confit and hard-to-find burrata cheese.)

For the main course, I settled on the side dish before picking the protein. The surfeit of squash at the market called to mind a casserole with which any Southerner is all too familiar: chunks of boiled summer squash baked with sour cream (and/or mayonnaise), sauteed onions, cheddar cheese and a butter-dotted bread crumb topping. The squash usually ends up cooked to death, so grilling it for my version looked like a total upgrade.

Additionally, I Southwesternized the dish by adding scallions, cilantro, pimentos and smoked Spanish paprika; plus, I substituted pepper Jack for the cheddar. In retrospect, grilled corn would have added extra dimension and texture to the dish.

The casserole could be easily assembled a day ahead and baked just before dinner. I would use the grill as an oven by placing the casserole on the rack on a spot not directly above the briquettes, a method known as indirect grilling. The casserole takes about 30 minutes to bake when the internal temperature of the grill registers at about 350 degrees.

For the protein, pork chops were a good way to go, seared first over direct heat to give them a light char and then grill-baked alongside the casserole. At an inch thick, they would be done in the same amount of time as the casserole, resting time included. Pork is more forgiving than, say, beef, because it is not ruined when cooked beyond medium. (Using a remote thermometer set to 155 degrees takes the guesswork out of the process.)

An easy-to-make marinade of bottled balsamic vinaigrette, ground cumin and chili powder brought the pork in line with the flavor profile of its accompaniment.

For the dessert course, because I already knew how to make fruit cobblers on the grill, I decided to try my hand at grill-baking a pie. A combination of cherries, apricots and figs appealed to me, and lightly smoking the pie would add an element you don't get from a conventional oven - at least not on purpose.

The first attempt, using store-bought, all-butter puff pastry, didn't work; the dough puffed and browned beautifully, but as the pie cooled, the top crust deflated and became rubbery.

The second attempt was worse: I used store-bought ready-to-bake pie crusts that never really cooked all the way through and tasted awful. So much for taking the easy way out.

In the end, dessert turned out to be a tweaked version of the Cherry Lattice Pie that pastry chef and cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum taught a Washington Post reader, and me, how to make for a Chef on Call column two years ago. Her Flaky Cream Cheese Pie Crust, once it was smoked, took on a rustic quality, as if it had been made with lard as well as butter and cream cheese.

As I experimented with the dishes, a clear plan of action materialized. Early in the morning the day before the dinner, I would direct-grill the eggplant and summer squashes, then carefully move the two baskets of hot briquettes to the sides of the grill and indirectly cook and smoke the tomatoes for the sauce.

In the afternoon, in air-conditioned comfort, I would finish all of the components of the eggplant salad, prep the pie ingredients, assemble the casserole and marinate the pork chops. In the evening, I'd grill-bake the pie and put grill marks on the chops.

The only things left to cook on the day of the party would be the casserole and the chops, both for 30 minutes. I could execute a dramatic reveal, lifting the grill cover while announcing that dinner was served.

Limiting the guest list to two proved a good strategy, since the grill space wasn't big enough to prepare enough food for a larger party.

But as plans go, this one wasn't waterproof. The day before the dinner, the heat wave broke. I was grilling and pie-baking in the rain. Not to worry; as all Real Entertainers do, I had a contingency.

I turned on the oven - the outdoor temperature was a relatively tame 85 degrees - and polished the dining room table.

Recipes

Grilled Eggplant Timbales With Smoked Tomato Sauce

Grilled Cumin Pork Chops

Grilled Summer Squash Casserole

Smoky Cherry, Apricot and Fig Pie

Hagedorn's Real Entertaining column appears monthly.

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