What Grill Marks Bring to a Bowl
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
It happens every year. The heat and humidity linger and the tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn keep on coming, defiantly chugging along to market. But when you leaf through your favorite food magazine, things are looking toward autumn; menus of stews and braises and fall gourds are starting to make their entrance.
It's the culinary equivalent of jumping the season. Like those department stores that put out swimsuits in the middle of winter, it's our habit to shift to the next big thing. In this case, we start to think about fall flavors and ingredients long before summer is out. But if 10 more months are going to pass before you taste another decent tomato, shouldn't you savor the last of the warm-weather harvest?
That doesn't mean you have to ignore summer's eventual demise. Go with the hint of cooler nights to come and the impending mood for heavier fare by grilling the late fruits of the summer harvest, but then fold them into stews and soups. The flavors will mix and meld, creating intense, wonderfully smoky broths that are just the thing for the bridge into fall.
The method for making these grilled soups and stews is easy, similar to your basic stovetop approach with one key exception. Whereas with many soups and stews, the first step is to saute meats and aromatic vegetables (such as onions and peppers) to brown them and create a caramelized, depth of flavor, here they are grilled to give them a smoky crust, which serves as a flavor base for the rest of the dish.
After searing the vegetables and meats on the grill, you stir them into a vegetable or meat broth to finish cooking and to infuse their smoky flavor. You can let them simmer away on the stovetop or, to keep things nice and outdoorsy, stay out on the patio and cook them in a pot on the grill.
At this point, these grilled soups and stews can head in one of three directions: They can become a light, brothy soup. They can become a pureed soup in which you add grilled meaty vegetables (such as corn or tomatoes) to the blender and buzz. Or they can become more of a chunky stew, whether it's quick-cooked for vegetables or shellfish, or simmered for tough cuts of beef, lamb or pork.
So what can you make with this method? Start with a Mexican tortilla soup, for which smoke seems like a natural partner. Grill the chicken, onions and chili peppers (instead of sauteing them) and then chop and fold them into a spicy chicken broth. The result is surprisingly nuanced, the smoke and spice combining into something both sharp and smooth. Or take on a minestrone. Grill the tomatoes, some zucchini and even some green beans (use a grill basket for the latter) and then gently stew them in a vegetable broth and garnish with grilled croutons and good Parmesan for a particularly summery take on a classic.
Pureed soups, hot and cold, are quintessential summer food. Throw some corn and scallions on the grill, remove the kernels from the cobs, and puree with cream and vegetable or chicken broth. You get a quick but complex soup that shines when garnished with fresh chives and crisped bacon. Gazpacho, the chilled tomato puree, too often tastes like a canned impostor compared to its fresh Spanish origins. Grilling the tomatoes and peppers concentrates their flavors and textures, making for a sophisticated but respectful interpretation.
In late summer, even the stews don't have to be heavy. Take the classic pairing of clams and sausage. Braise the two with grilled plum tomatoes and jalapeños and add some sauteed garlic and fresh rosemary to fill out the dish. Or let sweet corn make another appearance in a chowder with chopped grilled chicken and peppers. The char from the grill fits nicely with the sweetness of the peppers and corn and with the richness from a splash of heavy cream. Once the nights get even cooler these stews can be good and warming, too, as in the case of a posole with grilled pork (use a fatty cut from the shoulder and sear over a low fire), green chili peppers and a sprinkling of queso fresco and tortilla chips; or a beef stew with grilled chuck, new potatoes and sweet onions.
Invariably, the weather in the coming weeks will be as unpredictable as this season, the border between summer and fall. On those sultry nights when summer feels like it's not going anywhere, puree a batch of gazpacho. Later, on those cooler nights when the leaves start to rustle, warm up over a bowl of clams and sausage or corn chowder and look forward to the day when tomatoes are a memory but apples and butternut squash are everywhere. That's when you'll know fall has truly begun.
Freelance food writer Tony Rosenfeld is working on a cookbook about high-heat weeknight cooking.