A hammock and a grill are all it takes to keep me happy during the summer. The long days and, at times, intense heat require a great deal of reclining along with effortless, simple foods.
As luck would have it, grilling is not only synonymous with summer but is also the most painless method of preparing a meal. Grilled produce complements a summer menu and with the season's vegetables, fruits and greens, side dishes could nudge main courses off the plate. The ease and fun of grilling provide a perfect jumping-off point from which cooks can innovate to create wonderful new dishes.
Grilled foods pack in lots of flavor with little work. Almost all of the preparation can be done ahead. Better still, some dishes can be grilled the day before and left to marinate. All of the side dish recipes that follow (Grilled Caponata, Grilled Potatoes, Corn and Onions, and Grilled Sweet and Spicy Pineapple) call for medium-high heat. But, whether gas, wood or charcoal is used, higher or lower temperatures will do; simply adjust the cooking time.
The goal is to nicely brown the foods and create a smoky taste. Closing the grill's cover will increase the smoke and allow it to permeate the food. If the grill is quite hot but the food to be grilled is better cooked at a medium or slow heat, arrange it on the outer edge of the rack away from the coals. Experiment with many different foods and temperatures. Simply brush the grill lightly with oil and do the same with the foods to be cooked.
A seemingly endless variety of produce can be grilled, then served with just a light sprinkling of salt and pepper, or topped or tossed with a variety of garnishes. When mixing and matching vegetables for different side dishes, also try combining cooking methods -- steamed potatoes with grilled onions, for instance.
In our house, we have had countless meals of corn on the cob, blueberry muffins and slices of tomatoes drizzled with vinegar. In your house, you could start with any of the following ideas; use your imagination:
Corn on the cob: The ears can be grilled husked or unhusked. If husked, brush with oil and cook 3 to 5 minutes, turning several times. If unhusked (a slight misnomer), peel back the husk, remove the silk, close the husk again, soak the ear in cold water for five minutes, grill about 15 to 20 minutes, husk and serve. Spread the warm cooked ears with a homemade compound butter (or even your favorite vinaigrette). Some great corn/compound butter matches include roasted red pepper pure'e, pure chili powder, mint or basil with garlic, tomato paste with garlic and basil or rosemary, fresh thyme or savory leaves, minced jalapenåo, Parmesan cheese, and coarse black pepper in the mix.
Eggplant: Every ingredient in a caponata or ratatouille takes to the grill easily and eggplant is an especially sturdy vegetable for this cooking technique. First slice, salt and let stand for 20 minutes, rinse and dry. Then brush with olive oil and grill 2 to 3 minutes per side and serve with salt, pepper and lemon or sprinkle with any herb. On another day, serve with a little tomato sauce and maybe a few chopped black olives.
Peppers: The quickest way to prepare sweet peppers is to core and cut them in quarters, remove the seeds and brush with oil. Grill to blacken the skins completely. Allow the peppers to cool slightly on a platter for a few minutes. Peel off the skin and serve plain, or with a squeeze of lemon, perhaps anchovies, a sprinkling of Parmesan, a few green peppercorns, or with your favorite herb.
Yellow squash and zucchini: Squash combines well with many flavors, especially fresh herbs, but how about grated lemon rind and chopped fresh basil, diced tomatoes and mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parsley, or seasoned with salt and pepper and tossed with mashed, grilled garlic? To cook the garlic, rub with oil, and place on a small cake rack on the outer edge of the grill for 20 to 30 minutes or until soft when pierced with a knife.
Onions: Just about any member of the extended family can be grilled. In addition to garlic, sliced or quartered red or white onions, whole shallots, leeks and scallions all work well. As with zucchini, onions take to just about anything. Try a sprinkling of fresh thyme, a splash of vinegar, melt Italian fontina cheese on the top, dust with cayenne, or shake with hot sauce.
Celery: Here is a surprising addition to cooked summer vegetables. Brushed with olive oil and quickly grilled, about 2 to 3 minutes per side, the stalks are delicious plain with salt and pepper as an appetizer (or perhaps a squeeze of lemon, too); topped with a little "salad" of chopped anchovies, capers and parsley; or scattered with fresh-cooked peas and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Another time, top with crumbled feta cheese and sliced black olives or arrange thin slices of goat cheese over the warm stalks. The heat from the vegetable will slightly melt the cheese.
Fruits: Pineapple, bananas, peaches and nectarines are welcome as accompaniments to main courses. Try serving the pineapple with freshly chopped mint or with grated ginger mixed with garlic and sliced scallions. Top bananas with honeyed yogurt and hot pepper, or lemon, lime and orange juices mixed with a bit of grated zest from each. Shake cinnamon or nutmeg on nectarines and peaches or garnish with freshly chopped basil and minced red onion. Serve alongside meat, poultry and fish.
Caponata is a sweet and sour Italian eggplant salad. Traditionally the vegetables are saute'ed, but here they are grilled for a smoky taste. Most recipes call for sugar. Here I use currants or raisins for sweetness. Serve alongside any grilled meat, fish or shellfish. It is also great with baked or steamed potatoes for a nonmeat meal.
1 large onion, Spanish or Vidalia, 1/3-inch thick slices
2 medium eggplants, sliced lengthwise 1/3-inch thick
4 stalks celery, trimmed
1 large, ripe tomato, cut into 1/3-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup balsamic or wine vinegar, approximately
1/2 cup pitted green olives
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1/4 cup dried currants or raisins
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley
2 tablespoon toasted pignoliSTART NOTE: END NOTE (pine nuts) or almonds, optional
Brush all the vegetables with olive oil and grill, covered, until browned. The onion will take about 5 to 7 minutes per side. The eggplant will take about 2 to 3 minutes per side and should be soft. The celery takes about 2 to 3 per side. The onion and celery should both remain slightly crunchy.
As the vegetables finish cooking, remove from the heat and cut crosswise into 1/3-inch slices. Transfer them to a platter or large bowl. Add the tomato, season with salt and pepper, and toss well. Add the vinegar and toss. Add remaining ingredients except the nuts and stir to combine. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, to let flavors blend. Taste and correct seasoning with more vinegar, salt and pepper, if desired. Serve either cold or at room temperature sprinkled with the nuts.
Per serving: 121 calories, 2 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 137 mg sodium.
GRILLED POTATOES, CORN AND ONIONS
This nighttime alternative to home fries is particularly delicious with steak or egg dishes. It is great with any grilled meat, however, and also complements grilled fish.
1 pound medium red potatoes of uniform size
2 medium red onions, cut into 1/3-inch slices
4 ears corn, husked
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint or fresh thyme leaves
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Bring the potatoes to a boil in a pan of water and cook 5 to 7 minutes, or until barely tender. Drain and when cool enough to handle, cut into 1/3-inch slices and brush with olive oil to coat. Set aside in a dish. This can be done a day ahead.
Brush all the vegetables with olive oil and grill, covered, until browned. Start the onion slices first as they take the longest time to cook. Grill about 5 to 7 minutes per side, or until just slightly resistant when pierced with the tip of a knife. The potatoes take about 5 minutes per side, or until soft when pierced with the tip of a knife. The corn requires about 3 to 5 minutes total cooking time, turning often.
As the onions and potatoes finish cooking, remove from heat, cut into large, rough pieces, and place in a large bowl. Cut the corn from the cob and add to the bowl. Add the garlic and herb of choice and a few tablespoons of olive oil to coat the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss everything together.
Per serving: 188 calories, 4 gm protein, 34 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, .8 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium.
GRILLED SWEET AND SPICY PINEAPPLE
Serve warm with pork or a crispy chicken dish. The heat of the sauce increases upon standing; taste just before spooning over the pineapple.
1 large pineapple, 4 to 5 pounds
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons honey
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
Peel pineapple and cut into 8 slices. Set aside. Combine lemon juice and honey in a small pot and heat just to melt the honey. Pour into a small bowl and add cayenne. Set aside. Taste just before serving and add more cayenne if desired.
Prepare the grill. Brush pineapple slices very lightly with oil. Grill slices, covered, until browned and warmed through, about 2 to 3 minutes per side, depending on the heat. Arrange on a platter or plates and spoon sauce over the warm slices.
Per serving: 321 calories, 2 gm protein, 66 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 mg sodium.
Deirdre Davis lives in Massachusetts and is writing a cookbook on sauces.