If anyone ran analytics on this sort of thing, my guess is they’d find that grilling and fruit are both at their peak right about now. Unfortunately, they’d probably also find that the two rarely intersect.
That’s a shame, because grilled fruit is one of the absolute joys of summer. Grilling fruit is also one of the easiest ways to expand your grilling repertoire.
And it’s a nearly effortless crowd-pleaser at a dinner party.
My first encounter was years ago, when a friend threw thick slabs of watermelon quarters on a grate over the coals. I looked askance. He left them over a medium-hot fire for only a couple of minutes, then turned them, like steaks. When he pulled them to a platter, they even looked like steaks, their thick red “meat” lined with grill marks and oozing juice.
In their own way, they were as delicious as steaks. Still crisp. Still sweet. Actually, sweeter, because the fire caramelized them, intensifying their flavor. My skeptical palate was convinced.
Since then, I’ve grilled every manner of fruit, even some that I call fruits for all seasons. I mean strawberries, which are at their very best in springtime but are available year-round. Unlike tomatoes, they’re pretty good out of season — maybe that’s why strawberry shortcake is so popular even in the summer.
The trick to grilling them is to keep their firm texture from collapsing while singeing them with fire. This is where out-of-season berries, firmer and drier, might be even better for the grill than in-season ones. Halving them, as opposed to slicing them thin or leaving them whole, keeps the berries substantial enough to take the heat and makes them easier to turn. A vegetable basket keeps them from falling through the grates.
When removed from the fire, the berries are tattooed with char, transforming them from pretty, if somewhat obsequious, to something almost roguish. And they look really cool spilling over a shortcake under a white dome of whipped cream.
About that whipped cream: I wood-smoke it. My first few attempts were abysmal failures. I tried putting charred wood into heavy cream and straining it out. It tasted like somebody put a cigarette out in my mouth. Then I smoked it indirectly for five minutes. All ashtray, no cream. Eventually, I found that using a small, indirect fire for a short time with just a few wood chips was the key. The smoke whispers to the cream, creating less a flavor than a sense of mystery, complementing the flame-torched strawberries.
If strawberries are evergreen, the berry most in its summer prime is the blueberry. The fantastic blue orbs can be grilled, but their diminutive size makes it easy to scorch them, resulting in something resembling deflated balloons. Instead, I apply a light wash of wood smoke, which plumps them up to nearly bursting and deepens their complexion to a magnificent indigo. The smoke adds an intriguing complexity to their flavor.
For dessert at a dinner party in June, I made a smoked blueberry pie. For a little zing, I added smoked Serrano chilis. The combination of the berries and the hot peppers, mingling in smoke, may sound weird. But neither the smoke nor the chilis took over. It was all blueberry pie, kissed by smoke and electrified by chili, which amped up each bite. All the while, the essential blueberry flavor dominated, like the lead vocal in a trio. The next day, I received e-mails from guests imploring me to make it again.
Another jewel of the summer fruit season is stone fruit, especially the peach. Its pliable-yet-firm texture takes well to a little flame, and its size helps it rest easily on the grates without the risk of falling through. Best, though, is that its sugars concentrate when the peach’s exterior is caramelized by fire.
Because peaches have so much going for them to begin with, one of the best ways to treat them is to just stay out of their way. An easy crowd-pleaser is a grill master’s version of peaches and cream. Just halve and pit a few peaches, grill-roast them for a couple of minutes on each side, and top with a dollop of rich Italian mascarpone cheese mixed with a little honey. From cutting the peach to plating the dish, the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes, and it is a spectacular summer dessert that shows off the fruit to amazing effect. A bonus is that you can grill the peaches a day beforehand or do it at the end of your meal.
Experiment with whatever fruit you grill. Peaches, for example, can be combined with jalapeño, onion, cilantro and lime for a salsa to go with pork. Watermelon can be added to purple onion, feta, mint and chopped tomato, then tossed with a little red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil for a fantastic salad or side dish.
Once you do, I bet you’ll put fruit to the flame time and time again. I don’t need any analytics to tell me that.
More Smoke Signals fruit recipes: