Get grilling for more taste

Grilled romaine salad is one of the treats from outdoor summer cooking.
Grilled romaine salad is one of the treats from outdoor summer cooking. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

Those backyard flames can add lots of variety to the flavors of salads, fruits, vegetables, and some cheeses.

Posted: August 22, 2014

One of summer's greatest culinary pleasures is food cooked on a grill, with backyard flames enhancing flavors like nothing else.

But fire and hot coals can transform so much more than just burgers and dogs.

Almost all the produce bursting from local farms and gardens can be cooked outside - creating flavorful fare from appetizers through desserts.

Grilled whole, sliced, layered or wrapped, almost every vegetable and many fruits can be converted into tasty fare on a barbecue grill. Fruit crisps and cobblers can even be "baked." Grilled cheese can finally be true to its name. Even sauces and salsas can be cooked outside.

Grilled salad? You bet. Quick charred romaine lettuce retains its crispness alongside grilled croutons and toasty white anchovies for a must try summer Caesar. Serve a wedge of grilled cabbage drizzled with lime-ginger dressing, and who needs coleslaw?

A few minutes on the heat creates a glaze on figs or plums, caramelizing their natural sugar and making it sweeter. When tossed with grilled green beans and some sliced summer tomatoes, this combination becomes a restaurant worthy first course.

Not surprisingly, some of the best ways to cook summer fruits and vegetables on the grill are also the easiest. A whole unpeeled onion tucked directly into the coals for 20 minutes, or on the grill surface for closer to an hour, will yield a succulent, sweet, soft and smoky side dish or condiment. (Just peel away any burned outer skin.) Corn can be grilled as is - no need to soak, no need to open and remove the silks ahead. In fact, the moisture in the corn silk keeps the kernels soft and moist even as the outer husk is burned over the fire. Then, when peeled, the warm corn silks peel away so cleanly from the kernels.

A whole eggplant cooked till the skin blisters and the center is soft is easily peeled, mashed and seasoned. Top with chopped tomatoes and a simple garlic, lemon, olive oil vinaigrette along with sliced baguette for a Provencal inspired snack. Stir in some tahini and surround with pita bread and you are transported to the Middle East.

Grill excess tomatoes with a few onions or garlic and chop coarsely as pasta sauce. Blacken a mixture of peppers, chilis, tomatoes and garlic - and throw them - blackened skin, seeds and all - into a blender or food processor for a smoky salsa as useful as ketchup.

Once you've got the grill going to make salsa you might as well grill up a few quesadillas to eat alongside. Flour or corn tortillas stuffed with cheese (and beans if you like) brown nicely while the cheese turns gooey and soft inside.

There are even some cheeses, such as the Greek Haloumi, that go right on the grill. The heat softens the inside of this firm cheese to a creamy chewiness while the outside browns to a delicate sweetness. Serve with grill-warmed dates or another grilled fruit as an appetizer or dessert.

Many fruits, such as peaches, plums, bananas, or pineapples, gain depth and flavor and sweetness on the grill. Seasoned with black pepper and fresh herbs, grilled fruit can accompany flank steaks or marinated grilled chicken. Brushed with honey, sliced, grilled peaches or nectarines complement grilled pound cake. Firm pound cake cubes and colorful fruit pieces can be alternated on skewers and grilled for dramatic kebabs.

Be sure to use your grill brush to clean the grates well between savory cooking and fruit.

As with all grilling, having an area on the grill with medium to high heat alongside an area of low heat allows the flexibility to move items during cooking as needed. If you cook with charcoal (my preference) make sure that at least one third of your grill surface has few to no coals underneath. Then you have a cooler landing spot for quick browning foods.

If you own one of the most useful of pots - a cast iron dutch oven - you can even bake on the grill (hence the word oven in the name). These cooking vessels often have small "feet" on the bottom to permit setting directly onto the floor of a cookfire. Most dutch ovens today are flat, which means they can sit right on the grill surface. If your dutch oven has a flat, tight-fitting lid you can bake a crisp, crumble or cobbler. Streusel or biscuit topping will brown if a few hot coals are placed on top of the lid. This requires tongs or a fireplace shovel to transfer coals, but is otherwise straightforward. A dutch oven is great to bring outside as summer transitions to fall for long-cooking baked beans, meat or veg stews and various pot pies.

So, if you can stand the heat - of the grill - get outside and try grilling your summer salads, appetizers and desserts!


Grilled Caesar Salad

Makes 4-6 servings

For the dressing:

3 tablespoons prepared mayonnaise

1 large clove garlic mashed

1/4 cup lemon juice

1-2 canned anchovies, or 1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce (optional)

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and fresh ground pepper

For the salad:

2-3 hearts of romaine, or 1 large head of romaine trimmed, clean and dry

8-10 slices of fresh baguette

8-12 white anchovies (boquarones)

3-5 tablespoons of fresh Parmesan shards (use a cheese slicer or mandolin)

1. For the dressing: Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Taste, and season well with salt and fresh ground pepper.

2. Heat grill to very hot.

3. Halve the romaine hearts or quarter a larger romaine head. Leave the stem on to hold the leaves together.

4. Brown the croutons and boquerones on a very hot grill (for 3 to 5 minutes, very quick) and remove to a plate.

5. Place the romaine cut side down on the hot grill for 2 to 3 minutes until browned, turn and repeat browning on other side.

6. Remove lettuce to serving plate. Arrange croutons, anchovies, parmesan shards and croutons as desired. Drizzle all with dressing, and serve remaining dressing on the side.

Per serving (based on 6): 459 calories; 25 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 28 grams fat; 57 milligrams cholesterol; 2,906 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.


Grilled Salsa

Makes 1-11/2 cups

2-3 ripe plum tomatoes

2 chili peppers, such as jalapeno or Serrano

1-2 sweet peppers, red, orange or yellow

2-4 cloves garlic, peeled

2 medium onions, peeled, left whole

1/2 bunch or (approximately 1/2 cup) cilantro, washed and shaken dry

Salt

Juice of one lime

1. Place vegetables on a hot grill and cook, turning often, until the surface browns deeply (almost black) and blisters. Remove to a bowl to cool slightly.

2. Cut the stem end off the peppers and tomato.

3. Add the vegetables as is (skin, seeds and all) to a food processor or blender. Add the cilantro, a heaping teaspoon of salt, and the lime juice, and process until smooth. Taste and adjust with additional salt or lime juice to taste.

4. Use as is for salsa, add up to 1/2 cup of olive oil for a delicious sauce for pasta or enchiladas.

Per two-tablespoon serving: 19 calories; trace protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; trace grams fat; no cholesterol; 66 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.


Almond Pound Cake with Grilled Peaches

Makes 6-8 servings

7 ounces almond paste

12 ounces butter (11/2 sticks)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

4 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/3 cup milk

1/4 cup sliced almonds

4-5 peaches, peeled just before cooking

1. Grease and flour a standard 8-by-3-inch loaf pan. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Blend the almond paste and the butter until smooth with a mixer or by hand. Add the sugar and beat until well incorporated. Add the eggs and beat well until the mixture is uniform and smooth. Stir in the vanilla. Mix the flour with the baking powder and add to the butter mixture in two or three batches, alternating with the milk. Blend until the flour is all incorporated and the batter is smooth.

3. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, top with sliced almonds, and bake in the center of the oven for 40-45 minutes. Check mid-way through cooking and cover loosely with a piece of foil if the top is brown and center is still very moist. Let cool completely before slicing.

4. To serve, have grill hot. Slice cake. Peel peaches and cut in half, twisting gently around the pit to make two clean halves. Place cake and peaches on clean hot grill. Cake will brown quickly, peaches may take a bit longer. Remove cake to plate. Serve with peach, as is or sliced. Vanilla or Rose ice cream, thick honeyed yogurt or whipped cream, are all nice accompaniments.

Per serving (based on 8): 676 calories; 10 grams protein; 61 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams sugar; 46 grams fat; 174 milligrams cholesterol; 284 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

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