Thrill of the Grill

Suitable meals for summer

My favorite summer meal is grilled food, a salad and a cold bottle of dry rosé. If there’s any meal more welcome than that on a hot day, I don’t know what it is. I prefer a mixed grill of meats, seafood and a variety of vegetables, which is far more appetizing and satisfying than just a huge slab of meat.
For the kind of grilling I like to do, the four essential seasonings are extra-virgin olive oil, fresh herbs, coarse salt and Key limes or lemons. With those ingredients and a wood, charcoal or gas grill, as well as fresh meats and produce, you can prepare superb meals with ease and without a slavish adherence to recipes.
After all, summer is not really the season for cooking from recipes. This is the time for improvisation and impromptu meal preparation, an opportunity to let your imagination and spirit roam free, and grilling is one way to do that.
One advantage of this freewheeling approach is that you’re always making discoveries, as well as honing your technique and expanding your repertoire. For example, I’ve grilled shrimp both in the shell and out of the shell and much prefer the former. Cooking them in the shell adds another dimension of flavor and makes the shrimp more savory. But it wasn’t until recently that I tried grilling shrimp in the shell with their heads on, and that method yielded the best results. Shrimp heads contain a measure of what we call “fat,” and it is delicious sucked out of the grilled heads – just as we do with boiled crawfish. A messy business, to be sure, but worth it.
It was also only recently that I finally figured out how to make grilled skewers of pork that approximate ones I enjoyed on the island of Crete 30-some years ago. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I had never been able to come close to what I remembered – browned and juicy pieces of pork seasoned with wild oregano and olive oil, cooked over a charcoal fire. The proprietors of a small café in Lerapetra served them only on Sunday night, accompanied by thick hand-cut potato chips fried in the locally-produced olive oil. Residents of the small town filled the café on those nights and splurged on beer (which was many times more expensive than wine) to accompany the food.
It turns out that my mistake had been cutting the pieces of pork too large, which took longer to cook. The pieces were not as juicy as they should have been, nor did they have the same intensity of flavor from the seasonings and the grill. It was only because I experimented with the dish that I finally got it to my liking.
I keep looking for foods, especially vegetables, that are particularly suited to the grill. Last year I discovered Italian roaster peppers, a mildly pungent long pepper that is an ideal choice for grilling, and Pingtung Long eggplant, a beautiful lavender Asian variety that also loves the grill. Both are in my garden again this year, joined by Fukagawa scallions which have a high sugar content, making them ideal for browning quickly on the grill.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I like a dry rosé to accompany grilled food, a preference that sometimes produces raised eyebrows among certain types of people who take themselves far too seriously. Unfortunately, sweet pink wines have given rosés a bad name. And that’s too bad, because the good ones have a delightful tannic “bite” that stands up to and cuts through the smoky carbon flavors of the grill. Many are somewhat lower in alcohol than the average table wine, which makes them even more suitable for drinking in our steaming hot weather. If you doubt this, try some of the dry rosés coming from France and Spain next time you grill, and you’ll see what I mean.

Grilled Pork Skewers
Pork shoulder (Boston butt)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh oregano, thyme and/or rosemary
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Key limes or lemons

Cut pork into bite-size pieces not more than 1 inch long and only half as thick. Thread meat on bamboo skewers and brush with olive oil. Season with herbs, salt and pepper. Grill skewers quickly over a hot fire until browned on one side. Turn, squeeze lime or lemon juice over them and brown on the other side. Remove skewers to a platter and give a final squeeze of lime or lemon juice.

Grilled Shrimp
Large shrimp with shells and heads on
Extra-virgin olive oil
Creole seasoning
Key limes or lemons

Toss shrimp with olive oil and Creole seasoning. Grill quickly over a hot fire, turning once. Remove to a platter and season with lime or lemon juice.

Grilled Eggplant, Squash and Peppers
Small Asian eggplants
Summer squash
Long, thin peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh herbs, if desired

Halve or quarter the eggplant and squash lengthwise and make a few slits in the peppers. Brush vegetables with olive oil and grill over a medium fire. Turn and brush with additional oil as needed, until browned and softened. Remove to a platter and sprinkle with kosher salt and optional herbs.

Grilled Corn on the Cob
Corn on the cob
Kosher salt

Pull open corn husks, leaving husks attached at base of the cob. Remove corn silk. Press husks back in place and soak in cold water for an hour or more. Remove corn from water and grill over a low fire, turning frequently, until tender. Serve with butter and salt.

Grilled Asparagus
Fresh asparagus
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Key limes or lemons

Trim ends of asparagus and blanch briefly in boiling water. Drain and refresh under cold water. Drain and dry thoroughly. Brush asparagus with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and grill until lightly browned, turning as necessary. Remove to a platter and season with lime or lemon juice.

Grilled Leeks
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Key lime or lemon juice

Cut off the green tops of leeks and trim bottoms. Starting about an inch from the bottom, cut leek open all the way to the top. Turn the leek a quarter turn and repeat so the leek opens like a flower. Repeat with each leek and rinse well under running water to remove any remaining dirt. Dry, then brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and grill over a low fire, turning as necessary, until browned and softened. Remove to a platter and season with lime or lemon juice.

Grilled Bread
French or whole grain bread, thickly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Garlic cloves, peeled

Grill bread quickly over a hot fire, turning once, until toasted and browned on both sides. Remove to a platter, rub each side with a clove of garlic, then brush with olive oil. •