During hot weather, cooking in a steamy kitchen can be torture. That must be why grilling was invented, to give eaters an option besides cold salads during the summer. Personally, I gravitate toward an old-fashioned charcoal grill — a cruddy little Smokey Joe, to be precise — but those with a gas-fueled monster can certainly make these incredibly tasty, fast starters: grilled caesar salad (wonderful, wonderful; better than the cold kind), a delicious, tomato-less cabrese (grilled eggplant and red pepper with mozzarella and basil) and grilled, meat-wrapped figs. These all tip in an Italian direction and my invented recipes would be easy to make all together — as a tasty little trio of summer starters.
The following recipes are approximate, since I’m too lazy to work out firm ingredient amounts. But these are so simple that anyone with a little cooking experience can put them together.
Soooo easy and so divine! Putting the romaine on the grill for just a little bit really transforms this ubiquitous dish, adding new taste and texture elements.
– romaine hearts (Trader Joe’s sells them three to a package, ready to go)
– caesar dressing (something acceptable in a squeeze bottle would work well; I use my spouse’s stuff from Whole Foods since it’s handy)
– garlic croutons (homemade or some version that’s better than the low-end packaged kind. I buy them from Trader Joe’s or at the Whole Foods salad bar )
– freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiono cheese (NOT the Kraft’s version in the green package that smells like barf)
– grill sauce: mix olive oil with balsamic vinegar in a 2/1 ratio and add some Dijon mustard and chopped garlic. Optional: a touch of salt
– (optional) cherry tomatoes as additional garnish
Slice the romaine hearts in half lengthwise and if desired, halve them again. Mix the grill sauce to emulsify the ingredients, them lightly brush on both sides of the romaine. It’s ok to swipe some on the individual leaves if desired. Grill briefly — maybe 1-2 minutes per side, depending on the grill. The romaine should look more or less like the photo below. Some wilting and blackening of the edges are fine.
Remove from grill and put on a platter. Run a line of caesar dressing down the middle of each piece. Don’t use too much; the idea is to give just a little taste of the dressing, not overwhelm the dish. Sprinkle freshly shaved parmesan across the top and garnish with croutons and cherry tomatoes. Voila!
Actually, a true cabrese salad uses tomato rather than red pepper but this amended version is goooood. Also, grilling tomatoes is not that easy since they can disintegrate and fall into the grill. The fastest way to make this is to pre-cook the vegetables a little in the oven but if the day is way too hot, they can be cooked on the grill if you watch carefully that they don’t burn.
– 2 medium-sized globe eggplant
– 3 red peppers
– buffalo mozzarella or whatever kind of mozzarella you prefer, sliced, room temperature
– roughly chopped fresh basil
– grill sauce (see previous recipe)
Thickly slice the eggplant (approx. 1/2 inch thick), stem and seed the peppers and cut them into pieces that will fit on top of the eggplant slices. Lightly brush the grill sauce on both sides of the eggplant and peppers. At this point, I “soften” the vegetables on a cookie sheet in the oven to speed things along, roasting them until they’re about 2/3 cooked.
Grill the vegetables on both sides until the eggplant is soft and the peppers are somewhat blistered. On a serving platter, place a slice of eggplant, then a slice of cheese (cut in rounds or ovals, less than 1/2 inch thick), then top with pepper pieces. Spoon a little grill sauce on top and garnish with basil. These can be consumed right away or at room temperature, increasing the ease factor.
Fresh figs are wondrous things. They’re sublime in salads, in desserts or grilled like in this recipe. The “ham” in this dish can be whatever you prefer. I like Black Forest ham because it’s less fatty and very tasty. If you prefer prosciutto, some other kind of ham — or even bacon — they will all work, although bacon is greasy and will need to be cooked a little in advance so that the fig isn’t turned into a carbonized memory. I’ve provided options on this recipe, but all iterations are terrific.
– fresh ripe figs (preferably black mission, but any will do), cut in half
– Black Forest ham, prosciutto or other meat, sliced thinly
– fresh mint
– grill sauce (see first recipe) or balsamic vinegar
Fig lovers might prefer whole figs for this recipe but I think that the flavors balance the best if the figs are halved. The figs can be lightly brushed with the grill sauce before cooking or not, for those wanting to save a few calories. Wrap each fig half in meat, using a toothpick to secure the ends. I use more meat than the photo above, which I grabbed from the ‘net.
Grill the fig/ham packages until the meat is crisp and browned. Remove to a platter and spoon on a little grill sauce or use plain balsamic vinegar. Garnish with chopped mint (basil can be substituted).
Option: Add some pieces of creamy cheese (burrata, whole-milk mozzarella, etc., at room temperature) after the fig/ham packages are cooked.