Memorial Day is the ritual (if not official) start of summer — baseball for some, “downy ocean” for others. But for my family, it was always the weekend to break out the grill for the first cookout of the season — because a great smoky spread shouts “summer!”
Of course, a traditional cookout must include burgers and dogs (veggie in our case), served with a tray of sliced sweet onions, crisp lettuce leaves and tomatoes (if you can find decent ones this early in the season. My tip is to buy early in the week and let them ripen on the counter). Alternatively, for a more Mediterranean feel, grill up a tray of fat Italian sausages or bratwurst (Tofurkey is my brand of choice). Either way, since veggie analogues are naturally low-fat, brush or spray with olive oil before they hit the hot grill to promote browning and lock in flavor.
Whatever you choose for a main course, one of our favorite ways to usher in summer is also one of the easiest. Grilled vegetables, a stylish alternative to creamy, caloric, perishable sides (like potato salad or coleslaw), are the perfect harbinger of summer bounty to come. My mandatory choices are eggplant and peppers, but everyone has their favorites. The quickly cooked vegetables are surprisingly greater than the simple sum of their parts: They simultaneously char and caramelize — that tantalizing mashup of bitter and sweet — and maintain a crisp bite while melting in your mouth.
(Full disclosure: After 18 years as a dedicated griller, I now live in a condo that, sadly, doesn’t even permit an outdoor grill in the common area. But a big veggie cookup works equally well in a hot oven, and I will not be deterred!)
Along with the veggies, I like to throw a foil packet of new potatoes (which are just appearing now in the local farmers markets) on the hot grate, bathed in more olive oil, salt and pepper, to blacken in places and bring out their sweet umami. (In a month or so, corn will replace potatoes as the carb of choice).
At the last minute, if I’m feeling especially ambitious or well-organized, I toast flatbreads, brushed with (more!) olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt, so they are just short of burnt — and serve them up torn into big messy shards, heaped with the veggies and potatoes on a great platter, so that all the lovely juices run together. (The Russian produce stores — International Market in Colonial Village and Sun Fresh Produce at the old Pikesville Hardware — have a good, funky selection of flatbreads).
Tip: Some people make a big to do about cleaning their grill. My no-fuss method is to turn it to High for a minute or so, then scrub the burnt offerings with a long-handled wire brush to remove anything leftover from the last time you cooked out, even if it was last summer! Believe me, nothing can live through that heat.
A sweet ending
For a quick dessert, nothing beats strawberry shortcake — especially right now when local markets and farm trucks are bursting with the ripe, juicy berries for another few weeks. Whether you go through the trouble (or pleasure) of baking your own biscuits and beating the heavy cream, or grab a sponge cake and a can of the whipped stuff from Trader Joe’s, this no-recipe recipe is the perfect seasonal conclusion to a late spring meal.
This is one time when choosing dead-ripe berries and taking a few minutes to whip your own cream will serve you well. Consider making this first thing in the morning, because the longer it chills in the fridge, the more the cake will absorb the essence of the cream and berries.
Summer Vegetable Grill
Select from the following to cook in batches:
- Eggplant – remove small length-wise slice of peel on each side, then cut into ½-inch thick vertical slabs
- Peppers (bell, banana, poblano), seeded, halved length-wise and cut into 1-inch strips or wedges
- Zucchini squash (yellow or green), babies halved lengthwise, medium cut into ½-inch thick vertical slabs
- Asparagus (snap off tough ends)
- Onions, sliced into thick rings or lengthwise wedges (keep the root end intact)
- Portabella mushroom caps, whole, stems removed and trimmed
- Extra virgin olive oil, approximately 2 T. per batch of vegetables
- Balsamic vinegar, approximately 1 T. per batch of vegetables
- Salt and cracked black pepper
- Optional: Crumbled feta cheese, fresh chopped herbs (oregano, mint, parsley, basil)
> Heat grill to medium-high (or oven to 425 degrees).
> In separate batches, toss all the vegetables generously with olive oil spiked with a little balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. If using portabella mushrooms, remove and trim the stems, but do not discard them. This can all be done a couple hours in advance.
> With long metal tongs, place drained veggies directly on hot grill. Cook in batches of like veggies, since they will have different cooking times. Allow edges to char, but watch carefully and take care not to burn. If using mushrooms, grill stems and whole mushrooms until tender.
> Remove to a large platter and tent with tinfoil to keep warm, or serve at room temperature. If using mushrooms, slice caps on the bias like a steak to serve.
> Drizzle any extra dressing over cooked veggies and shower with optional feta cheese and chopped green herbs.
> Serve with grilled flatbreads on the side.
Deconstructed Strawberry Shortcake
- 1 pint ripe strawberries, sliced
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 small sponge cake
- 1 cup whipped cream
> Slice the berries, sprinkle with sugar and allow to sit for at least 20 minutes to draw out the juices and macerate the fruit.
> With a serrated knife, slice the cake into two or three even layers, depending on how thick the cake is.
> Spread the bottom layer with whipped cream and lightly press the sliced berries into the cream.
> Lightly press the next layer over the berries and pour any berry juices over the cake. Spread with another layer of cream and berries and top with the last layer.
> Cover and chill for at least one hour, up to overnight. Serve topped with more whipped cream and a few berries for garnish.
Ruth Goldstein is a local freelance writer.