“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .nips of Jim Beam to keep warm.” Oops, I'm confusing my seasons, although the holidays are only five months away! Yes, we are in one of my very favorite seasons. No, not a Four Seasons as you might expect from prior blogs, but the “Grilling Season.” One cannot open a food magazine or gaze at a Williams-Sonoma window this time of year without seeing something about or related to grilling.
I love the Grilling Season for when else can you dirty only one plate in the process of cooking an entire meal? Clean up is a snap, you can enjoy the great outdoors with a cocktail in hand, and, voila, in 15-20 minutes dinner is done. Use disposable plates and utensils and you have my kind of meal.
In the past, the Grilling Season meant getting out the Weber, dousing charcoal briquettes with enough gasoline to make a pyromaniac jealous, dropping a match on the saturated pile and hoping your eyebrows remain intact. Nowadays whole magazines and HGTV shows are devoted to creating the quintessential “outdoor kitchen.” Throwing some “shrimp on the BBQ” takes on a whole new meaning.
While an outdoor kitchen is hardly necessary for good grilling, the concept has opened our eyes to the possibilities for outdoor cooking. Hot dogs and hamburgers are no longer de rigueur. Now the adventurous are cooking pizzas, vegetable dishes and even desserts. It is amazing how a little char and a smoky flavor enhance everyday dishes.
The following recipe incorporates fresh summer vegetables with that smoky-char that brings another dimension to the dish. And best of all, it can be done ahead of time, which makes it perfect for entertaining. I made this dish at Georgeanne Brennan's “Provence in California Class” and the recipe is found in her recent cookbook, "Cheese: Williams-Sonoma." I've made it several times since the class and it has become part of my summer menus.
The layering of flavors, contrast of textures, beautiful colors and, of course, fresh, quality ingredients, make each bite dance across your taste buds. I am reminded of long summer days in the French countryside, perhaps the Loire Valley. It is an enduring dish that gives simple pleasures that make you smile and dream of another place with every bite.
Summer Vegetable Stacks (serves 4):
Grill - charcoal or gas (the charcoal gives a better flavor layer but gas will work if you don't have charcoal)
Ice cold cocktail or glass of rose wine (optional, but highly recommended)
4 small eggplants, sliced lengthwise into 3 pieces each
2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut lengthwise into quarters
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sprinkling
8 heirloom tomato slices
2-3 balls of fresh mozzarella cheese, preferably buffalo milk, cut into 8 circular slices
Handful of torn fresh basil leaves
Put the eggplant slices and the bell pepper quarters in a bowl and add the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Turn several times, then let stand for 30-60 minutes, turning once or twice. Meanwhile, preheat a grill to medium-high and oil the grill rack or grilling basket.
Arrange the eggplant slices and bell peppers directly on the grill rack or in a single layer in a grilling basket. Cook until the eggplant slices and bell pepper quarters are lightly charred, 6-7 minutes for the eggplant and about 4 minutes for the bell pepper. Turn and cook until the second sides are brown and charred. The timing will be about the same. Transfer the eggplant slices to a platter. Put the bell pepper quarters in a resealable plastic bag, seal closed, and let cool. When cool enough to handle, peel away the charred skin with your fingertips.
To assemble each stack, place a tomato slice on each plate, then stack the remaining ingredients on top in the following order: cheese, eggplant, bell pepper, and eggplant, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the basil leaves. Ready to serve!
Georgeanne recommends pairing this dish with a high-acid, crisp white wine like Muscadet, Soave, or Pinot Bianco. If you prefer a red, she recommends Tempranillo.