Smoke is a flavor. So is char. However, when we grill to cook, I believe that by and large we attend to these two less as flavors and more as either an aroma or an optic. For example, “Look at the nice char on that steak.”
Another enormously important and intricate flavor that we often confuse with a simple char is the so-called caramelization of sugars and amino acids on grilled foods called the Maillard reaction, named after its discoverer, French scientist Louis Camille Maillard. Nearly anything brown or dark brown on a cooked (baked, fried, sautéed, grilled, seared, “browned,” roasted, deep-fried, even dried) food is a result of the Maillard reaction. It produces complex flavors, aromas and background tastes, especially umami.
I say “so-called” caramelization because to caramelize anything is, in essence, to darken merely its sugars, not its amino acids. The Maillard reaction also darkens the latter.
But again, we generally highly prize the “little black bits” on grilled vegetables, fish or meats as a visual esthetic, not a flavor. But to me, they are flavor primarily and most importantly.
To that end, I wanted to devise a recipe for an array of grilled vegetables that would accentuate these three flavors of smoke, char and “caramelization,” unbusied by other flavors such as those in many a marinade (for instance, herbs, vinegar, juice or wine), from a dry rub (the flavor possibilities here are nearly innumerable) or a wet nap (again, too many possible flavors to count).
In the recipe here, the vegetables hit the grill — after being prepped — seasoned with good olive oil, salt and pepper only. The other flavors that they gain, they gain from the heat of the grill alone.
And it’s key to have the highest heat possible; the higher the heat, the stronger those flavors. So, build well the fire of thy grill.
Whichever sort of grill that you use, make one zone that is nearly too hot to approach, 600 degrees or so: a large pile of white-hot coals mounded on one side of the kettle, or one region of the grill turned up way-high. (I learned when younger that a grill’s fire reached its proper cooking temperature when I could hold my hand just above the grill grate and barely finish saying the word “Massachusetts.” For this recipe, you shouldn’t be able to whip out “Boston.”)
Then slope the coals (or turn on another set of the burners) so that there is a second zone around 350-400 degrees. And finally, leave a third zone under which there is no flame at all.
Salt and Pepper Grilled Vegetables with Grilled Olathe Sweet Corn “Confetti”
Serves 4-6, depending on portion size or use (for example, in a sandwich or atop steamed rice). The list of vegetables here is simply suggestive. You may choose as you desire; most any vegetable is grillable.
- 1 each medium-to-large zucchini, yellow summer squash and longish eggplant
- 1 each red and orange (or yellow) bell pepper
- 1 long hot chile pepper (such as Hatch or Pueblo)
- 3 caps of portobello mushroom, each about 4 inches in diameter
- 1/2 small head radicchio
- 1 large bok choy
- 3 thick “Chinese large onions” or 6 thick scallions
- 1 lemon
- 1 ear Olathe Sweet corn
- 1 1/2 cups good quality, flavorful extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons medium-grained sea or kosher salt
Prep the vegetables. Wash them all (except the mushroom caps), if necessary. Trim then slice the squashes and eggplant lengthwise into strips just under 1/2-inch thick. Trim then section the bell peppers at their natural folds and seed them. Trim then seed the hot chile.
Trim any stub off the bottom of the mushroom caps and brush or wipe off any soil or debris. Section the radicchio half into 8 wedges, keeping each wedge as one “book” of leaves by retaining in it some of the core. Trim the onions or scallions of any roots or thickened green leaves.
Slice the lemon along its “equator” into 4 pieces. Husk the ear of corn and rub off all the silk. Set and separate the prepped vegetables onto 2-3 large baking sheets or trays lined with parchment paper.
Pour the olive oil into a large bowl. Now dunk, bathe or otherwise generously coat each vegetable piece (including the entire ear of corn) and replace it on its baking sheet. Add more oil if called for.
Grievously pepper and mercilessly salt each vegetable piece on both sides and replace it on its sheet. Have the grill fire ready.
Cook the vegetables. Using long tongs, grill the vegetables in groups, about 3-4 minutes each side (replacing the grill top to smoke out any flareups, if necessary) utilizing the hottest zone first for 2-3 minutes, then the next hotter zone for another 1-2 minutes. (Some vegetables, such as the mushroom caps, may take longer or finish cooking in the “cool zone.”) Grill the corn cob off to one side of the hottest zone, turning it with the tongs as kernels darken and brown.
As the vegetables finish grilling, place them back on their trays (or on freshly-prepared trays), going on to the next group and so on.
When finished, set the corn aside until the cob is cool enough to handle. Remove the kernels from the corn by slicing down along the cob with a sharp-edged knife (such as a filet knife) and set aside.
Serve as desired, with the corn kernels sprinkled atop as “confetti.”