There's nothing quite like grilling. The heat is immediate, the aroma intoxicating, the flavor magical. In Italy, we grill a lot: we grill vegetables like carrots, eggplants, zucchini, peppers, fennel... we grill sausages and baste them with a vibrant mix of vinegar and olive oil... we grill juicy steaks and whole fish, we grill thick hunks of bread and fresh fruit... as long as the ingredients are superb, the results are always satisfying.
When I was little, my parents often grilled at our home overlooking the Lago Maggiore. There's a picture of us all, standing around the squat cement grill under my bedroom window, and every time I look at it I remember the anticipation of the first bite and the feasts that we enjoyed together.
My second cookbook The Italian Grill is my way of sharing some of these happy memories, and some of my favorite grilling recipes, with you.
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Eggplant Parmigiana can be quite elaborate; traditional versions call for deep-frying eggplant, and the most classic recipes of all suggest breading the eggplant before frying. While the result is doubtlessly delicious, it is also time-consuming and rather heavy... definitely not well-suited to summer eating. I wanted to create a lighter version of eggplant Parmigiana that we could enjoy in the hot weather, and so I opted for grilling rather than frying the eggplants, substituted sliced fresh tomatoes for the usual cooked tomato sauce, and cut down significantly on the cheese sandwiched between the eggplant layers. The result tastes like summer on a plate.
For this dish, you will need:
Since our friend Bill Bateman, our favorite NYC artist whose paintings adorn our cooking school, had just presented us with three glorious varieties of eggplant from a Vermont farm he had visited, I used all three varieties: a deep, dark purple eggplant; a pale mauve one; and a slender white one. All were delicious and cooked up evenly, so feel free to mix and match the variety of eggplants you use in this dish.
Cut the stem off the eggplants. Cut each eggplant into 1/4-inch-thick slices and place in a colander.
Place the colander over a plate. Sprinkle the eggplants with 2 tablespoons of the salt and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.
The eggplants will purge during this time, letting out a dark bitter liquid. This step is essential to ensuring that your eggplant comes out sweet, not bitter, so don't skip it.
Rinse the eggplants under cool running water. Drain well.
Line a counter with paper towels and arrange the eggplant slices on the towels. Blot dry with paper towels.
Heat an outdoor grill to medium-high, or heat an indoor grill pan over a medium-high flame.
Brush the eggplant slices with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. The eggplants will not be fully covered with oil, and that is fine; too much oil will cause the eggplants to burn on the grill.
Grill the eggplant slices until they are soft and nicely marked by the grill, turning once, about 3 minutes per side.
Do not undercook the eggplants; this is a vegetable that requires full cooking to coax out its subtle, delicious essence.
Remove the grilled eggplants to a tray and allow them to cool to room temperature.
This step can be done up to 3 days ahead; refrigerate the eggplants until you are ready to proceed with the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Lightly brush a 9-inch x 13-inch roasting pan with olive oil.
Thinly slice the Mozzarella and set it in a colander over a plate. Allow the Mozzarella to drip out excess liquid for 15 minutes. If you omit this step, your Parmigiana may end up watery, since fresh Mozzarella lets out quite a bit of water as it bakes.
Arrange half of the grilled eggplant slices in the oiled roasting pan. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of the salt.
Scatter the garlic over the eggplant, and cover with the sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of the salt.
Arrange the basil leaves over the tomatoes. You can slice the basil leaves first if you like, but I like to scatter them whole in between the eggplant layers; keeping the basil leaves whole preserves more of their lovely fragrance.
Arrange the sliced and drained Mozzarella over the basil, covering the surface evenly.
Top with the remaining slices of grilled eggplant. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of salt and drizzle the top with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.
Bake the eggplant in the preheated oven 30 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft, the Mozzarella has melted, and the tomatoes have broken down slightly.
Serve the Parmigiana hot, in generous slices, with crusty bread and a refreshing arugula salad. Serves 4
If you like, the Parmigiana can be baked 1 day ahead, cooled to room temperature, covered with aluminum foil, and refrigerated.
To reheat, preheat the oven to 350 degrees; reheat the Parmigiana, still covered with aluminum foil to prevent drying, for 15 minutes, or until hot all the way through.
You can refrigerate the eggplants up to 1 day before serving. When you are ready to serve, bring to room temperature and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Heat an outdoor grill to medium-high, or heat an indoor grill pan over a medium-high flame.
Meanwhile, brush the eggplant slices with a little olive oil.
Grill a single layer of eggplants about 5 minutes per side, or until lines appear on the bottom of the slices and the eggplants are thoroughly soft (uncooked eggplants don't taste good, so be sure to cook them through). Remove to a platter. Continue with the remaining eggplants in the same manner. Cool to room temperature.
In a bowl, combine the Ricotta, Parmigiano, parsley, mint, garlic, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and the cayenne pepper until smooth.
Spread the Ricotta mixture over the cooled eggplant slices and roll into neat bundles. Arrange on a platter. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt. Top with the tomatoes and basil, and serve at room temperature. Serves 8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course
The white part of scallions is much sweeter than the green tops. When using scallions raw, I generally don't use any of the pungent green part. When scallions are grilled, the potency of the green part is tamed, so I include the green parts too. To prepare the scallions for grilling, trim the beards if they are really long, but leave them attached as they will hold the layers together. Cut off about ½ inch of the dark green portion. Rinse the scallions thoroughly, rubbing well with your fingers to dislodge any sand caught between the layers.
Place the almonds and garlic in a blender. Pulse until a paste forms.
Add the tomato, paprika, cayenne, salt, parsley, and vinegar, and pulse until combined. With the motor running, dribble in ½ cup of the olive oil in a thin, steady stream; the mixture will emulsify. Transfer to a bowl; set aside at room temperature until needed (the pesto can be made up to 12 hours ahead). If the pesto separates, stir it vigorously.
Heat a grill to a high flame.
Toss the scallions with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and grill until lightly blackened all over and soft, about 5 minutes, turning often to cook evenly. Be careful not to burn the delicate green parts.
Serve the scallions hot, passing the pesto around the table; I like to dip the white part of the scallions into the pesto and, holding the scallion from the green part between my index and thumb, nibble away. Serves 4
Saltimbocca is a traditional veal dish from Rome: thin slices of veal topped with Prosciutto and sage, pan-fried until golden in a hot pan. In the recipe below, I add Fontina to lend a creamy, melting texture, roll the veal into bundles rather than leaving it flat, and use the grill instead of the sauté pan. If you like, you can stick with the original version and omit the cheese... it will still be a splendid dish. I prefer veal scaloppine cut from the butt, because they are so tender; if they are not available, opt for scaloppine from the top round.
Place the scaloppine on a tray in a single layer. Season on both sides with the salt and pepper. Top each of the scaloppine with 1 slice of Fontina, 1 slice of Prosciutto, and 1 sage leaf, and roll each into a neat bundle.
Spear each bundle diagonally with a toothpick to prevent unrolling. Heat an outdoor grill to medium-high, or heat an indoor grill pan over a medium-high flame.
Brush the bundles with the butter. Grill the bundles until golden-brown on the outside and cooked most of the way though (veal can be pink in the center), turning to cook evenly, 4 to 5 minutes total. Serve hot, removing the toothpicks first. Serves 4
Whether your grill of choice is charcoal, wood-burning, gas, hearth, electric, or even a grill pan, be sure to follow these basic rules of grilling:
Regulate the heat. Remember that thicker pieces of food need lower heat for a longer time, and thinner pieces of food call for more intense heat for a shorter period of time
Wipe off excess marinade if you marinated food before placing it on the grill. Otherwise the food may flare up, especially if there was a lot of oil in the marinade.
Keep the grill clean, or the food will stick to the grill. It might also burn and develop an off-taste if the grill isn't clean.
Oil the grill grate lightly just before placing food on it; this makes it less likely that food will stick to the grill grate, and creates more visible grill marks.