Veggies tend to dominate my summer cooking. That’s a good thing, to be sure (lighter, healthier, and all that). But let’s face it. Vegetables get boring. For as far back as I can recall, I have been dutifully steaming, saucing, and sautéing vegetables all summer long. This year, I’ve been craving change, yearning to venture out into new, decadent vegetable frontiers. I’m pretty sure I deserve it. After all, my mom never had to resort to Velveeta to trick me into eating my greens.
It started back in May, in one of those innocent ‘what would happen if I added this to this?’ cooking thoughts we all entertain from time to time. An uncommonly long rainy season delayed many springtime delights for a tortuous few weeks longer than usual. Asparagus was particularly stubborn; I pounced the moment I spotted a bundle. Admittedly, my relationship history with asparagus is one of extremes. While it’s truly my favorite of vegetables, by the time it’s finally available in local produce bins, having longed for it all winter, I go nuts. I’ll eat it every day for the short period in which it is fresh, local, and reasonably priced—to the point of growing sick of it. This year was no different. Well that’s not true. This year was worse (it was the extended wait, you see). I made it so often, I actually started to ignore asparagus at the market. Then I got an idea:
Trim and blanch one bunch of asparagus for 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of ice water, then drain and gently dry. Arrange the asparagus on a plate and put them in the fridge while you make the dressing. Blend ½ cup (about a handful) of crumbled soft goat cheese with ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, ¼ fresh lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Blend the ingredients well but do not try to make the dressing smooth. You want it chunky and crumbly. Now drizzle this all over the chilled asparagus and dust with ground black pepper. I’ll never ignore you again, my darling.
Summer arrived, and with it the myriad varieties of sweet and hot peppers, including the ubiquitous-in-summer friggitello. This mild, not-terribly seedy pepper and I go way back. They’re great for frying (hence the name), and they’re also nicely-suited to stuffing and baking. One evening, uninspired, and feeling guilty about the neglected friggitelli occupying the crisper, I decided to try something new:
Grill the de-capped and de-seeded friggitelli until they are soft and slightly blackened. Remove them to a plate, top them with grated Asiago cheese—I would have used Monterey Jack but alas it is not available where I live—and then generous squirts of Sriracha sauce. Hot damn! These were mighty good.
As you’ve probably discerned by now, cheese is the star of this show. Thanks to cheese, my veggies and I have rekindled our tired, too-comfortable love this summer. A mere garnish in the above two dishes, cheese takes front and center in this next one:
Gather several leaves and sprigs of fresh sage, basil, thyme. Rinse the herbs if needed and arrange them on a platter or board. Roughly chop some other green veggies like zucchini or broccoli, grill or steam them, salt to taste, and set aside. Over medium coals (or on a grooved grill pan, oiled), grill the tomino rounds a few minutes on each side, flipping only once, until they are slightly charred and just starting to break open. Transfer them immediately to the bed of herbs (with a large, steel spatula—the melting tomino will stick to anything plastic). Add the other vegetables and dress all with extra virgin and fresh ground black pepper. Encourage the gooey tomino to spill over the herbs a little bit before eating. I call this my ‘melted cheese salad’. I’m a genius, right?
Next up is a recipe I am indebted to for having successfully brought the tomato back into my favor. Don’t get me wrong—I adore tomatoes. But excess (would you say dozens of kilos from July to early October is excessive?) invariably spoils a good thing, even our favorite thing. This recipe will have you sending love notes and shaving your legs every day for the tomato in your life:
Slice several large round tomatoes in half. Grill them first, a few minutes first on the undersides and then on the open (flat) side. Let them char a little. Transfer them to a baking dish, flat side facing up. Cover each piece in this order with: a little olive oil, salt and pepper, a sprinkling of bread crumbs, and several small chunks of chèvre (the more aged the better). Broil them for about 5 minutes on the highest setting or until the cheese bubbles and browns. Let cool before serving. Now go buy your tomato something pretty.
Now for a recipe that reverses the veggie-to-cheese ratio a bit. Oh, who am I kidding? There are no veggies here. Just savory, warm, gorgeous French brie cheese:
Wrap several fresh, large sage leaves all around a wedge of brie and secure all with cooking twine. Grill the wedge over a low-to-medium coals, about 5 minutes on the first side, or until the sage just starts to blacken. Very carefully flip the brie, once only, and grill for 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. Remove from the grill the second the melting brie starts to escape. Transfer to a cheese board, delicately cut away the twine with scissors, and scoop these dollops of heaven onto crackers.
I stole this last, life-changing recipe from the foul-mouthed vegan master Thug Kitchen (put the kids to bed before opening this link, seriously). While I appreciate the creativity that goes in to making any dish sans butter/cheese/meat appealing, it’s not TK’s vegan flair that keeps me returning to the site. You’ll see. Anyway, a few months ago the Thug published a recipe for grilled Romaine lettuce. I tried it, swapping out a vegan-friendly dressing for—you guessed it—cheese. Lots of grated, aged-many-months perfect Parmesan. I won’t say this touch made a good recipe great. That would insult the Thug and me both. Rather, I turned an outstanding recipe into a gob-smacking miracle for the mouth. It’s just not vegan (who’s only pretty when I’m drunk, anyway).
Slice the full heads of Romaine in half length-wise and dress with olive oil, salt and pepper. On the inside (flat) half, sprinkle generous amounts of grated Parmesan, pressing the cheese down into the crevices of the lettuce halves. When your coals are calm but still glowing, place the halves outer (round) side down on the grill and let grill for about 5 minutes, or until the outer leaves are charred. Then gently flip the halves, but don’t abandon them as the oil will spill out and cause a flame-up. They’re done after about 3 minutes, or when the flat side is nicely browned and the cheese is melted. Transfer the lettuces to a platter and dress if needed with a little more olive oil and cheese.
I’m heading down to my vegetable patch now to see about this tasty little number, a bright orange bell pepper who caught my eye last week and is surely ripe for picking. Don’t tell the tomato.