We all have recollections of exceptional dining experiences that set a benchmark for flavor. It’s funny how a memorable meal lingers in the mind.
Perhaps a home cook or a restaurant somewhere made the best (fill in the blank) and, tasting it, you were taken by surprise. It was a small epiphany, a window open to possibilities. There was a certain feeling of exhilaration, a sense of satisfaction.
Some years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, a dear friend invited me to lunch at her beach house. She is a very talented cook, who knew I could be counted on to get excited about things she didn’t dare serve to other friends, like offal and trotters. On this day, she was very excited. “We’re having grilled vegetables!” she said in a way that made them sound as luxurious as lobster.
Her outdoor table had a small, rusty hibachi grill at one end, filled with glowing coals. There was a large tray of sliced vegetables, artfully arranged. We sat and grilled our lunch.
The vegetables were not painted with oil before grilling. Instead, guests were instructed to grill them dry, and to anoint them with extra-virgin olive oil only when they were on our plates. We were also urged to refrain from salt.
The meal was revelatory. Each vegetable was vibrant, and the flavors were incredibly bright and clear. This had much to do with their provenance, a local farm, and their freshness. But the grilling seemed to intensify the flavor, and all were sweet in their own way, without the need for any seasoning. I still recall the fennel — it was extraordinary.
For this week’s recipe, quarter-inch slabs of zucchini, summer squash, eggplant and onions are daubed with a little olive oil and light seasoning. Ripe tomatoes and peppers get the same treatment before spending time on the fire.
Keep the coals medium-hot, brisk enough to cook the vegetables without letting them become scorched. A bit of char is nice, of course, but don’t try for perfect grill marks. Remove vegetables from the grill when they are just done and still a little firm. Too much cooking leaves them looking withered and wilted. You’re trying to accentuate their fresh juiciness.
Tahini dressing makes a bright, garlicky, lemony accompaniment, lending an Eastern Mediterranean aura. It couldn’t be easier to prepare: Just mix sesame paste with lemon juice, a bit of garlic and olive oil, and good plain yogurt.
Take great care, and this, too, could be a meal that transcends past notions of grilled vegetables, creating a memory worthy of reminiscence.