A peppery salute and fiery farewell to joys of summer


September 26, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It was raining. The kids were hollering about their homework. The wind shook the dogwood tree, flinging down leaves and a warning that fall was on its way. Nevertheless, I planted myself over the barbecue cooker and grilled summer vegetables.

Whole green peppers, onion halves, and slices of eggplant sizzled over the coals. Eventually they were sprinkled with olive oil and became a tossed, smoky, side dish to some grilled chicken wings, soaked in a peppery barbecue sauce.

I grilled supper for several reasons. First, it was a relatively quick way to cook. Supper was on the table about 45 minutes after the fire was ready. Moreover, this dish broke the siege of the green peppers. A horde of peppers had positioned themselves in the produce bins of the refrigerator a few days earlier. And until this four-pepper recipe came along, their hold on the fridge had not been broken. Finally, I grilled because it was good for my psyche. One of the hardest parts of saying goodbye to summer is giving up my almost nightly practice of firing up the grill. Once it starts getting dark and cold at 7 p.m., I have to confine my fire-making to weekend afternoons.

I treat this cutback in barbecuing opportunities the same way I treat any attempt to diminish life's pleasures. I fight it. Like those pesky yellow bees who gorge themselves on their favorite foods before the first frost hits, every autumn I feel a compelling urge to grill heavily before the bad weather arrives.

This grilled vegetable recipe came from Marcella Hazan, who, as the author of several excellent Italian cookbooks, is a culinary cut above typical backyard cooks. Her recipe for "verdura mista in gratticola" or charcoal-broiled vegetables, runs three pages in "The Classic Italian Cook Book." But it is not hard.

The trick is to put the vegetables on the grill in the right sequence, starting with the onion, which takes a long time to cook, and finishing with the faster-cooking eggplant. Like square dancers, various vegetables first move toward the middle, or hottest part of the fire; then, after they have done their number, they sashay back to the edges.

An unexpected treat is that when you barbecue an onion, it changes personality and becomes sweet. This onion transformation has surprised a lot of occasional grillers, among them former Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

Several years ago I talked with Weaver and Pat Santarone, then the groundskeeper of Memorial Stadium, about cooking things on the grill. It was hours before the game. As Weaver sat in the virtually empty dugout, Santarone and I swapped barbecue tips. When Weaver heard that barbecuing an onion makes its sweet, the Oriole skipper couldn't believe it. Fixing his penetrating eyes on me, he peppered me with questions about how this was done. Upon hearing that one way to keep the onion from falling apart on the grill was to keep the tip of the onion intact, he seemed satisfied. Taking a quick tug on his cigarette, Weaver said "No foolin," or the locker-room equivalent of the phrase.

The other night as this year's baseball and summer produce seasons sputtered to their conclusions, I grilled an onion and thought of Earl.

Grilled vegetables

Serves 4

1 large onion, cut in half horizontally; remove crackly skin but keep tip and root.

2-4 whole green or red peppers

1 medium eggplant, sliced and lightly salted

about 3 tablespoons olive oil

Place onion, cut side down, and peppers on grill over medium fire. Turn peppers every 4-5 minutes. When peppers are entirely charred, remove them from grill and peel while they are hot. Cut in 2-inch strips and remove seeds. Put cut-up peppers in a bowl and set aside.

While peppers are still cooking, check onion. When one side is charred, turn it over with spatula and fork, being careful not to separate rings. When onion is charred on both sides, remove, scrape away blackened surface and cut each half into 4 parts. Add to bowl with peppers.

As space becomes available put eggplant slices on grill. Allow eggplant to reach dark-brown color, but don't let it char. Add to bowl.

Add enough olive oil to coat vegetables. Salt to taste. Toss Serve in bowl.

(Note: Tomato halves and thin slices of zucchini can also be grilled and added to dish. Put tomatoes on grill after peppers and put zucchini slices on after eggplant.)

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