Spice and smoke turn up the flavor on grilled vegetables
This time of year markets overflow with cauliflower, carrots and zucchini. I stock the fridge only to find myself challenged to turn these unsung heroes into dinner all-stars.
The solution: Employ bold flavors such as sweet and salty seasonings, fresh herbs, crunchy toppings. Cut them into fun shapes, and then cook with wood fires and high heat.
Steamed cauliflower bores me — and it makes the kitchen smell funny. This hearty member of the brassica genus (which includes broccoli and cabbage) benefits greatly when cooked by hot, dry heat — either on a grill or in the oven. I find that much of the off-putting cabbage-y quality dissipates and the texture becomes pleasingly toothsome.
The recipe for cauliflower and carrots is reminiscent of a dish I enjoyed at Cafe Zola in Ann Arbor, where they dressed the wood-roasted vegetables with a spicy vinaigrette. Lacking a wood-fired oven, I roast my veggies over a medium hot grill with a few wood chips added for smoke. Cook the vegetables on a perforated grill pan. Alternatives to the grill pan include the top perforated insert from my broiler pan or several layers of heavy foil punched with small holes.
When I can find orange (aka cheddar) cauliflower at the local farmers market, I scoop it up. It’s mild, sweet, nutty flavor tastes terrific in this dish and makes a beautiful color combination with deep orange carrots and ruby red cranberries. For protein, crunch and satisfaction, I top the warm combination with glazed pistachios and a drizzle of tangy yogurt or sour cream.
My mother enticed us to embrace zucchini by crisping it in a skillet into crunchy disks of goodness. I still love those lightly battered slices straight from the pan with a sprinkle of salt and chives. These days, I like to pan-fry round zucchini, such as the billiard ball-shaped Eight Ball variety or pale green Tatume squash, and serve them topped with raw strands of zucchini salad for an attractive and satisfying light main dish. If you have one of the new trendy spiralizers, use it to turn oblong zucchini into skinny strands that eat great raw. I have a $10 julienne peeler (it looks like a vegetable peeler) that does the trick, too.
Wood-Smoked Cauliflower and Carrots with Pistachio Crunch
1/2 cup hickory or apple wood chips
3 tablespoons ras el hanout or mild curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 large head (about 2 pounds) cauliflower (orange cauliflower if possible), cored
1 pound skinny carrots, peeled, cut on diagonal into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 large sweet onion, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 cup dried cranberries
Chopped fresh cilantro
Plain yogurt or sour cream thinned with a little milk, optional
Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium heat. Meanwhile, soak the wood chips in a bowl of water. Have a perforated grill pan ready. Mix the spice blend and salt in a small bowl.
Put the nuts and sugar in a small nonstick skillet. Set the skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until sugar melts and glazes the nuts, usually 1 or 2 minutes. (Do not walk away, or the nuts may burn.) Cool. Break into small pieces. The nuts can be stored in a covered container for several days.
Cut the cauliflower into large, bite-size florets. Put onto a baking sheet. Add the carrots and onion. Drizzle the olive oil over everything; toss well to coat. Sprinkle with salt-spice mixture; toss again to mix well.
Put a perforated grill pan over the heat source. Add the drained, soaked chips to the coals or place on a piece of foil over the gas burners.
Spoon the vegetable mixture onto the grill pan in a single layer. (Work in batches if necessary.) Cover the grill and cook, stirring 2 or 3 times, until vegetables are nicely golden and crisp-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. (Adjust the temperature of the grill or move the pan to a cooler side if vegetables start to get too dark.)
Remove the cooked vegetables to a serving platter. Sprinkle with the cranberries and cilantro. Drizzle with the thinned yogurt, if using. Sprinkle with the glazed nuts. Serves 4.
Oven variation: Cook the seasoned vegetable mixture on a large (or 2 smaller) oiled baking sheets in a 375-degree oven, stirring often until fork tender, about 20 minutes.
Per serving: 311 calories; 18 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 52 percent calories from fat); 35 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 684 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 9 g fiber.