If you considered Memorial Day weekend the official start of the grilling season (as lots of people do), and July Fourth as one of the season’s main events, then around now you may be entering the midsummer grilling doldrums. You’re looking for something new to liven up your meals and wipe away those bored “Not again!” expressions you see on people’s faces when you bring to the table a platter of ready-to-serve food from the grill.
I’ve witnessed dedicated grillers trying to cook so many new things over a live fire. Some of them have been great ideas, like grilled pizza — a surprisingly easy technique and recipe I’ve shared with you before. And some have been less than great, but I’ll spare you the fiery details, just in case the intrepid griller in your family decides to take up the challenge.
But I often find that one of the easiest ways to bring fresh excitement to a menu from the grill can come in the same way that so many cooks liven up meals they cook indoors: by serving a beautiful, delicious, unexpected, yet simple new side dish alongside the main course.
Grilling is one of my favorite ways to cook so many vegetables, from thick cross-sections of onion to long ribbons of summer squash, whole scallions to quarters of bell pepper, parboiled fingerling potatoes cut in half lengthwise to kebabs of mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. The heat of the grill cooks vegetables quickly, perfectly al dente, caramelizing their natural sugars as they char slightly and adding a welcome touch of smokiness.
So many vegetables are suited well to the grill that you can plan your side-dish menu just by strolling through the farmers market or a good produce section. But one of my favorites usually raises eyebrows when I mention it: cauliflower.
Yes, the often-disrespected cauliflower can become a thing of beauty if you grill it the right way. For me, that starts with parboiling a whole head of cauliflower, which partially cooks it so it needs just a fairly quick searing on the grill. Then I slice the vegetable vertically into “steaks” — thick slices that you can cook and turn easily, as you would a slab of meat. The cross-sections look beautiful, especially if you pick up from the farmers market an assortment of the colorful varieties of cauliflower — purple, green, yellow — some growers are now cultivating. And the flavor is unbelievably delicious.
Add a light version of pesto, as I do in the recipe I share from my new book, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy, and you have a side that could even double as a vegetarian main course. And won’t that open eyes with happy surprise when you serve it at your next grilled meal?
GRILLED CAULIFLOWER STEAKS WITH LIGHT PESTO SAUCE
1 large head cauliflower
Olive-oil-flavored nonstick cooking spray, or extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Light Pesto Sauce (recipe follows)
Remove the leaves from the cauliflower head, and trim the base even with the bottom of the head. Set aside.
Bring to a boil a large pot of water deep enough to immerse the whole cauliflower head. Meanwhile, fill with ice cubes and water a bowl large enough to hold the cauliflower, and place the bowl near the stove.
When the pot of water reaches a full boil, lightly salt the water. Place the head of cauliflower on a large sturdy wire skimmer or strainer spoon, and gently lower the cauliflower into the boiling water.
As soon as the water returns to a boil, use the skimmer or spoon to lift out the cauliflower from the pot and transfer it to the ice water to cool for at least 2 to 3 minutes.
Thoroughly drain the cooled cauliflower head, and pat it dry with paper towels. Transfer it, stem end down, to a cutting board.
With a large sharp knife, and starting near the top-center, carefully cut the cauliflower head vertically into slices about 3/4 inch thick. You should get at least 4 large “steaks” and several other good-sized slices. Reserve any smaller pieces to use as crudites or in salads.
Build a fire in an outdoor grill, or heat a large nonstick ridged stovetop grill pan or electric countertop grill to medium-high heat. Spray the cauliflower slices on both sides with nonstick cooking spray, or lightly brush them on both sides with olive oil, and season to taste on both sides with salt and pepper.
Place the cauliflower steaks on the cooking grid, grill pan or grill. Cook until they are seared a deep golden-brown color, about 5 minutes per side. After you turn them over with a wide spatula, drizzle a little of the Light Pesto over them; or, alternatively, leave them plain. Transfer the steaks to a heated platter or individual plates, and serve immediately, passing pesto alongside for guests to add to taste.
LIGHT PESTO SAUCE
Makes about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the basil, garlic, olive oil and lemon zest in a mini food processor, mini blender or the blending cup of an immersion blender. Add 1 tablespoon cold water. Process or blend until smooth. Pulse in a little salt and pepper to taste.