Cooler, softer, kinder weather is finally here. The days are crystalline and cloudless with a sun that has traded its relentless oppression for a slow, distant warmth. The nights are heading in a deliciously bracing direction. It's getting darker earlier, and I can see a sliver of moon through the tree canopy in my back yard, just after the sun falls below the tree line and that rich, intense Maxfield Parrish blue coats the sky like a bolt of luxurious liquid velvet.
We want to be outdoors again in the late afternoon and especially the evenings because the weather is just too enjoyable to be missed. Last evening, with an elusive breeze just barely rustling the leaves overhead, I wanted to prolong being outdoors as long as possible. I had a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, and the latest copy of Food and Wine. I was relaxed. I was in my element. I was content.
Dinner was in the works. Earlier that day, I had been leafing through Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book (New York, A. Knopf 1980). I had found the recipe for pollo alla diavola--charbroiled chicken marinated in pepper, oil, and lemon. I thought about the clarity of the day. And I thought about the clean simplicity of lemon, pepper, olive oil and chicken prepared on a grill. I thought of that wonderful grilled Caesar salad I had wanted to try. And I thought of a deconstructed, grilled ratatouille, enriched with olive oil, brightened with fresh herbs and finish with fresh lemon juice.
Wait. Back up the truck! Yes, I just mentioned "pepper" in the previous paragraph. I know that some of you doubt whether or not I can be trusted with pepper after my recent paroxysmal pepper parody. I am happy to say that, on this particularly balmy evening in early October, I was on my very best behavior where piper nigrum was concerned. And I was very careful about how much pepper got into the food. Hopefully, you will all believe that I have now redeemed myself.
We dined late last evening, outside, under the canopy of trees and stars. The air was seductively cool and gorgeous and the food was "very satisfying to an outdoor appetite," as Marcella Hazan states in the introduction to her recipe. Here's what we ate:
Grilled Caesar Salad
My suggestions for revisions to the original epicurious.com recipe: use two egg yolks instead of 1 whole egg in the dressing. And yes, use the anchovies. Caesar salad is not Caesar salad without them. Also, after cutting your hearts of romaine in half, brush cut surfaces with olive oil before grilling. Follow the suggested grill time to retain crispness, and you will still have a little caramelization on the romaine.
Pollo alla diavola
As Marcella says, don't skimp on the pepper, or your chicken won't be alla diavola, "hot as the devil." You can butterfly a whole chicken and flatten it if you're familiar with this technique (or follow the instructions here), or you can use chicken leg quarters as I did. I also added a whole lemon, sliced, with the marinade for extra punch.
1 2-lb broiling chicken, butterflied (or 4 leg quarters)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 whole lemon, sliced
1 Tbs. crushed peppercorns
4 Tbs. olive oil
2 or more tsp. salt
1. Butterfly the chicken if preparing a whole one.
2. Put chicken or leg quarters in a large zip-top plastic bag.
3. Pour in lemon juice and add lemon slices, crush pepper and olive oil.
4. Close bag securely and massage chicken a little, distributing marinade well.
5. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 8 hours, turning bag over from time to time. I like to use a pan or large bowl to hold the bag just in case it leaks.
6. Prepare a fire and position grill about 5 inches above the charcoal. I used a gas grill and threw some lump hardwood charcoal on the lava rocks for great flavor.
7. When the fire is ready, sprinkle chicken generously with salt and place skin-side down on the grill, laying a few lemon slices over the chicken and broil until skin is brown and blistered.
8. Turn chicken and baste with marinade. Salt generously and place remaining lemon slices on chicken.
9. Turn after about 10 minutes and continue to cook again on each side, or until thigh meat is tender when pierced with a fork**, basting with marinade from time to time. If you run out of marinade, use olive oil.
10. Season with additional crushed pepper and salt before serving. Serves 4.
**I turned the gas grill to the lowest setting I could and still have flame, covered the grill, and completed cooking the chicken this way. The entire process takes about 45 minutes.
Grilled Deconstructed Ratatouille
1 small eggplant, cut in half and each half cut into quarters
3 Roma tomatoes, cut in half
1 medium green pepper, cored, seeded and cut into quarters
1/2 white onion, cut into thick rings
1 large clove of garlic, skin on
kosher salt for sprinkling
extra olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper for seasoning
8 fresh basil leaves
1 tsp. fresh marjoram leaves
fresh lemon juice, to taste
lemon wedges, for serving
1. Lay the eggplant wedges, the tomato halves, green pepper quarters, onion rings and garlic clove on a baking sheet and drizzle generously with olive oil; sprinkle generously with salt.
2. Grill vegetables on medium-low flame until slightly charred and eggplant is soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Roughly chop vegetables and squeeze garlic from its skin when they have cooled enough to handle and toss into a medium-sized bowl with a little extra olive oil, salt and pepper.
4. Tear basil leaves over grilled vegetables and add marjoram leaves. You can substitute 1 tsp. dried basil and 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram if you don't have fresh herbs available.
5. Season to taste with small drizzles of fresh lemon juice.
6. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 4.
Wine notes: You want a crisp, bright white such as sauvignon blanc or pinot gris with this menu. A lighter red, such as a beaujolais, a spare zinfandel, or even a Cotes du Rhone would be good choices. Ask your wine experts at Spec's for help.