Last night I put the first of the home-grown zucchini on the grill. When they had softened and singed tantalisingly in black stripes, I tossed them in the salad bowl with lemon, olive oil and whole basil leaves. We ate the smoky, lemony vegetables slightly warm, while the basil still had all its peppery, clove-like scent. It turned out to be the best salad so far this summer.
The zucchini had a history that made them all the more enjoyable. I bought the seeds (Striato d'Italia) in April from www.seedsofitaly.com, then a month or so later planted out some of the tender young plants in the tomato patch and others in the terracotta pots that stand either side of the kitchen steps. Both have flowered profusely, great golden beaks that cheer up an August garden like nothing else. Now I have long, stridently striped zucchini coming at me as fast as I can eat them. And all from a packet of seeds.
There have been other grilled salads, too: the usual aubergine with a sassy, green salsa and, something of a new idea to me, grilled fennel. I only bought the elegant white bulbs because they were on a stall at the market, obviously straight out of the ground. I didn't really think about how they would end up. To be honest, it was a bit of a punt.
What set me off on all this was reading the barbecued veggies chapter in Richard Ehrlich's book The Perfect ... (£9.99, Grub Street), where I found his rules for grilling vegetables. They are: 1) they taste just as good warm as hot, so should be the first thing to go on the coals; 2) use a moderate heat and avoid excessive blackening; and 3) cut everything into large pieces that facilitate lifting and turning. There is a fourth, which I don't go along with, but never mind.
Following my instructions to turn my grill to low or, had it been a barbecue, waiting till the embers were only showing a faint glow, meant that the fennel softened tenderly, rather than crisped. This can be a pretty relentless vegetable: mouthful after mouthful of aniseed crunch. Over the grill, the herbal notes soften and the grill adds its own character. Tossed with olive oil and flat-leaf parsley, it really shines. Thank you, Mr Ehrlich.
This week has seen the start of the mozzarella season in my house. The softer and more jelly-textured the better. The difference in price you must pay for the very best is well worth it. What really works here is the sensational contrast between the cool white cheese and the upfront, punchy notes of the grilled vegetables.
There is no need to leave it at this. I am fully expecting to grill thin slivers of beetroot, again on a low heat, and fully intend to add grated horseradish to the salad dressing. There will be a round of grilled onions with soured cream, summer squash with garlic butter, mushrooms with a thyme and balsamic vinegar dressing, and as many zucchini as my plants can send me.
Grilled zucchini salad with basil and lemon
The flavours are of pure summer, and work splendidly with cold roast meats, grilled fish and mild, milky cheeses. A splendid antipasto, too. Serves 2.
4 medium zucchini
grated zest and juice of a lemon
3 tbsp olive oil
a small bunch of basil leaves
Wipe the zucchini and slice thinly along their length (no thicker than a pound coin). Put the slices on the grill and let them brown in stripes on the underside. Turn them over and brown the other side.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Grate the lemon into a mixing bowl. Do this finely and lightly: any white pith will make the dressing bitter. Beat the olive oil into the lemon juice, then add salt and black pepper. Roughly tear the basil leaves (I tend to leave small ones intact but lightly crushed to release the oils), then add them to the dressing.
As each slice of zucchini becomes ready, drop it into the dressing and mix gently so that the slices are completely soaked. Set aside for 10 minutes for the flavours to marry and the vegetables to soften.
Mozzarella with grilled fennel salad
I love this salad for the contrast of charred fennel and cool mozzarella. Don't even think of buying anything but the very best mozzarella. Go for broke. Serves 4.
2 medium-sized heads of fennel
4 tbsp olive oil
24 black olives
a small bunch of flat-leafed parsley
2 balls of buffalo mozzarella
Get the grill or griddle pan hot. Slice the stalks and fronds from the fennel bulbs. (You could add the stalks to stock.) Cut the bulbs into thin slices, no thicker than a pound coin. Lay the fennel on the grill, letting it colour on both sides. Depending on the heat of your grill, this will take 7-10 minutes.
Pour the olive oil into a bowl then add the olives. Add the parsley, roughly chopped, then season.
Lift the fennel off the grill and drop it into the dressing. Toss gently. Divide the salad between 4 plates. Slice the mozzarella thickly, then lay it on top of the salad. Drizzle over any remaining dressing or add a little more olive oil.
Grilled aubergine with lemon salsa verde
A punchy salad to serve with cold roast beef, or chicken, or perhaps grilled tuna. Serves 2.
1 large aubergine
a generous handful of parsley leaves
6 bushy sprigs of mint
a handful of basil leaves
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp capers, rinsed
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
Slice the aubergine lengthways into 5 or 6 steaks. Brush lightly with oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill on both sides over a low to moderate heat till tender.
To make the sauce, chop the herbs quite finely, then stir in the garlic, mustard and capers. Pour in the olive oil slowly, beating with a fork. Stir in the lemon juice and season generously, tasting as you go. The sauce should be bright-tasting and piquant.
Remove the aubergine from the grill, toss gently in the sauce and serve.