It often is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and I find this truer nowhere than in my own home cooking. One summer evening a few years back, too lazy to head to the market, my wife and I decided to experiment with some leftover produce from a party the day before. Using stray summer squash, mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, pesto and leftover bread, we fashioned our first grilled veggie sandwiches.
We were narcissistically hooked from the first bite and have made dozens of variations every summer since. There's something about the mix of sweet and savory vegetables, gooey melted cheese and crunchy grilled bread that is addictively satisfying -- almost like warm-weather comfort food.
Although your kids already have traded in their swimsuits for math books, summer still swings at our farmers' markets. Now is the time to try grilled veggie sandwiches for yourself. A quick hit-and-run will get you most everything you need, even the bread, to make them at home.
The best part of these sandwiches is that anything goes. Whatever you like and whatever is ripe are the best ingredients. Be sure to get some tomatoes and potatoes too -- but more about them later.
While not in any way difficult, making these sandwiches does require a little preparation. I would allow about an hour from start to finish. Cut any summer squash or Japanese eggplant into uniform slices, about 1/2-inch thick. You can make coins, cut at an angle for oblong rounds, or long strips. Onions should be cut into 3/4-inch rounds. Stems, seeds and ribs need to be removed from all peppers, which can be sliced to your liking. Clean the mushrooms and, if using portobello, remove the gills and cut into thick slabs.
Next, decide what, if anything, you want to marinate. At this time of year, everything is tasty all on its own, but I like to give extra flavor to a few items. Try mixing three parts mirin with one part each of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar to emphasize the sweet side of summer squash. Treat oyster mushrooms gently, but get after the portobellos with some balsamic vinaigrette, Worcestershire, bottled Italian salad dressing or even teriyaki sauce.
I tend to leave the other items alone. We only use salt and a little olive oil on our home-grown Japanese eggplants, but they also are great with miso paste. Bell peppers and onions also are tasty all on their own, or with oil and vinegar.
While the marinade sinks into vegetable flesh, heat a grill over a medium flame and brush the grates with oil. Back inside, cut the bread into slices and brush them with olive oil. Now also is a good time to get any side dishes ready, such as broccoli or sweet corn; our favorite trick is to grill quartered new potatoes that have soaked in olive oil, vinegar, a healthy dose of chunky salt, pepper and a dash of truffle oil.
Next, slice tomatoes and some cheese -- either a good melter or fresh mozzarella.
Put the onions and bell peppers on the hot grill first, and put the lid down. After about six minutes, turn them over, then add the rest of the veggies to the grill. Turn these as needed to avoid charring completely, and cook for about six minutes more.
Be aware that onions have a bad habit of falling into the fire, so slide the rounds onto a pre-soaked skewer to prevent this, or caramelize them on the stove instead of grilling.
If you have space, add the bread at about the same time. If not, work in batches and put the bread on last, cook three minutes, then turn. Next, add pesto to the bottom slice and cheese to the top. Put the lid down to melt the cheese for two minutes, then build the sandwich right on the grill.
Work upside down, laying the tomato slices on top of the cheese, then stacking whatever combination of veggies suits your fancy. If you had to work in batches, kill the fire and close the lid for a minute to make sure everything is warm. Add the bottom slice and then serve using a spatula and an impeccably clean hand. Once the sandwich is on the plate, invert it so it is right-side up. Snap into it and let the eating begin.
The whole idea of this project is to enjoy the many facets of summer -- warm evenings in the backyard, a hot grill and local produce at the peak of the season. Besides that, they are easy to make, fun to eat and good for you, too. I love making these sandwiches because I feel summery when I eat them. Relaxing on the patio as day gives way to night, I am overcome with the sense that maybe this is the year summer really will last forever.
-- David Torres-Rouff
Grilled Veggie Sandwiches
Time: 45 minutes prep 15 minutes cook