"Not too long until fall," my husband, David, mused on our run yesterday morning. At first I thought he was rushing things a bit, but his observation piqued my awareness. I looked down. Sure enough, here and there on the gravel road was a smattering of red and yellow leaves.
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I'm not deceived. I've lived long enough to know there are still a few scorchers in the offing, but I also know fall's knockin' on summer's back door. While the weather's still holding, why not celebrate? And while it's still easy, use the grill.
Start with grilled pizza. Never tried it? You'll like it. I promise. With the grill's direct and enveloping heat, grilled pizza cooks up faster and crisps up better than oven-baked. You can make your own pizza dough. It's just five minutes in the food processor and a couple of unattended hours rising time. But these days pizza dough is also widely available in one-pound balls, making fresh pizza almost as simple (and more superb) than store-bought crust.
- If you're using fresh dough — store-bought or homemade — I offer a few tips:
- Resist the temptation to punch down and knead risen dough (and don't aggravate the grocery store stuff either). In its relaxed, supple state it's ripe for stretching. Knead it and you're stuck waiting for it to relax again.
- Stretch pizza dough into long rectangles rather than rounds. It's easier (as is cooking and cutting).
- Get the grill good and hot, but then turn down the heat once the stretched dough is put on the grill.
- Whether you need them or not, grill four pizzas at a time. Leftovers make a wonderful meatless lunch. To reheat, pop in the microwave to take off the chill and then warm them in a 300-degree (toaster) oven to re-crisp.
- Keep it simple. Don't make sauce or prepare toppings. Rather, spread them with flavored ricotta, and top with roasted or fried peppers and olives (both of which you'll find in the grocery store's Italian aisle.
While everyone nibbles pizza, crank up the heat again and lay on the Cornish hens. Butterflied, they cook more quickly and evenly. Once the hens have browned — 4 to 5 minutes per side should do it — dial back the heat and brush with reduced balsamic vinegar, a quick way to impressively flavor and color the birds.
If the birds are big and appetites are small, consider a half hen per person. Or grill one for each with leftovers to enjoy the next day.
You have your choice of side dishes — what doesn't go with chicken! Grill veggies during the high-heat phase in the open spaces. With all the grilling, you may prefer to cook vegetables indoors while the birds finish up over low heat. Green beans, broccoli, steam-sautéed spinach, corn and cherry tomatoes all work well.
Dessert is utterly simple. Sugar sliced end-of-season peaches served with a dollop of light sour cream or yogurt and a sprinkling of candied pecans or walnuts (which you'll likely find in the produce section).
Dine al fresco and enjoy the last of the warm weather. Since the days are getting shorter you might need a few candles, and you probably ought to grab a light sweater. Chilly nights are back.
Grilled Pizzas With Ricotta, Roasted Peppers and Olives
Serves 4 as a main course and up to 8 as an appetizer
1 cup part-skim ricotta, thinned with 2 tablespoons milk
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
Salt and ground black pepper
1 pound bag store-bought pizza dough
1 jar (12 ounces) fried peppers or roasted red peppers packed in oil, cut into thin strips
16 pitted kalamata olives, halved
4 ounces (about 1 cup) grated sharp provolone cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
Turn all burners of a gas grill on high or build a medium-hot charcoal fire. Mix ricotta, milk, garlic, basil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper in a medium bowl; set aside.
Without punching or kneading dough (which makes stretching more difficult), turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using a dough scraper or sharp knife, quarter dough crosswise. Working one at a time, stretch each portion into a rustic 12- by 3 1/2- to 4-inch rectangle; transfer to a large cornmeal-coated baking sheet.
Reduce grill heat to medium; lift stretched pieces of dough onto grill. Cover and cook until bottoms are spotty brown, moving them around to ensure even cooking and piercing puffing dough as necessary, 3 to 4 minutes. Return pizza crusts, grilled side up, to baking sheet, topping with a portion of each in the following order: ricotta mixture, peppers, olives, provolone. Return pizzas to grill; cover and continue to grill until pizza bottoms are spotty brown, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a cutting board; sprinkle with Parmesan, cut into pieces and serve.
Grilled Balsamic-Glazed Butterflied Cornish Hens
Serves 4 to 8
4 Cornish hens, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds each, rinsed, dried, split down the backbone with kitchen shears, opened up and pressed flat to butterfly
4 teaspoons each: kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and Italian seasonings
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
Prepare Cornish hens as described above. Mix salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings; sprinkle over both sides of Cornish hens. If time permits; let stand on a wire rack over rimmed baking sheet up to 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.
Meanwhile, bring vinegar to simmer in a medium skillet over medium-high heat; reduce to thin syrup (about 1/4 cup), just a few minutes.
When ready to cook, heat a gas grill igniting all burners on high for at least 10 minutes. Place hens on hot rack; cover and grill, skin side down, until impressively marked, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn birds over and continue to grill until well brown on remaining side, 4 to 5 minutes longer. Reduce heat to low and brush skin side with reduced balsamic; cover and continue to grill 7 to 8 minutes. Turn birds over brush with remaining vinegar and continue to cook until birds are impressively brown and cooked through, 7 to 8 minutes longer. Remove from grill and let rest a few minutes. Serve.
Sugared Peaches With Sour Cream and Honey-Roasted Pecans
6 medium peaches, peeled and pitted
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
6 heaping tablespoons sour cream
6 tablespoons honey-roasted pecan or walnut pieces (from a 3.5 ounce packet)
Mix peaches, sugar and almond extract in a medium bowl; let stand a few minutes for sugar to dissolve and peaches to give off a little liquid. Spoon peaches into goblets; top with sour cream and pecans. Serve.
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