So, the other day I was talking to Tim Byres. You know, Tim Byres, the chef of the local BBQ joint, SMOKE. This is hardly a BBQ joint in the traditional sense, but there are just enough Olan Mills family portraits with old dudes in their Sunday best and cowboy hats, and other authentic touches, to make you wish you were back home at your favorite actual joint. I am assuming that you, like I, have a few of these portraits of your people (in your very best brown corduroy pants and chili bowl haircut) hidden somewhere and would be touched by such nostalgia. He is missing the soft serve ice cream machine and the giant food service tray of 8 hour old peach cobbler. But, he makes up for it with a storied key lime pie. I endorse that substitution mightily. The food is a decidedly upscale, fresh, and innovative take on classic BBQ dishes and family foods. It is really really good. It is also strangely inexpensive, given what lunches can cost around here.
Yes, I’m name dropping. No, I don’t really travel in such dynamic circles. But Chef Byres is helping me out with an article on bycatch and trashfish which I am writing for Edible Dallas & Fort Worth (look for it in the Fall issue). Somewhere after the discussion on tomatillo salsa, but before his recipe for pickled carrots and green beans, I mentioned making ratatouille with grilled vegetables. Or maybe he said something about grilling tomatoes first. But the word ratatouille had hardly left my mouth before he did that thing great chefs do…his brain got going and he excitedly began to talk about how it could be easily done with this and that and the other. Not wanting to waste his time on my little food fantasies, I brought him back to the recipe at hand and that was the end of it.
[Note in the middle: I hate words like ratatouille and charcuterie, not so much because they are French, but because everyone goes around pronouncing them like they themselves are the absolute authority on such things and it always throws me off my game because I’m about as French as a horned toad. My handy web resources show me that it can be pronounced like rat-at-TOO-ee or rat-at-TWEE or rat-at-too-ye (sort of) so have at it, pronounce it however you please with joy and verve and let’s not give a damn if people think we are saying it incorrectly…what do you say?]
But here is the point. He got me thinking that I needed to just roll with the idea and make it what I envisioned it to be, not what someone else said it ought to be. The result was not ratatouille. The main problem is that I don’t like eggplant. I’m sure there is some way out there that I might actually enjoy eggplant, but I have yet to find it. It reminds me of the McDonald’s Grimace and, I think similar in taste if I were to guess what grilled Grimace would be like.
So this is just grilled vegetables with pesto. But, I think it is wonderful. The pesto came to be because I have two big basil plants that need to be appreciated. I use a lot of basil in general because of these two loyal and hardy plants. The pesto I made was very thick and very rustic (read: chunky and less than perfect). I made it with my mortar and pestle instead of a food processor because I was in the mood to play with my food and love on it a bit. You should feel free to use a food processor or even buy pre-made pesto. That would make it a very quick dish, too. Just remember to buy some parmesan to sprinkle on top. I used pecans instead of pine nuts here. I like pecans. I think pine nuts are something of a pain because I always buy a large and expensive bottle of them and then I never use the remaining nuts and they go rancid. It happens every time. And, I like Texas pecans. They work great in this dish and I’m not sure I’ll ever buy pine nuts for pesto again. I always have pecans around and I eat them with everything so this is not a big leap for me. In fact, it is a sort of lazy and short leap. But fortunately, it is a delicious one, as well.
The dish is wonderful at room temperature so it doesn’t have to compete for space with your last minute grilled items. Just make it and set it aside to cool and go about your other business. This is a very nice option with the heat being so impressive at the moment.
Vegetables: (whatever you like, including but not limited to:)
2 zucchini, cut in quarters lengthwise
2 yellow squash, cut in quarters lengthwise
1 red onion, cut in wedges from root to stem, leaving stem intact
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thick strips
2 tomatoes, cut in half (any kind will do)
Prepare your grill to cook at medium heat. Cut your vegetables and cover them all with a bit of olive oil. The vegetables will be cut into bite size chunks later. The object here is to cut them so that they have a lot of grillable surface area and so that they will not fall through the grates. For the squash and zucchini, cutting them in half lengthwise and then half again, all the way from stem to root worked great. For the onions, leave the root end intact so that the onion wedges do not fall apart. You can cut that end off after they come off the grill.
Sprinkle the vegetables with kosher salt. Place the vegetables on the grill. After the first ones laid down have cooked for about two minutes rotate them about 45 degrees without turning them. Cook for another minute or two and then flip or turn them to another un-grilled surface. Cook for another 2 minutes and rotate them again. Continue grilling the vegetables until they are are cooked but still somewhat firm. The tomatoes will get very soft and that is OK. You are going to squash them and chop them into oblivion at the end anyway.
Remove all of the vegetables from the grill and set them aside to cool.
Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, smash or process the garlic until it is coarsely chopped. If using a mortar and pestle, begin adding the basil and a little bit of the olive oil, smashing it and emulsifying it. Add a little of each until you have incorporated the basil and the oil. Then add the nuts and smash them into the pesto. Then add the parmesan and, likewise, work it in to the pesto. If using a food processor, add in the basil, nuts and cheese and pulse a few times. Add the oil in a slow stream through the feeder tube until it is all incorporated. Season to taste with salt. Feel free to add more olive oil if you want. I didn’t want the finished dish swimming in oil, so I held back. If I were using it for a different application, I probably would have added more oil.
When the vegetables have cooled, cut them all into bite sized pieces. Smash and chop the tomatoes. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the pesto to the vegetables and stir to combine. Season with additional kosher salt, if necessary. Place the vegetables into a serving bowl and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
[This last photo makes me laugh a little because, as you can see, my kids are at the table horsing around waiting for silly mom to put down the bleeping camera and let them eat the food. So if I ever post a photo that you think is less than stellar, just remember that there are 3 people just outside of the frame begging me to “stop already.” Since my real job is mom, I generally (eventually) stop and feed them. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit...and sometimes you get less than perfect photos.]
Other great uses for pecans, since I’m on the subject: Yogurt Sundae, Carrot Cake with Orange and Honey Frosting, Vanilla Cake, Granola, Roasted Squash with Pecans and Honey, Blue Cheese and Honey, Love Pie, Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake, Cracker Pie. See, I wasn’t kidding. I use a lot of pecans.