I’m not an expert on grilling. It’s not that I don’t like it. On the contrary, when I grill something after not having done so for a while, I’m bowled over, wondering how anything could possibly taste better. But anything done too frequently begins to lose its savor. For me, grilling is most enjoyable when done somewhat rarely. A grilled ribeye once a month is a revelation. A grilled ribeye every other day is boring.
And so I love to grill, but it seems like I never do it enough to get really good at it. When using real wood or charcoal, it can also be quite hard. Really good grill masters can assess the heat of their fire by look or a mere wave of the hand. I’m not really inspired by grilling with gas, and grilling with wood can be an undertaking: having wood or charcoal on hand, starting the fire, maintaining the fire, cleaning the grill afterward. Ugh.
A lot of grilled food is also dreadful: overcooked steaks, burned and dried-out vegetables which taste of nothing but char, a beautiful piece of chicken slathered in sauce. It is not easy to grill well, as popular as it might be.
But I have learned a thing or two. Having had my share of flavorless, dried-out grilled vegetables, I recently resolved to pick one to focus on and to find a way to make it delicious. I picked zucchini. Specifically, I picked large zucchini, the kind which someone with a garden inevitably has to deal with from time to time. I don’t mean the huge baseball bat zucchini which belong in the compost, but large ones weighing about a pound or a little less. They’re actually ideal for grilling because they can be cut into large and thick slices, easy for turning and easy to keep from falling through the grill itself. If you only have smaller zucchini, by all means use them. But it will be a bit more difficult.
The biggest challenge with grilled vegetables is that they don’t have any fat. It’s relatively easy to grill a chicken thigh or a ribeye steak or a burger because of their fat content. Not so with zucchini. But I had an intuition that if I steeped the zucchini for a little while with olive oil, it would absorb enough to make it through its time on the grill while maintaining a moist texture and luscious exterior.
After a few false steps, I produced exactly the grilled zucchini I was looking for, with a deep grilled flavor but with a creamy and downright unctuous texture. Here’s how I do it.
Begin by slicing the zucchini into very thick slices, about ½ inch or just a little less. A mandolin would be great for producing perfectly uniform slices. I don’t have one, but I do have a deli slicer. You can use a knife, but it will be much harder. It’s very important that the zucchini be thick. They will shrink considerably during cooking and they need to be thick to be turned easily and to not turn into mush.
Season with salt and pepper and crushed red pepper and brush with high quality olive oil. Almost every part of the surface on both sides should be covered. I actually use a water misting bottle which I fill with olive oil. Allow to steep for at least 15 minutes, maybe up to 30 or so.
Produce a fire of moderate heat (one that you can hold your hand over for about 5 seconds) and lay the zucchini slices on the grill without overlapping. I do not pat them dry because I want the olive oil on the surface. I make sure the fire is not so close or so hot as to cause major flare ups. I also cook with the top on for the same reason. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes until nicely browned. Flip and do the same on the second side.
Even for such thick slices, 6 to 10 minutes should be plenty of cooking time. The zucchini are best when they still have some texture and are not complete mush. Plate the zucchini and drizzle with additional olive oil and some sort of fresh herb. I think mint is a perfect companion for zucchini, but thyme is also lovely, as are basil and/or parsley.
Serve at once or even cooled down to room temperature. I don’t generally fancy lukewarm dishes, but this one works well.