As you can no doubt discern from the dead giveaway of two grilled corn dishes in three weeks, I’m itching for summer. Southern California has dipped into its customary “June gloom,” a period of several weeks that I adore, because the marine layer keeps my morning cool enough for a comfortable dog walk, for a bit of gardening, sometimes even for a (gasp) sweater while I sip a cup of tea. And this would, under normal circumstances, be a satisfying start to summer.
But for the first time in a few years, I’m teaching a summer course. It only lasts six weeks, and so far they are engaged and have made me think new things about some of the stories we’ve read – always a wonderful thing for an English professor. Yet still, upon arriving home this past Thursday afternoon, the end of my initial week with the class, I realized I had to go back on Monday, when all I wanted was grilled food and maybe a beer on the back porch, and certainly not to craft a lecture on Frankenstein.
Since only two of these desires can be realized (Frankenstein must be attended to, whether I want to or not), I decided the grilled food should be as summery as possible. Some weeks ago I attempted a warm vegetable salad like this: corn and zucchini sautéed at high temperature and then doused with a sharp shower of lime, but the vegetables were disappointingly wilted. What they needed for the dish I’d envisioned was the grill.
If you haven’t already investigated the trio that is corn, zucchini, and lime, I suggest you do so immediately. Zucchini is such a mild, grassy, vegetal taste, so a hit of acid wakes it up and makes it interesting again. It plays well with corn, which carries its own grassiness along with the starchy sweetness that we so prize. Both benefit tremendously from the savory char of a grill – that taste of fire we seem to cling to particularly as the weather warms outside. Michael Pollan has speculated that there’s something about the process of cooking – of submitting food to heat and to flame – that truly awakens our humanness. Grilling – that barely tamed version of fire as a cooking medium – is perfect for summer dishes, then, because it echoes the looser, easier, perhaps even more primal feel of the season. Besides, aside from, I don’t know, cheesecake or ice cream, I can think of few foods that don’t become better when cooked on an oiled grate over a bright flame.
But in case you aren’t in love already with the summery ease and boost of flavor the grill imparts, dousing the still-warm veg in a dressing of lime, honey, and cilantro makes a sprightly side dish that needs only the crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds and the squeaky saltiness of crumbled cotija to complete it.
Because he’s nursing the same summer bug I am, N. wanted steak, so in addition to the vegetables he grilled a piece of sirloin flap.* As I played with presentation ideas, I realized the now-flexible planks of zucchini with their glorious char marks could be artfully arranged on a long platter, and the steak could be sliced thinly across the grain and draped over top, and I could have something that looked, well, like it came from somewhere a bit fancier than my backyard.
By the same token, though, the salad could simply be piled high on a plate, dusted with cheese and pumpkin seeds, and served alongside anything grilled, or perhaps spiced potatoes, or even wedged inside a tortilla as a quite respectable base for a vegetable taco.
* You should make this, too. I didn’t document it with any kind of precision, but I marinated the steak overnight in some dark beer, crushed garlic and coriander, and a bit of red pepper flake, then N grilled it for something like 3 minutes per side over the cooler side of the grill (ours has some hot spots), and rested it wrapped in aluminum foil for about five minutes to produce an incredibly tender, flavorful main course.
Grilled Zucchini and Corn Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
3 ears corn on the cob, husk and silk removed
4 medium zucchini, stem and flower ends removed
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon pepper, divided
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup lime juice from 1-2 limes
1 tablespoon honey
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup crumbled cotija cheese
- Preheat a gas grill or a grill pan to high heat. While it warms, rub the corn with 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Grill the ears of corn over direct high heat for about 8 minutes, turning every minute or two, until the kernels are cooked and all sides are lightly charred. Remove and set aside until cool enough to handle.
- While the corn cooks, prepare the zucchini: slice from stem to flower end into ¼ inch planks. In a large bowl, toss with remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Lay out on grates or pan, being careful to keep them in a single layer, reserving any leftover oil in the bowl. Grill until cooked through and nicely marked, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside.
- While vegetables are grilling, toast pumpkin seeds and mix dressing. Scatter pumpkin seeds in a small baking tray and cook in a 300F oven for 10-15 minutes. Seeds will take about 10 minutes if the oven is preheated, and more like 15 minutes if you forgot that whole preheating part. When they are browned and starting to crackle, take them out and set them aside.
- To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, honey, and chopped cilantro in the bowl with the reserved olive oil from tossing the zucchini. Whisk well to combine.
- When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
- Add the corn kernels and the grilled zucchini planks to the bowl with the dressing and toss to combine. To serve, either keep the vegetables in the bowl and offer the pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese for individual diners to add to their own portions, or arrange the vegetables on a square or long rectangular platter and sprinkle the seeds and cheese over the top.