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Turn Grilled Vegetables into Savory Pasta Sauces

Toss grilled vegetables, chicken, and fresh herbs with hot pasta for smoke-kissed summer suppers

Fine Cooking Issue 34
Photos: Grey Crawford
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My favorite dishes are often the serendipitous ones—dishes that are born through happenstance and that sometimes end up surpassing anything I might have planned on. One group of dishes in my repertoire that came about this way is pasta tossed with grilled meats or vegetables. What began as a way to use grilled leftovers the day after a cookout has turned into a purposeful way of cooking.

All three recipes I’m including here are filled with that smoky, charred flavor that we love so much from grilled foods. And while they all have grilled ingredients tossed together, they all feel quite different because they’re bound in different ways. The Penne with Grilled Chicken, Portabellas & Scallions uses olive oil and a little of the pasta boiling water to make a light but creamy emulsion to moisten and bind the ingredients. In the Spaghetti with Grilled Eggplant, Tomato & Onion, the grilled vegetables collapse and become saucelike as they get tossed with the pasta. And the topping for Ravioli with Grilled Vegetable Sauce is a purée—a sauce in the classic sense. All of these sauces can be enhanced, of course, by the addition of condiments and seasonings.

Add texture and flavor to grilled pasta dishes

When it’s time to toss the grilled ingredients with the pasta, consider reaching into your pantry for condiments and seasonings that will add even more flavor and texture to the finished dish. Garlic, of course, is a natural, but here are more tasty complements to the smoky sweetness of these grilled pastas.

  • For fresh herb flavor, stir in chopped basil, mint, parsley, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, or fennel leaves.
  • For heat or zip, add freshly crushed black pepper, dried red chile flakes, crushed fennel seed, or green peppercorns.
  • For crunch and texture, try walnuts, chopped roasted almonds, pine nuts, grilled chunks of peasant bread, or crisped, chopped pancetta or bacon.
  • For a salty-briny kick, toss in some chopped black or green olives or capers. Sardines or salted anchovies are particularly good with grilled shellfish.

Use vegetables that hold up well on the grill

Vegetables that are moist yet hold their shapes reasonably on the grill are my favorites for these pastas.

Eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, asparagus, scallions, and bell peppers work best. These vegetables stay relatively intact during grilling, yet they’ll get soft enough to bond with the pasta when you toss. The one exception here is tomatoes, which usually do fall apart when you grill them. But when it comes to these pastas, a grilled tomato’s fragile consistency is a big plus: soft, charred flesh and juice become saucelike and are transformed into a delicious dressing for the pasta.

Grill onions and mushrooms until they’re soft and branded with grill marks. Grill peppers until the skins are charred.
Purée the grilled vegetables and the tomatoes in a food processor.

Choose a pasta shape that’s compatible with the ingredients you’re adding. For the Grilled Chicken, I like tubular pasta such as penne or macaroni because it’s about the same size as the sliced chicken and vegetables. Ingredients that are fall-apart-tender or that are chopped small, such as the Grilled Eggplant, go best with filiform pastas such as spaghetti or fettuccine. The smooth, smoky Grilled Vegetable Sauce purée is best shown off by stuffed pastas such as tortellini, ravioli, manicotti, by small disk- or nugget-like pastas such as orecchiette or gnocchi, or by long, flat pastas like fettuccine.

Pass the purée through a food mill or sieve. Use a wide or fine mesh, depending on the texture you want.
Simmer with olive oil and a little cream until dense, smooth, and reduced to 4 cups of sauce, 30 to 40 minutes.

Build the fire to one side of the grill

By pushing the coals to one side of the grill box, or to either side with a space in between, you’ll have more control over the heat—one side will be very hot and the other side less intensely so. This way, you’ll have a cooler spot to which you can move food that’s flaring up or cooking too fast. If you have a gas grill with two burners, keep one side on high and the other on low, or use the shelf for food that needs a break from the heat.

When positioning sliced vegetables on the grill, set them perpendicular to the crossbars so you won’t have to struggle to grasp them and so they’re less likely to fall into the fire.

Medium-high heat works best for grilling vegetables. And because grills and flames vary, I suggest paying close attention to how the grilled food looks to judge doneness, rather than sticking strictly to cooking times. For most of the vegetables in these recipes, perfectly cooked means nicely browned and tender all the way through. You’ll notice in the recipes that I’ve included both a time window and words about appearance to gauge doneness.

Be attentive (but not excessively fussy) when you’re grilling the ingredients for these pastas. Once the food is on the grill, turn it as infrequently as possible so that it will cook evenly and, if possible, be attractively striped with grill marks. Unless you have flare-ups and need to push the food to a spot where the flames are lower, you don’t need to do a lot of fiddling. Chicken, mushrooms, and eggplant will need less attention than onions, peppers, scallions, and tomatoes.


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