Italian cookout

If Americans wrote the book on the modern-day cookout, then they might want to borrow a page or two from the Italians, whose love of fresh ingredients and simple preparations translates perfectly to the grill.

With the Spoleto Festival and the Memorial Day holiday crossing paths this weekend, it's an ideal time to put an Italian spin on your backyard party and the food.

But where to get ideas? We found molti in two books, "Italian Grill" by celebrity chef Mario Batali (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008) and "The Italian Grill" by Micol Negrin (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

Happily, no purchase required. Both were obtained from a treasure trove of cookbooks at the Charleston County Library. The library has hundreds of titles in its cookbook collection, new and old and covering every kind of cuisine and technique imaginable. Check them out, literally.

Batali says that while America is a nation of barbecue/grill experts -- indeed, it's our specialty -- the Italian grill is "all about nuance and minimal interference with the flavor of the primary ingredient."

"There is no thick sweet barbecue sauce, no sweet-and-sour glaze, nothing kicked up a notch or two, and minimal basting (if any) in the Italian kitchen. Marinades are important, but they are lighter and certainly have no soy or teriyaki, or Tabasco and buttermilk baths. There is rarely anything more to them than good olive oil, citrus, wine, herbs, garlic, and hot chili flakes," he says.

Negrin of New York City is the author of the James Beard-nominated "Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking" (2002). She also runs a cooking school, teaches elsewhere and leads cooking tours to Italy.

Like Americans, Italians have favorite family recipes for grilling, be it sausages brushed with a rosemary branch dipped in vinegar or their version of the T-bone steak famous in Tuscany, Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Ken Vedrinski, chef-owner of Trattoria Lucca in Charleston and whose maternal family traces to the Abruzzo region of Italy, says cooking over fire is more typical in the rustic countryside. That's because of hunting and wild game such as wild boar and rabbit, although lamb is popular as well.

Serves 4

"Here is the classic grigliata mista (mixed grill) of Italy. Regional variations abound, and not all grigliate feature skewered meats like this one. Threading pancetta on the skewers not only lends flavor, it also provides fat, which ensure moister, more succulent meat."

Ingredients

1/2 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 8 equal cubes (about 2 inches each)

1 tablespoon minced rosemary

1/2 pound boneless lamb loin, cut into 8 equal cubes (about 2 inches each)

1 tablespoon minced sage

1/2 pound boneless and skinless chicken breast, cut into 8 equal cubes (about 2 inches each)

1 tablespoon minced thyme

1 red bell pepper, cut into 8 cubes

1/2 pound slab pancetta, cut into 16 chunks (optional)

1 large yellow onion, cut into 8 chunks

1 green bell pepper, cut into 8 cubes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 juniper berries, crushed in a mortar

1 teaspoon salt

Mom and Dad's Chili Sauce (recipe follows)

Directions

Cook's note: You can vary the meats used as long as they cook through in roughly the same amount of time. Avoid tough cuts such as shoulder, neck and butt in favor of delicate, quick-cooking cuts such as filet and loin, and your skewers will be delicious.

If you are using wooden skewers, soak 8 skewers in water to cover for 30 minutes; drain.

Toss the pork with the rosemary, coating both sides well, and set aside. Toss the lamb with the sage, coating both sides well, and set aside. Toss the chicken with the thyme, coating both sides well, and set aside.

Make the skewers: Thread 1 piece of pork, 1 red pepper cube, 1 piece of pancetta (if using), 1 piece of lamb, 1 onion chunk, 1 piece of pancetta, 1 piece of chicken, and 1 cube of green pepper onto each skewer. Place on a tray. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with the pepper and juniper, and marinate at room temperature for up to 2 hours (or refrigerate for up to 24 hours).

Heat a grill to a high flame.

Season the skewers with the salt. Grill until they are golden brown on all sides, turning often, about 8 minutes total. While the lamb can be rosy inside, the chicken and pork need to be cooked all the way through (they should register 180 degrees on a meat thermometer). Serve hot, with Mom and Dad's Chili Sauce on the side.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Grill" by Micol Negrin

Makes 3 cups

Serve with anything and everything grilled, as well as salads, bread and even pasta.

Ingredients

12 long, medium hot red chile peppers, chopped coarsely

10 garlic cloves, chopped coarsely

10 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

2 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

3 tablespoons fennel seeds, coarsely crushed in a mortar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to cover the sauce in the refrigerator

Directions

Place the chile peppers, garlic, tomatoes, salt, vinegar and 2 tablespoons of the fennel seeds in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth.

Transfer to a 1-quart pot, bring to a boil, and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, stirring once in a while; the sauce should thicken somewhat. Cool to room temperature and stir in the remaining tablespoon of fennel seeds and the olive oil. Adjust the seasoning if needed: The sauce should be quite spicy and a bit salty, but not overwhelmingly so.

Transfer to clean jars, seal and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Pour a bit of raw olive oil over the sauce in the jar so it is protected from contact with the air. You also can freeze the sauce for up to 1 month.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Grill" by Micol Negrin

Servings: 6

Ingredients

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Colman's dry mustard

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 orange, grated zest and juice

2 small Asian or Italian eggplants

2 red bell peppers

2 yellow bell peppers

12 baby zucchini with flowers or 4 small zucchini

2 medium red onions

6 scallions

12 spears pencil asparagus

Kosher salt

12 fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade (thin slivers)

Directions

Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, oregano, cumin, mustard, pepper flakes, olive oil, and orange juice (reserve the zest for garnish). Set aside.

Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut the peppers into quarters and remove the cores and seeds. If using baby zucchini, remove the blossoms and set aside; cut the zucchini lengthwise in half. If using small zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (discard the first and last slice from each). Cut the onions into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Trim the scallions. Snap off the tough bottom parts of the asparagus stalks.

Place the vegetables on two large baking sheets. Brush lightly with some of the marinade and season lightly with salt. Place on the grill over medium-high to high heat (you will probably have to cook the vegetables in batches) and cook, turning once or twice, until tender and slightly charred on both sides: the eggplant will take about 8 to 10 minutes, the peppers 10 to 12 minutes, the zucchini 6 to 8 minutes, the onions and scallions 4 to 6 minutes, and the asparagus 5 to 7 minutes. Remove each vegetable from the grill as it is done and return to the baking sheets.

Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Arrange the vegetables decoratively on a large serving platter and drizzle with the remaining marinade. Sprinkle with the orange zest, the zucchini blossoms if you have them, and the basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

-- Adapted from "Italian Grill" by Mario Batali

Servings: 4

Ingredients

Herb mix:

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

For steak:

1 (3 to 3 1/2 pounds) T-bone steak, about 3 inches thick

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 pounds trimmed baby spinach, washed and spun dry

Kosher salt

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Juice of 1/2 lemon, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Coarse sea salt

Directions

In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, sage, thyme, salt and pepper and mix well. Pat the steak dry and coat it all over with the herb mix. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over one side of the steak to moisten the herb mixture, and rub it gently into the mixture so it will adhere to the meat. Turn the steak over and repeat on the other side with another tablespoon of olive oil. Place on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand for 30 minutes to 1 hour to come to room temperature.

Meanwhile, preheat a gas grill or prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill (use enough coals to keep the fire going for about 25 minutes).

Place the steak on the grill, cover the grill, and cook until the meat is well-charred on the first side, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn and cook for 10 to 12 minutes on the second side, or until the internal temperature registers 120 degrees. Fiorentina is traditionally served rare; for medium-rare, cook until the center registers 125 degrees. Transfer to a carving board and let rest, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large, heavy pot, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, just until golden. Add a few big handfuls of the spinach, sprinkle lightly with salt and cook, stirring or turning with tongs, just until wilted. Add the remaining spinach in batches, lightly seasoning each batch and stirring or turning just until wilted. Remove from the heat and add the lemon zest, juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Carve the filet and the strip steak from the bone and slice the meat. Divide the steak among four plates, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Place the spinach next to the steak and serve immediately.

-- Adapted from "Italian Grill" by Mario Batali

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at food@postandcourier.com.