One sultry (there they all are!) evening, I went on a date to one of Bangkok's fanciest Italian restaurants. My date was quite perplexed as per where to take me out to, as my militant vegan stance wouldn't have allowed anything animal-derived into my digestive system. Ah, the extremes of youth!
Italian is the favourite cuisine with a lot of Western vegetarians. A lot of dishes are vegetable-based, it is tasty, colourful and offers a reasonable variety of dishes. France is vegetarians' hell, Italy is their paradise. So, this Italian place was an almost inevitable choice.
It must have been my first encounter with real Italian alta cucina. Ridiculously overpriced, cooked to perfection, immaculately presented food served in a converted city mansion, enjoyed with the capital's swishest crowd. Of all the truly exquisite dishes, I was somehow most impressed with my starter, grilled vegetables. After the intense flavours of Thai food, it was quite a revelation that something so simple and unadorned with hardly any spice or herbs - and no chilies in sight! - could be so delicious. It was such a long while ago that now I don't quite remember how I got hold of the recipe. One thing I know is that this marinade makes vegetables taste exactly like on that memorable date.
So here is the recipe:
- A dab of sea salt, a generous dash of aceto balsamico bianco, a lot of freshly grounded black pepper, a nice pinch of powdered garlic, a liberal glug of olive oil. I also use some fish sauce and a drop of liquid smoke, but you don't need to.
- Let it all sit in a deep bowl until it all dissolves, then whisk into a homogeneous liquid .
- In the meantime, slice zucchini, aubergines, pumpkins, fennel, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers, evenly and equally thick. Add a few pods of haricot beans. I also use shiitake mushrooms. Portobellos come out very nice too.
- Marinate the vegetables for 15-20 minutes, not more, otherwise they become soggy.
- Heat a ribbed skillet on a very strong fire. A gas stove is essential here as an electric one won't give you a high enough temperature.
- Grill the vegetables until they are nicely seared on the outside. They taste best al dente, slightly crunchy inside, so mind not to overcook.