On the grill, eggplant stacks up beautifully


SINCE LABOR DAY IS one of the high holy days of smoke and fire, we practitioners of backyard combustion feel an obligation to barbecue something over the three-day weekend.

Indeed, I can think of no more pleasing sight than the smoke from thousands of barbecue grills curling toward the heavens, giving thanks to the gods of incineration for another successful summer. I get misty just thinking about it.

To ready myself for the big weekend, I cooked a three-course meal on the barbecue grill the other night.

The dish that created the most culinary commotion was one that called for making skyscrapers out of grilled eggplant. I found it in a new cookbook, "Weber's Art of the Grill" (Chronicle Books, 1999), put out by Weber-Stephen Products Co., makers of barbecue cookers.

I built vegetable towers -- layers of grilled eggplant and thick slices of tomato. The "cement" between the eggplant and tomatoes was Asiago cheese and a vinaigrette of roasted corn, basil, shallots and bell pepper.

The eggplant towers were fun to build and had terrific flavor. The cheese, an import from Italy, pulled the flavors of the vegetables together. It costs about $13 a pound.

If the secretary of labor were coming to dinner, I might spring for that. But if it were just family and regular working folks, I think I would substitute a less expensive Parmesan.

Eggplant Stacks with Roasted Corn Vinaigrette

Serves 4

1 ear of corn

1 bell pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil

5 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for brushing eggplant

8 slices of medium tomato, about 1/4 inch thick

12 globe eggplant slices, about 4 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick

kosher salt

1/2 cup grated or sliced Asiago cheese

freshly ground black pepper

To make the vinaigrette, grill the corn, with husk on, directly over medium-hot coals, turning occasionally until the husk is charred, about 15 to 18 minutes. Husk cooked ear; remove kernels with a knife. Place kernels in medium-size bowl.

Grill the pepper directly over medium-hot fire, turning occasionally until the skin is completely black and blistered, 10-12 minutes. Let cool, remove the skin and seeds, and finely dice the skinned pepper.

Put the pepper and the corn along with shallots, vinegar, basil, 5 tablespoons of olive oil and tomato slices in a large, flat dish. Make sure the vinaigrette covers the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, rub both sides of the eggplant slices with salt. Allow them to sit in a colander in a sink or on a platter for about 30 minutes to draw out the bitter juices. Rinse and pat dry. Rub with olive oil. Grill the eggplant slices directly over medium fire, turning once, until tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.

To assemble stacks, start with an eggplant slice. Top with 1 tablespoon of cheese, then add a marinated tomato slice.

Repeat the layers, ending with an eggplant slice. Place the stacks on a small baking sheet. Place the sheet on the grill (or in a 300-degree oven) and cook until the cheese melts, about 2-3 minutes.

Place the stacks on individual plates, and spoon the corn vinaigrette on top and around sides.

-- Adapted from "Weber's Art of the Grill"

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