Direct Coal Grilling
Doin' it up cowboy style
To roast in the days of the chuck wagons, cooks dug a pit in the ground, filled it with hot coals and nestled a cast-iron Dutch oven into it, then covered it with sod and left it for hours. In New England, traditional clambakes are still done in a similar fashion, but while it's a tempting idea, it's not really feasible for most of us. For me, it won't work because three generations of my wife's family have lived in this house over the last half-century, and she comes from a long line of animal lovers. God knows what I'd turn up if I started digging in our back yard.
But most of us have a charcoal grill and a cast-iron skillet. Adding a lid—or even a couple layers of tightly sealed aluminum foil—to the skillet will give you a perfect vessel for direct-coal grilling. Of course, Lodge makes cast-iron Dutch ovens too, but even the smallest is too large to fit comfortably on the charcoal grate of all but the most enormous backyard grill; and you'd need a metric buttload of charcoal to build a decent fire around it.
Besides the skillet and a charcoal grill (with a charcoal grate on which your skillet will fit with at least 3 to 4 inches of room all around), the only other equipment you need is a pair of long-handled tongs and a quality pair of heavy-duty gloves. This pan will be resting in the middle of coals burning between 400° F and 600° F, so a couple of cheap oven mitts aren't gonna do it. Most barbecue supply places sell good gloves; personally, I use a pair of fireplace gloves from the L.L. Bean catalogue.
First, assemble your ingredients in the skillet: say, four small zucchini, diced and tossed with a sliced Vidalia onion and a pint of halved grape tomatoes, along with salt, pepper, thyme and a little olive oil. Set up your charcoal as you like it; personally, I use natural lump charcoal, from Wild Oats or the like, and a chimney starter, but the traditional pyramid of Kingsford briquettes works too. When the coals are ready, use the tongs and gloves to bank them around the circumference of the grill, leaving a large open space in the center in which to place the lidded skillet.
When the skillet is in place, you should have enough clearance to place the grill over the coals as normal and cook with it like you usually do, using the hot coals around the edges as the hot zone and the area directly on top of the skillet as the cool zone. (See recipe for suggestions.) Because the vegetables in the skillet will be done to a turn in very little time—remember, 400° F to 600° F coals resting right next to the cast iron —choose something that won't take longer than 10 or 15 minutes to grill, like boneless chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks or pressed tofu.
Remove the grill and skillet lid after entrées are done. The veggies should be tender and beautifully caramelized. If not, leave the pan in the coals for a minute or two, checking frequently. Use the tongs to move the closest coals away and use both gloved hands to lift the skillet out onto a heatproof surface. Make sure it's out of the way, because cast iron retains heat for ages, and this pan won't be cool to the touch until after dinner.
So what kind of vegetables can you cook like this? Think in terms of things that you would normally roast in the oven, bearing in mind that this rapid induction of heat might cause vegetables with a lot of sugar (sweet potatoes, beets, baby carrots) to over-caramelize and burn unless you made a layered dish, taking care to make sure the sweet veggies were well away from the bottom and sides of the skillet.
Also, make sure there isn't too much size disparity. A dish of tender asparagus spears and green beans, tossed with melted butter and a lot of garlic (maybe with a few shards of a nice salty country ham mixed in), would be magnificent, but if you added thick cubes of eggplant to that, the beans and asparagus would be withered away to nothing by the time the eggplant was completely cooked. Similarly, if you're going to make potatoes like this, either slice them thin and layer them with butter like an old-fashioned potatoes Anna, or better yet, get the smallest little baby new potatoes you can find and toss them with salt, peeled pearl onions and bacon fat.
Personally, I'm thinking that when I'm feeling particularly adventurous and I'm making something quick and simple to grill, like burgers and hot dogs, I might try making a pan of drop biscuits in the cast-iron skillet, left to cool while we eat dinner and then splitting them to fill with sliced strawberries and/or fresh peach slices and whipped cream for dessert. Doesn't summer rock?