When you fire up the grill this summer, give your vegetables a turn over the flames, too.
“Just as grilling intensifies flavor and introduces complex, smoky, and charred notes to meat, it does the same with vegetables,” said Bridget Lancaster, host of the “Cook’s Country” and “America’s Test Kitchen” TV shows.
In fact, grilling often brings out their best, thanks to two unique advantages: intense heat and an open cooking surface.
“The intense heat adds charred flavor and brings about the caramelization of vegetables’ natural sugars; it’s great even for people who might not enjoy vegetables that are cooked other ways. The open cooking surface—the grill grate—allows excess water to drip away from the vegetables, [so] they’re not stewing in their own juices. As a result, their flavors are intensified,” Lancaster says.
For Genevieve Taylor, U.K.-based barbecue expert and author of “Charred: The Complete Guide to Vegetarian Grilling and Barbecue,” part of the appeal is the variety that veggies bring to the table.
“As an omnivore, I would rather have one piece of well-sourced meat with lots of lovely vegetable side dishes,” she said. “Meat is one-dimensional, but vegetables bring so many different textures and colors to the grill—there’s a lot more going on.”
And with such an abundant summer palette to draw from, how could you resist?
Below, Lancaster, Taylor, and other grilling experts share tips and recipes.
Expand Your Repertoire
Go beyond the typical corn on the cob.
“Most vegetables are great on the grill,” said cookbook author Leela Punyaratabandhu, “especially ones that are starchy or high in natural sugar, like spring onions, bell peppers, fennel, root vegetables, and both summer and winter squashes.”
Her personal favorite grillables are mushrooms: “They can be tricky to cook well on the stove because they release so much moisture when heated,” but on the grill, “it’s quick and easy to get mushrooms charred, caramelized, and smoky.” Try grilling a variety, from hearty, meaty king oyster mushrooms to smaller, delicate white beech.
Taylor favors sweet peppers, which she calls “perhaps the most quintessential of all grilling vegetables. They simply taste at their best cooked over fire or a really high heat.” As a bonus, their made-for-stuffing insides can be loaded with all manner of grains, other veggies, or melty cheese for a more substantial dish.
Eric Werner, chef of Hartwood restaurant and author of “The Outdoor Kitchen,” is a fan of grilling sweet Vidalia onions—or skipping the grill grates and roasting them directly in the hot embers, surrounded by heat and smoke on all sides, until squeezably soft. From there, he likes to mash a softened onion onto meat as it grills, or puree it into soups, sauces, and dips.
Or, simply enjoy it as is: “Squeeze some lime and dried chiles on it, and it’s incredibly refreshing and delicious!”
An onion’s protective skin makes it perfect for cooking whole in this way, but ember-roasting works for a number of other vegetables, too: try whole eggplant, beets, bell and poblano peppers, even small heads of cabbage. Just be sure to peel away any blackened skin or leaves before eating, and if you’re not wrapping the veggies in foil first, use seasoned hardwood or lump charcoal (not charcoal briquettes) and only all-natural, chemical-free materials for your fire.
Firmer, denser vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and other root vegetables, grill beautifully, as the heat brings out their natural sweetness, but they’re best pre-cooked before they hit the grill. Not only will it speed up the cooking process, but “it opens up the structure of the veggie, before you hit them with marinade before grilling,” Taylor said.
Parboil them in simmering water, or for a faster shortcut, try the microwave: to grill cauliflower wedges, for instance, Lancaster simply dunks them in salted water, microwaves them for a few minutes, and then oils and finishes them on the grill for that char and caramelization.
In general, keep vegetables whole or in large pieces, or use skewers or a grill basket for small pieces, lest they fall through the grates and “become a sacrifice to the fire below,” as Lancaster puts it.
When possible, Punyaratabandhu suggests grilling vegetables separately, rather than mixing them on the same skewers, due to varying cooking times. If you’re set on skewers, try putting only one kind of vegetable on each, or grouping together quicker-cooking and slower-cooking varieties.
Control the Heat
All experts suggested setting up your grill so that one side is cooler than the other. Creating these zones of direct (hotter) and indirect (cooler) heat will give you more control, allowing you, for instance, to save a quickly charring veggie from burning by moving it to the cooler side to finish cooking.
Clean and Oil Grates
Before you grill, Lancaster advises heating and then thoroughly cleaning and oiling the grates:
“Scrub the grates with a grill brush to remove any bits of burnt-on food. Then, oil the grates by dipping a wad of paper towels in a little vegetable oil, and use long-handled tongs to wipe the wadded towels over the grates. Do this before every time you grill and you’ll end up with grates that are nearly nonstick.”
Once the veggies are off the grill, less is more. “Keep the post-grilling touches light—a little oil, salt, maybe a light vinaigrette, and some fresh herbs is all that most vegetables need to shine,” Lancaster said. “You don’t want to drown out grilled vegetable flavor with a blanket of heavy sauce.”
Go Beyond the Veggie Platter
Enjoy your grilled veggies on their own, or think of them as a jumping point for a whole array of other dishes. Try whizzing grilled eggplants into baba ganoush, bell peppers into romesco sauce, or tomatoes into gazpacho or salsa—all taken to new heights by the kiss of fire and smoke.