Seasons by the Sea: Fresh, Grilled, and Fabulous
How many mediocre grilled vegetables have you had in your life? At friends’ cookouts, at the deli counter, from caterers, the supermarket? It seems like everyone has a side platter of the usual suspects: zucchini and peppers, perhaps eggplant and onions. They are limp and floppy, under-seasoned, and sometimes suffering from refrigerator storage flavor. It doesn’t have to be that way!
I love grilled anything. I have a regular Weber grill with which I use a chimney to start the fire, and I always use Cowboy brand hard lump charcoal. This charcoal starts and burns faster and doesn’t give food that off-flavor that can come from briquettes. I never use lighter fluid, or the lighter fluid infused briquettes; these definitely give off a chemical taste. While I am not a huge fan of gas grills, I do have a little tabletop Weber gas grill that does a perfectly adequate job in a hurry or in the winter. You will not get the extreme heat that you get from charcoal but it’s pretty cool to be able to flip a switch and be ready to cook in minutes.
It’s important to have the right equipment for grilling vegetables. The Japanese use wooden skewers to spear asparagus stalks at the top and the bottom, forming a little raft so the stalks don’t fall into the fire. Same goes for smaller mushrooms like shiitakes. You may also want a grill rack (for fish and veg) or even a perforated grill skillet or grill wok. Tongs and wide spatulas are obvious necessities, as is a bottle of water kept nearby for potential flare-ups.
There are numerous ways to cook vegetables on the grill. You can cook them directly over the fire on the rack, wrapped in foil, and even buried in the hot ashes (this is good for potatoes and sweet potatoes). Most vegetables cook within 5 to 10 minutes and can be served hot, room temperature, or cold. Leftovers can be made into sandwiches combined with mozzarella or other cheeses and meats.
Some vegetables can be grilled and then turned into something else. For instance, whole eggplants can be turned into baba ganoush or another roasted eggplant dip. Same for peppers: Grill them, peel off the charred skins, and puree them with garlic, black olives, and Parmesan cheese to top grilled salmon, new potatoes, and asparagus.
Grilled zucchini, sliced about half an inch thick, is one of my favorites. I brush a little olive oil on the slices and sprinkle some salt and pepper on them before cooking. Once done (in mere minutes) I lay them out on a platter and top them with lots of chopped spearmint and coarsely chopped garlic. For eggplant slices, I use Arlotta’s hot pepper oil and Hog’s Breath seasoning mix. Hog’s Breath is a big, nasty, noisy bar in Key West that I avoid like Margaritaville, but it makes a great seasoned salt. Goya’s adobo is another great shortcut for flavoring grilled vegetables.
You can marinate some vegetables before cooking but be careful with oils; vegetables such as eggplant and portobello mushrooms will absorb oils like sponges.
Have you ever tried grilling lettuces like romaine, endive, and radicchio? The latter two are favorites in Italy, often finished with a sweet and sour dressing with currants, pine nuts, and garlic. Grilled romaine wedges are a great base for an interesting Caesar salad. Grilled onions and garlic are enjoyed by many cultures; there’s Japanese negi, leeks, and Spanish calcots, giant spring onions. The high water content of onions keeps them moist, and the sugars acquire a caramelized toffee flavor from the high heat.
If you are concerned about the possibility of carcinogens from grilling, Harold McGee in his book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” recommends using marinades because the added moisture and acidity can reduce carcinogen production. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced by meats cooked at high temperatures, especially when the fat drips down into the fire. So that’s another good reason to have more vegetables than meat on your grill!
Before beginning, it is important to make sure your grill is clean. If you don’t have one of those brush scrapers, a good cheat is a big wad of crumpled aluminum foil to clean the grill. Follow this with a wipe-down with paper towel. You can then brush some oil on it (neutral or olive) or spray Pam on it to prevent the vegetables from sticking.
Methods for grilling corn are varied. Some people say grill them in their husks with silk removed. Steven Raichlen, in his book “How to Grill,” says to pull the husk back completely and tie it with string to make a handle. Brush the corn with seasoned melted butter and protect the husks from burning by either extending them over the edge of the grill grate or laying a piece of tin foil beneath them. They don’t take long to cook; just get a little char on them.
Asparagus is not in season locally (duh) but is always available year round. When I was shopping for vegetables at the Sag Harbor farmers market, I stopped to talk to Mario Pecoraro of Arlotta Food Studios. He always has good suggestions and Arlotta’s array of flavored oils (basil, rosemary, lemon, garlic, blood orange) are ideal for pairing with vegetables. He suggested blood orange oil on asparagus and it was outstanding. Along with a variety of pepper and fennel from Quail Hill, eggplant and mushrooms from Open Minded Organics, and zucchini and squash from Regina’s farm stand, I had a varied and tasty all-vegetarian grilled feast. A sprinkling of fresh herbs from the garden, chives, basil, parsley, lemon thyme, an extra drizzle of olive oil, and a few drops of mild vinegar made all of them taste sooooo much better than the pedestrian offerings we have seen too much of.
There are so many other vegetables you can grill. Try okra, cabbage, and cauliflower. I’m going to try Japanese sweet potato wedges with a miso glaze next. The possibilities and flavors are endless. Here are some recipes to inspire you to go beyond the mundane grilled vegetable platter.