Whether you’re grilling on a budget or simply looking to complement the meaty main dish, you shouldn’t fire up the grill without throwing a few vegetables on it.
Potatoes, asparagus, onions and peppers are the first to come to mind, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of a vegetable that wouldn’t fare well over direct heat from charcoal or gas, including eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, spring onions and Brussels sprouts.
“There is nothing I love more than a dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye charred to medium rare, but it seems like a waste of heat not to prepare vegetables while the coals are hot,” says Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appetit who oversaw the production of “The Grilling Book” (Andrews McMeel, $45), a new book featuring more than 350 of the magazine’s recipes on the subject.
Two things tend to trip up cooks: Water-heavy vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, kale and broccoli, which get soggy when prepared in foil packets, and vegetables cut either too small — they cook too quickly or fall through the grate — or too large to cook evenly.
Potatoes cook well in heavy-duty aluminum foil packets — think Yukon Golds tossed with rosemary, salt, pepper and garlic cloves — but many other vegetables, such as mushrooms and squashes, have too much water and will lose their texture if steamed in a packet.
As for the fear of more vegetables ending up in the fire than on your plate, Rapoport says it’s just a matter of cutting thicker wedges, slices or pieces of vegetables. For longer vegetables, such as asparagus or zucchini, just lay them across the grates of the grill.
“You’re always going to lose two or three in the fire,” but for vegetables that are small by nature — Brussels sprouts, baby carrots or shallots, cherry tomatoes — invest in a grill basket, available in any basic kitchen store now. “It’s not cheating, it’s just smart,” says Rapoport.
Don’t be afraid to take the simple route when it comes to seasoning. Salt, pepper and olive oil are all you need for most veggies. “If you grill with the right temperature, the heat will coax out the natural sugars in the vegetables, and they’ll begin to caramelize,” Rapoport says, but absolutely, positively don’t skimp on the salt. “If you don’t salt them, they just don’t have flavor, period.”
Eggplant is one of the vegetables that benefit from a little help with a marinade or dressing, such as the sesame glaze that appears in the Bon Appetit book and with this story, to brush on while cooking.
The dilemma with corn
“The Gardener and the Grill,” by Karen Adler and Judtih Fertig (Running Press, $20) offers more than 100 grilled fruit and vegetable recipes, and features a whole chapter on marinades, dressings and sauces, including herb-heavy pestos and chimichurris, an Italian Parmesan grilling paste and vinaigrettes that you can toss with vegetables after they’ve been grilled.
Local sweet corn is a ways off (so save this tip for later). Although not technically a vegetable (the same is true of tomatoes, but we won’t split corn silks on the subject), it’s one of the easiest things to grill, whether you’re cooking it with or without the husks on.
Authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison, who spent a lot of time by the fire for their newest book, “101 Grilling Recipes You Can’t Live Without” (Harvard Common Press, $16.95), say that they’ve changed their thinking on the husk/no husk debate.
“We used to grill corn on the cob in the most common traditional way, soaking the ears in water and cooking them with the husks on, which actually steams and roasts the corn, instead of grilling it, producing a good result but little true grill taste,” they write in the new book.
“Now we remove the husk and silk before cooking, exposing the kernels directly to the heat, which sizzles surface juices and concentrates the corn flavor.”
In the past few years, we’ve seen Mexican-style elote, grilled corn topped with Cotija (or Parmesan) cheese, lime juice, cilantro, salt, chile powder and butter or mayonnaise, on menus. When preparing at home, slather the ingredients on the corn promptly after grilling or cut the grilled corn off the cob and toss with ingredients for a slightly less messy-to-eat side dish.
Grilled onions are another easy accompaniment to meats or other vegetables, and they are one of the ingredients that Rapoport suggests cooking with the assistance of two skewers inserted into thick onion slices side by side so they are easier to turn.
Wooden skewers should be soaked in water before using over a hot fire, but Rapoport prefers the flat metal skewers, which give cooks more control in rotating the ingredients.
This leads to perhaps the biggest vegetable grilling mistake that we are likely all making: the mixed vegetable kebab.
The difference between a perfectly grilled tomato and the perfectly grilled summer squash or bell pepper can be a matter of minutes, but if they are lined up every other one on the same skewer, you’ll overcook the tomatoes or undercook the squash. (And when you throw a chunk of steak on the stick, well, it won’t be the best outcome.)
Sure, this traditional method makes it easier to serve a crowd because you can just give skewers to everyone and call it dinner, but the inconsistent results can spoil your perfectly calculated gathering.
Rather than creating the multi-ingredient kebabs we all grew up on, put only one kind of vegetable (or meat) on each skewer so you can pull them off as soon as they are done.
One vegetable that doesn’t require a skewer or a metal basket or a fancy marinade: kale, whose stem is hardy enough to act as a built-in grilling utensil. Just drizzle with olive oil and dust with salt and pepper. The green leaves will crisp up in just a few minutes, so you can put them on the heat when everything else is just about finished.
But even if all of your vegetables don’t finish cooking at the same time, don’t stress.
You can keep them warm by pushing them to the cooler edge of the grate, but grilled vegetables taste just as good served at room temperature or even as leftovers in other meals for a taste of summer throughout the week.