If you think that the grill is all about burgers and steaks, it's time to open up to vegetables over the flame. There's a whole world of flavor to be found in plant-based foods that have been kissed by the char and smoke of your backyard barbecue.
My favorite way to use the grill is to infuse smoky flavor into vegetables. Any grill, with some smoker chips, can be turned into a food smoker. Instead of using a hot grill to sear your food, you can keep the heat low and fill the grill with flavorful smoke to infuse into vegetables.
To smoke on either a charcoal grill or a gas grill, you need to have a hot side and a cold side. The wood chips will be on the hot side, smoldering, and the vegetables will be on the cooler side, absorbing smoke and slow-roasting. Once you get the hang of it, you may want to do it all the time.
I like to play around with smoking tomatoes, as I did in this recipe for a Smoky Tomato Tart. By halving the juicy tomatoes and placing them in pans, cut side up, you expose the juicy interior of the fruit to the smoke. As the tomatoes bathe in the scent of apple or hickory, they also soften and dehydrate a bit, making them denser and meatier.
But mostly smokier.
Once you have a bunch of smoky tomatoes, you have a great ingredient to use in other dishes. I went inside to the oven with them, and baked them into a rustic galette. That's only one way to use them. Toss with pasta or chill and add to salads and sandwiches, or mix with other grilled vegetables.
I used some gorgeous golden and red grape tomatoes, which glisten like jewels on top of a bed of smoked cheese. You can also smoke larger tomatoes, halved, and use them in dishes like salsa or spaghetti sauce.
Other candidates for smoking on the grill include mushrooms and eggplant. Like tomatoes, they contain a lot of water, which will absorb the smoky flavors. Both take on a meaty, dense texture with a slow roast. Smoky mushrooms make a pizza that is out of this world, and you can make a baba ghanoush (an eggplant purée) from smoky eggplant that will knock your socks off.
Harness the power of smoke for the best veggies this summer.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of "Big Vegan," "The Whole Grain Promise" and "Great Bowls of Food." Find her at robinasbell.com.