Grilling in the backyard is one of the relaxing rituals of summer. It’s also a way to add smoky, caramelized flavors to vegetables. Let go of all those old ideas about burgers and steaks, and start seeing your grill as a sophisticated tool for cooking plants.
Whether you use a charcoal grill or a gas one, you can harness the ancient mysteries of fire by using smoke. I like the convenience of a gas grill, and I use a smoker box to hold smoldering chips of cherry, apple and mesquite. Once the chips are smoking, they infuse your vegetables, tofu, burgers, pizzas or any other food with a meaty umami quality that really works.
The first thing you need to master when using the grill for any kind of cookery is “zone cooking.”
On the gas grill, that means heating the whole grill on high until the grate is nice and hot, then reducing the heat on one side, so you have a cooler zone to move food to after you have seared it. On the charcoal grill, you just have to build the fire on one side. Most vegetables don’t need really high heat. Stick to a brief time on the hot side to mark them, then move to the cool side with the lid down to cook them through.
It’s hard for some cooks to wrap their minds around the idea of precooking vegetables for the grill, but once you try it, it will change how you prepare them. The grill is hot and dry, and if left to its own devices, will dehydrate certain vegetables and make them tough. As you’ll see with this beet recipe, parboiling the beets makes them tender, so all you need to do is mark and caramelize them.
If you wanted to cook firm vegetables such as beets without precooking, you can wrap them in foil, or make a “hobo pack.” Just tear a square of foil and put seasoned veggies inside, then crimp it closed. Put them in a cool zone, and let them slowly roast and steam in their own juices.
Another key to vegetables on the grill is oil. Toss them with oil and swab the grate with an oiled paper towel to keep the veggies from drying out or sticking.
If you are a grill purist, you may not have tried grill woks, baskets or other paraphernalia. Many of these are really helpful for veggie cooking. Instead of skewers, you can just toss oiled veggies in the wok and stir, then sauce off the heat.
Get creative with fresh herbs and dressings for your vegetables, and they will be the stars of the show.
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.
Grilled Beet Salad With Mint
Note: Precooking the beets means that you are just getting some marks and char on them, so it’s easy to tell when they are done. For appeal, use yellow and red beets, and keep them separated until serving so that the red would not stain the lighter-colored beets, or the cucumbers. If you opt for using all red beets, your salad will still be lovely. From Robin Asbell.
• 1 lb. red and yellow beets (3-in. diameter)
• 5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
• 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and sliced
• 1/2 c. fresh mint, chopped
• 2 oz. chèvre, crumbled, or 1/4 c. toasted walnuts
Cut the greens off the beets and save them to cook later.
Place the unpeeled beets in a pot with cold water to cover. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, with the lid ajar, for about 20 to 30 minutes. When a paring knife slides easily into a beet, drain them.
Peel the yellow beets first. Under cold running water, use a paring knife to trim at the tops, rubbing each beet to loosen and slip off the skin. Place the yellow beets on a plate to cool. Continue with the red beets, keeping them separate. Let the beets cool to room temperature.
Slice the beets in rounds 1/3-inch thick, placing each color in a different bowl. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil over all the beets, and toss to coat.
Preheat the grill. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Reserve.
Take 2 plates, tongs and a spatula to the grill. When the grill is hot, carefully place the beet slices on the grate. Cook for about 5 minutes per side, until marked. Lower the heat if they are browning too fast. Place the yellow and red beets back in their separate bowls. Drizzle with the balsamic dressing and half of the mint, and toss to coat.
To assemble, arrange sliced cucumbers on 4 salad plates, then compose red and yellow beet slices on top, sprinkling with the remaining mint as you go. Drizzle with dressing and sprinkle chèvre or walnuts over the salads, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 245 Fat 20 g Sodium 420 mg
Carbohydrates 12 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 9 g
Protein 5 g Cholesterol 5 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 vegetable, 4 fat.