When one thinks of live-fire cooking, vegetables are often not top of mind. But they should be. Marrying the art of grilling with the versatility of gorgeous seasonal produce and big flavor, “master griller” (Esquire) Steven Raichlen demystifies the world of grilling green.
7 Key Insights from HOW TO GRILL VEGETABLES
1. There are multiple ways to tell if a vegetable is cooked. For small, skinny vegetables like scallions and asparagus or sliced veggies like eggplant or zucchini, when the outside is blistered and darkened, the vegetable has finished cooking. For small, round or pod vegetables, like tomatoes or okra, use the pinch test: Pinch it between your thumb and forefinger. When squeezably soft, it’s cooked. Lastly, for larger vegetables, like squash or potatoes, use the skewer test: When you can easily pierce the vegetable with a slender metal skewer or cake tester, it’s done.
2. Vegetables absorb wood smoke differently than meats. Smoke penetrates the moist, porous surface of meat easily, but this is not the case with hard vegetables, like turnips and beets. The smoke tends to stay on the surface, which is why many smoked vegetables wind up smelling like ashtrays rather than barbecue. To avoid this, moisture-rich vegetables like tomatoes and onions should be grilled using the direct smoking method, while denser, drier veggies such as turnips and rutabagas should be blanched or boiled before smoking.
3. Most vegetables contain no intrinsic fat, so you must add fat to keep them moist. That fat can take the form of olive oil in a marinade, butter in a baste, or a strip of bacon or pancetta wrapped around a jalapeño pepper, an ear of corn, or a wedge of acorn squash.
4. There are five main methods of cooking vegetables: Direct grilling is best for high-moisture vegetables like asparagus and zucchini, tender vegetables like eggplants and mushrooms, and small vegetables such as okra and snow peas. Indirect grilling, where the veggie is placed next to rather than directly over the fire, is best for large or dense vegetables; while smoke-roasting, a variation on this method, uses wood chips, smoker box, or smoker pouch to achieve a similar effect. Alternatively, smoking, a technique used for cooking Texas-style brisket and Kansas City-style ribs, works well with wet vegetables like tomatoes or onions, as well as baked beans and dense vegetables like beets. Spit-roasting uses a rotisserie and is a highly effective cooker for sturdier produce, such as a whole pineapple, head of cauliflower, or a stalk of brussels sprouts. And lastly, ember-grilling (aka caveman grilling) imparts a wonderful smoke flavor while caramelizing the veggie and can be done with virtually any vegetable, from onions to artichokes to peppers and even delicate snow peas and green beans. Just place them in a wire-mesh grill basket and lay it directly on the coals.
5. Boiling is not a dirty word. One of the canons of carnivorous barbecue is that you should never, ever boil ribs or other meats like chicken or brisket. Yet many vegetables contain cellulose, a hard, fibrous substance that makes it difficult to achieve tenderness and moistness solely from direct or indirect grilling. For this reason, blanching (briefly immersing a vegetable in boiling water) or parboiling (partially cooking a vegetable in boiling water) prior to cooking can work wonders, especially for hard or dense vegetables like artichokes, potatoes, or cauliflower.
6. While grilling vegetables does bring out lovely, caramelized flavors, the one thing it can’t do is create a crisp crust. There’s a hack for that: Top your veggies with toasted or sautéed breadcrumbs or nuts, or crumbled slices of grilled bread.
7. Grilling vegetables rather than meat is good for the planet! According to foodtank.com, it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to raise a single pound of beef and 576 gallons to raise a pound of pork. Contrast that with 216 gallons of water needed to grow a pound of soybeans and 108 gallons needed for a pound of corn. Veggies on the grill – try them!
Smoked Guacamole with Chia Seed Totopos
Prep Time: 10 minutesSmoking Time: 10 to 15 minutes Serves 4 Method: Indirect grilling with wood smoke (smoke-roasting)
Grill/Gear Best smoked on charcoal or wood. If grilling, you can use a gas grill. You’ll also need a wire rack set over an aluminum foil drip pan filled with ice, hardwood chunks or chips (unsoaked), see page 000; and a molcajete and temolote (or mortar and pestle) or food processor.
What Else You’ll need ripe avocados for this recipe—preferably Hass (they’re available year-round), or Florida avocados when in season. Ripen them at room temperature until gently yielding when squeezed between your thumb and forefinger. You have three options for adding wood smoke: traditional smoking, smoke-roasting, or grilling over a wood or wood-enhanced fire. For even more flavor, serve the guacamole in the smoky avocado skins.
2 ripe avocados
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 to 2 limes)
1 luscious ripe red tomato
1 jalapeño pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled (optional)
1 teaspoon minced canned chipotle chile in adobo
⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
Grilled Chia Seed Totopos (recipe follows) or other chips, for serving
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grid if wood grilling
Grilled Chia Seed Totopos (Tortilla Chips)
Grilled tortilla chips are more flavorful—and healthier—than the traditional fried chips. These have the added flavor of fire-toasted chia seeds.
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate
4 small (6-inch) flour or corn tortillas
Extra virgin olive oil or toasted (dark) sesame oil, for brushing
3 tablespoons chia or sesame seeds
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Set up your grill for indirect grilling (or your smoker for smoking) and heat to medium-low. Add wood chunks or chips to the coals. If enhancing a gas fire, place the chunks under the grate directly over one of the burners or add the chips to your gas grill’s smoker box.
Meanwhile, halve and pit the avocados, but leave the skin on. Rub the cut sides of the avocados with a bit of the fresh lime juice to keep them from discoloring; set the remaining juice aside. Cut the tomato in half widthwise. Cut the jalapeño in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds for milder guacamole; leave them in if you like more heat. Place the avocado, tomato, and jalapeño halves, cut sides up, on a wire rack over an aluminum foil pan filled with ice. (This keeps them cool during smoking.)
Place the ice-filled pan with the vegetables on the grate away from the heat. Place the garlic clove (if using) atop one of the tomato halves. Lower the lid and smoke-roast (indirect grill) the vegetables until infused with wood smoke, 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t overcook—you want the avocados and tomatoes to remain cool in the center.
Transfer the smoked vegetables to a cutting board and let cool. Scoop the avocado flesh out of the skins with a spoon (optional: save the skins for serving). Dice the tomato, discarding the stem end. Stem and mince the jalapeño and garlic (if using).
Traditionally, guacamole would be made and served in a pumice stone mortar called a molcajete. If you have one, add the jalapeño, garlic, and chipotle chile and grind to a paste with the stone pestle (the latter is called a temolote). Work in the avocado, leaving it a little chunky. Work in the tomato, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste: The guacamole should be highly seasoned. Alternatively, chop the vegetables by hand and mash in the avocado with a fork. Or use a food processor: Combine the jalapeño, garlic, and chipotle in a food processor and finely chop, then add the avocado and pulse the processor in short bursts to coarsely chop. Work in the tomato, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and pepper—again, running the processor in short bursts: The guacamole should remain chunky.
Transfer the guacamole to a bowl (or serve directly in the molcajete or the smoked avocado skins). Serve with Chia Seed–Grilled Totopos.
Variation: Wood-Grilled Guacamole
You can also make guacamole with grilled avocados—preferably seared over wood or a wood-enhanced fire on a charcoal grill.
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. If using a wood-burning grill, start grilling while the fire is still smoky. If using a charcoal grill, add 1 to 2 hardwood chunks or 1½ cups wood chips (unsoaked) to the coals. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well. When the wood starts smoking, arrange the avocado halves and tomatoes (cut sides down), and jalapeño and garlic on the grate. (Thread the jalapeño halves and garlic on a small bamboo skewer.) Grill just long enough to infuse the ingredients with wood smoke, but not long enough to cook them, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer the ingredients to a cutting board to cool, then prepare the guacamole as described in the main recipe.
For the Grilled Chia Seed Totopos:
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to medium-high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well.
Lightly brush the tortillas on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with chia seeds and salt and pepper (if using).
Arrange the tortillas on the grate and grill until lightly browned on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Do not let them burn.
Transfer the hot tortillas to a cutting board and immediately cut each into 6 wedges. Transfer the wedges to a wire rack—they’ll crisp upon cooling. I eat them right away, but any stragglers can be stored at room temperature in a resealable plastic bag or airtight container for a day or so.
Double-Grilled Summer Vegetable Frittata
Prep Time: 15 minutesGrilling Time: 6 to 10 minutes for the vegetables, plus about 20 minutes for the frittataServes 4 Method: Direct grilling/indirect grilling
Grill/Gear: Can be grilled over charcoal or gas. For even more flavor, you can grill the veggies over wood or a wood-enhanced fire (see page 8). If you’re enhancing a charcoal or gas fire, you’ll need hardwood chunks or chips (unsoaked). You’ll also need a grill basket, grill wok, or grilling grid; and a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet (a 12-incher will work, too, but the frittata will be thinner).
For the Vegetables
4 cups diced vegetables (any or all of the following):
Asparagus stalks, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Mushrooms, trimmed, wiped clean, and quartered (halved if mushrooms are small)
Zucchini, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
Yellow squash, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
Red or yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into ½-inch dice
4 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
For the Frittata
8 large eggs, preferably organic
1¼ cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces)
3 tablespoons thinly slivered or chopped fresh herbs, such as basil, dill, tarragon, flat- leaf parsley, rosemary, sage, and/or other herbs (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high (or build a wood fire). If using a grilling grid or grill wok, preheat it as well.
Prepare the vegetables: Place the veggies, including the scallions, in a mixing bowl and toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer to a grill basket or add to the preheated grill wok or grilling grid. Don’t overcrowd the grill basket: You may need to work in several batches. Grill, stirring often, until the vegetables are darkly browned, 6 to 10 minutes. Set aside and let cool. The vegetables can be grilled ahead or at a previous grill session.
Make the frittata: Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl and lightly beat with a whisk or fork. Stir in 1 cup grated cheese, the herbs, grilled vegetables, and salt and pepper to taste.
Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in the cast-iron skillet directly over one of the burners on your grill or stovetop. Swirl the pan to butter the sides. Add the egg mixture and cook without stirring until the bottom starts to set, about 2 minutes.
Move the skillet off the burner and onto the grill grate, away from direct heat (you’ll be indirect grilling from here on out). If enhancing a charcoal fire, add the wood chunks or chips to the coals; if enhancing a gas fire, place the chunks or chips in your grill’s smoker box or place chunks under the grate directly over one or more burners. Reduce the heat to medium-high.
Cook the frittata until the eggs are set and the top is lightly browned, about 20 minutes. (To test for doneness, insert a bamboo skewer in the center of the frittata: It should come out clean.) Remove the skillet from the grill and let it rest for 3 minutes. Run the tip of a slender paring knife around the inside rim of the skillet. Place a large heatproof plate or platter on top. While holding the plate firmly against the skillet’s rim, carefully invert the skillet and plate, giving the former a little shake to loosen the frittata. Lift the skillet: Ideally, the frittata will come loose on the plate. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Cut into wedges and serve at once.
What Else: You’ll want to use whatever vegetables are freshest and in season. I’ve made some suggestions for a summer frittata. You could also drill down to some classic veggie combinations, like asparagus and corn, mushroom and leek, or tomato and onion. In the cooler months, use winter vegetables like fennel, endive, broccoli or broccolini, and winter squash.
Cedar-Planked Eggplant Parmigiana
Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus the time it takes to make the smoked tomato sauceGrilling Time: 2 to 4 minutes for charring the plank, plus 4 to 6 minutes for the eggplants, plus 10 to 15 minutes for finishing the parmigianaServes 4Method: Direct grilling/indirect grilling
Grill/Gear: Can be grilled over charcoal or gas. You’ll also need 4 square untreated cedar planks (6 × 6 inches) or 2 long planks, as well as a rimmed sheet pan.
What Else: Ever notice how the eggplant in most parmigiana tastes like breading, not like vegetable? That’s because most supermarket eggplants have been engineered to maximize size and shelf life, sacrificing flavor. Take the time to source slender eggplants (preferably organic) at your farmers’ market or at an Italian or Middle Eastern market, and you’ll actually wind up enjoying eggplant parmigiana for its namesake vegetable, not just for the breadcrumbs and cheese. Speaking of cheese, I’ve substituted cream-rich burrata for the traditional mozzarella. Burrata starts as mozzarella, but the cheesemakers stuff it with soft creamy curds and cream. Delectable just got better. Note: Cedar grilling planks are available at hardware stores, most supermarkets, and of course, online.
1 medium or 2 small eggplants (about 12 ounces in all—you’ll need 12 slices)
Extra virgin olive oil for brushing and drizzling
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
Dried oregano flakes, preferably Italian
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate
12 ounces fresh burrata, sliced (cream reserved), or mozzarella
2 cups Smoked Tomato Sauce or your favorite chunky tomato sauce
½ cup freshly and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
4 basil leaves, thinly slivered (optional)
½ cup dried plain breadcrumbs, preferably homemade, or panko (optional)
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. Char the cedar planks on one side, about 2 minutes—long enough for them to darken and smoke, but not so long they catch fire. Set aside and let cool on a heatproof surface.
Meanwhile, cut the eggplant crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices. Lightly brush each on both sides with olive oil and season on both sides with salt, pepper, and oregano.
Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well.
Arrange the eggplant slices on the grate. Grill until well browned on both sides and soft in the center, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning with tongs. Alternatively, you can grill the eggplant on a preheated plancha. Transfer the eggplant slices to a rimmed sheet pan and let cool.
Assemble the parmigianas: Place a slice of eggplant on each plank (2 slices
if using long planks). Top each slice with a slice of burrata (spoon on some of the cream as well), followed by a generous dollop of tomato sauce. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a tuft of slivered basil (if using). Build the second layer of eggplant, burrata, tomato sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and basil. Crown with a slice of eggplant. If you like a crisp top, sprinkle the top eggplant slice with breadcrumbs and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. The eggplant parmigianas can be assembled and refrigerated several hours ahead of time and grilled at the last minute.
Return the parmigianas on their planks to the grill (but now away
from the heat). Indirect grill until the tomato sauce is bubbling, the cheese is melted, and the tops are browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve the parmigianas on their planks.