MANY COOKS associate grilling with meat, but some of the best-tasting grilled foods are mushrooms, eggplant, and zucchini. The reason: Much of the water in vegetables evaporates during grilling, concentrating and caramelizing the natural sugars. The result is a sweeter, more intense flavor, especially with certain vegetables (see “The Best Vegetables for Grilling,” page 32, for my top choices).
Grilling is a little trickier, however, than lighting a fire and tossing vegetables onto it. Some vegetables, like mushrooms, have such a high water content that they can be grilled with almost no preparation. Others, such as hard squash and potatoes, which contain relatively little water, must be partially cooked in boiling water before grilling. As a general rule, if you can saute a vegetable in just a few minutes, you don’t need to precook it before grilling; but if the vegetable is one that you normally steam or boil, or that you plan to cook for a long time, blanch it to cut grilling time.
Once you decide whether to precook a vegetable, you must decide how to cut it. There are two goals: You want to maximize the surface area to increase the proportion of the vegetable that receives direct heat and therefore browns. But you also want the ideal thickness, so that as the vegetable browns, it also cooks internally. Cut it too thick, and the vegetable remains raw inside; too thin, and it will burn or at least dry out. Most of this is common sense: You can split an endive in half, but eggplant and zucchini should be cut into thick strips. Small vegetables, like cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, can be left whole.
There are a number of additional factors to consider before grilling vegetables.
Since many vegetables have subtle flavors, it’s imperative to scrape the grill surface clean to remove food particles that may give off-flavors or cause flare-ups. Use a wire brush or metal scraper, cleaning the grill when it is hot and the residue from your last grilling session has softened.
Choose clean-burning fuels–natural hardwood charcoal is the best option–and avoid lighter fluid, which pollutes the air and may give your food an unpleasant petroleum aroma and flavor.
Don’t cook vegetables over a roaring fire; many will literally turn to ashes. Instead, use a medium fire. To determine the correct temperature, hold your hand about five inches above the coals. If you can keep your hand in place for four or five seconds (no less and no more), the fire is perfect for grilling vegetables.
To prevent sticking, brush vegetables with a little oil before grilling. Too much oil may cause flare-ups, so use a light hand. Olive oil is usually best.
Marinades with herbs, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar, and/or spices are the best way to add flavor. Trendy mesquite or hickory wood chips are far less potent, especially since most vegetables are only on the grill for just a few minutes.
Most large vegetables can be grilled directly on the grill, but smaller ones need the protection of a fine mesh screen or metal basket (most hardware and kitchen supply stores sell products designed to fit on a grill) or a skewer. If you choose to use wooden skewers, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before loading them up with vegetables.
MEXICAN GRILLED CORN WITH GROUND CHILLES Serves 6
Street vendors throughout Mexico prepare this distinctive snack over small hibachis. Most vendors grind their own chili powder, which you can easily do at home for the freshest flavor. Choose a relatively mild dried chili like an ancho or mulato. Here the ground chili is combined with coarse salt and corn oil and brushed onto the ears of corn just before grilling.
6 ears fresh corn in husks
1 small dried ancho or mulato chili, 3-4 inches long
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt
1/4 cup corn oil, preferably unrefined
Soak unhusked ears of corn in cold water for about 30 minutes. Heat the grill to medium.
Toast chili on grill for 1 minute on each side. Chili should become soft and fragrant, but not burned. Remove chili from grill and cool. Cut off and discard the chili stem. Place chili and seeds in a spice grinder and pulverize to a fine powder. Combine chili powder with salt. Stir 3 tablespoons of mixture into corn oil. (Reserve any remaining mixture.)
Lift corn from water and drain briefly. Pull back husks but do not remove. Remove corn silk. Brush oil mixture over kernels, then re-cover kernels with husks. Tie ends with kitchen string to secure husks.
Grill corn, turning several times, until kernels feel tender when pierced through husks with a skewer, about 30 minutes. Untie husks and serve immediately. Sprinkle any reserved chili-salt mixture over corn if desired.
GRILLED PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS, RED ONIONS, AND BELL PEPPERS Serves 4
Wooden skewers must be soaked in cold water for about 30 minutes before use. Metal skewers can be used as is. Wear an oven mitt or use a pair of long tongs to turn either. Serve these meatless shish kebabs with pita bread or brown rice. A leafy salad will round out the meal. Squeeze the grilled lemon wedges over the brochettes at the table.
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice plus another lemon cut into 8 wedges
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, minced
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
3 large portobello mushrooms (about 1 pound)
4 small red onions (about 1 1/4 pounds)
2 medium red bell peppers (about 1 pound)
Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper together in a small bowl.
Remove and discard stems from mushrooms. Wipe dirt from caps with a towel. Cut caps into 1-inch chunks. Peel onions. Cut onions through poles into 3/4-inch-thick wedges.
Trim tops and bottoms from bell peppers and cut in half. Lightly press each half with the back of a knife so that it lays flat on the work surface. Slide knife along the inside of each half to cut away the white pith, seeds, and top layer of translucent flesh. Cut cleaned halves into 1-inch strips.
Thread mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers alternately on 8 skewers. Thread a lemon wedge on the end of each skewer. Place skewers in a deep baking dish and brush with olive oil mixture. Marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Heat grill to medium. When grill is hot, scrape surface clean. Place skewers on grill and brush with any marinade that is left in baking dish. Grill, turning skewers once or twice, until vegetables are marked with dark stripes, about 10 minutes. Remove from grill and serve immediately.
GRILLED ZUCCHINI AND EGGPLANT WITH TOMATOES AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR Serves 6
Serve this Italian salad at room temperature as a side dish. Although I prefer small eggplant (either white or purple), large black eggplant can also be used in this recipe–just slice them into 1/2-inch-thick rounds for grilling. Other fresh herbs can take the place of basil in the dressing; try 1/4 cup of parsley or 1/8 cup oregano, thyme, or mint.
3 medium zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 small Japanese eggplant (about 1 pound)
1/4 cup olive oil Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 large ripe tomatoes (about 3/4 pound)
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, minced
Heat grill to medium. Scrape surface clean.
Trim ends from zucchini and eggplant. Slice trimmed vegetables lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick strips. Peel the outside slices to match other slices.
Lay slices on baking sheet and brush both sides lightly with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Salt and pepper vegetables generously.
Grill zucchini and eggplant slices until distinct grill marks are visible on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove from grill and cool to room temperature.
Whisk remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil with balsamic vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Core tomatoes and cut into 10 or 12 wedges. Toss tomatoes and basil with dressing.
Cut grilled vegetables into 2-inch pieces. Put in bowl with tomatoes and mix gently. Serve at once, or cover and set aside at room temperature for up to 3 hours.
The Best Vegetables for Grilling
WITH THE EXCEPTION OF corn, which requires a different technique, all of these vegetables should be brushed lightly with oil just before grilling. Add herbs, spices, salt, citrus juice, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, shallots, and other flavorings to the oil to make a quick marinade. Note that cooking times vary.
Soak ears in cold water for 30 minutes. Pull back husks and remove silk. Brush kernels with oil and re-cover with husks. Secure husks with twine.
Grill, turning often, until kernels feel tender when pierced with a skewer through the husks, about 30 minutes.
Trim leaves and stems. Slice vertically through base into 1/2-inch-thick wedges.
Grill, turning once, until marked with dark stripes and quite soft, about 8 minutes per side.
BUTTERNUT AND ACORN SQUASH
Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds and stringy pulp. Trim thin slices from top and bottom. Slice crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick half circles. Blanch until a skewer slides easily through wedges, about 4 minutes for acorn squash and 6 minutes for butternut squash.
Grill, turning once, until marked with dark stripes, about 7 minutes per side for acorn squash and 10 minutes per side for butternut squash.
Leave small mushrooms whole; skewer if necessary. Trim stems from large mushrooms such as portobellos, then cut caps into chunks and skewer or leave whole. If grilling portobellos whole, brush both sides liberally with oil to prevent sticking.
Grill small mushrooms until golden brown and slightly shriveled, about 8 minutes total. Grill large mushrooms with the gill-like undersides facing up to prevent excess loss of natural juices. Cook until cap is streaked with light grill marks, about 10 minutes.
Cut in half lengthwise through the stem end.
Grill flat side down until marked with dark stripes, about 8 minutes.
BAKING, NEW, AND SWEET POTATOES
Scrub, then cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Blanch until a skewer slides easily through slices, about 6 minutes for baking potatoes, 4 minutes for new potatoes, and 3 minutes for sweet potatoes.
Grill, turning once, until marked with dark stripes, about 9 minutes per side for baking and new potatoes and 7 minutes per side for sweet potatoes.
Trim the bottom and top. Slice pepper vertically through top. Lightly press each half with back of knife so that it lays flat on the work surface. Slide knife along the inside of each half to cut away the white pith, seeds, and top layer of flesh.
Grill, turning once, until marked with dark stripes, about 5 minutes per side
Trim ends. Cut large eggplant into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Cut small eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Remove peel from outside slices so they match the others.
Grill, turning once, until flesh is darkly colored, about 5 minutes per side.