Summer grilling inspires visions of backyard barbecues with sizzling hamburgers, hot dogs and maybe even some juicy steaks. But vegetables? Grilling peppers, eggplant or onions seems so much more complicated.
Yet it's really not so different than cooking meat. Plus, grilled vegetables can complement the protein as a side dish, or stand in as a thrifty, tasty and healthy dinner all on their own. And grilling is indeed one of the best ways to prepare vegetables—the high heat of the flames concentrates their flavor while imparting a hint of smokiness, all without turning on the oven and heating up the kitchen during the sweltering days of summer.
The exact cooking approach depends on the specific vegetable of course, but there are a few guidelines to follow. Like meat, it's imperative that the vegetables are sliced to an appropriate size (large enough that they don't fall through the grates of the grill) and seasoned with salt and pepper. And always remember to brush the vegetables with oil, before grilling, to prevent sticking.
Grilling vegetables over an open fire produces an intense smoky flavor, but a gas grill is more convenient. No matter the method, the grill must be very hot to concentrate the vegetables' natural sugars and bring out their sweetness.
Now grab a pair of tongs and get grilling with these eight great vegetables.
Don't limit yourself to summer produce. Root vegetables are ideal candidates for grilling, too. They require a special approach, though, so boil them for about 10 minutes before grilling. After they're cool enough to handle, slice them into ½-inch rounds and then grill for at least 10 minutes on each side. Remove from the grate and drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. The contrasting flavor of the smokiness on the candy-sweet beets is wonderful on its own, but also try dressing them up as stacks layered with herbed goat cheese.
Select a shiny and smooth eggplant that's firm but not hard, and slice it into 3/4 inch-thick rounds. Make sure the grill is screaming hot to produce those gorgeous grill marks and impart a pleasant smoky flavor similar to the one found in grilled steak. Cook for about 10 minutes on each side, flipping with a spatula like you would a burger.
Not all greens can stand up to the intense heat of the grill, so select sturdy varieties like bok choy or Romaine lettuce. Slice them in half through the center and then place them cut-side down on a hot grill. Remove after they start wilting (about five minutes), and serve dressed with olive oil and lemon or as a grilled salad with onions, peppers, zucchini or other vegetables.
There's no need to waste time chopping an onion and threading all those little pieces onto skewers. Just take a large onion (giant Vidalia onions are particularly nice) and slice it into thick, one-inch rounds. Just like a burger, place them on a hot grill and cook for about 10 minutes on each side.
When it comes to grilling, these large mushroom caps are superior to their smaller cousins because they won't fall through the grates. Before lighting the grill, grab some firm portobello mushroom caps, place them in a dish and quickly marinade them in a mixture of one part olive oil, one part balsamic vinegar and a clove of coarsely chopped garlic. When the fire is hot, grill them for five to 10 minutes on each side (a spatula is most helpful for this task). Served on a bun, they make a great vegetarian substitute for burgers— especially when topped with some melted provolone cheese.
Take a bell pepper and slice it right down the middle through the stem. Place both halves (skin side down) on the hot grill. When the pepper halves begin to dimple (show a slight depression in the surface), flip them over with a pair of tongs. You'll know the pepper is ready when it has collapsed in on itself. Put them in a bowl and cover with a plate for about 15 minutes. The steam will loosen the skins and then they'll slip right off, removing with them any taste of bitterness and leaving behind just the sweet flesh. Grilled peppers are perfect eaten on their own, or perhaps sliced into strips and tossed with a garlicky vinaigrette. They're also the perfect topping for a burger.
Like beets, rounds of grilled sweet potatoes make a surprising addition to any cookout. These should also be boiled about 10 minutes before grilling, but slice them into thicker, one-inch rounds. Serve with a barbecue sauce, peanut sauce or even a garlic aioli.
Zucchini and other summer squashes are usually seen sliced into coins. Instead, prepare it for the grill by slicing it lengthwise (separated into slices about 1/8 or ¼-inch thick) so that it doesn't fall through the grate. Thanks to their high water content, the strips will shrink significantly in size during cooking. Serve drizzled with olive oil or a yogurt garlic sauce or layer them in a sandwich.