Fresh from the Grill

By Meredith Bethume
Photography by Jody Horton

Summer’s lush bounty of produce practically begs for the grill. There, magic happens as whole peppers surrender to the flame—collapsing into a silky heap of candy-sweet flesh—while eggplant and zucchini assume a satisfying smokiness typically reserved only for meat. Cooking over fire offers more visual drama, too, yet still produces a quick, inexpensive and satisfying dinner. Of course, hovering over a hot grill might not be an ideal activity during our sweltering summers, but it sure beats heating up the kitchen.

Grilling vegetables isn’t much different from grilling a hamburger, really. Like meat, vegetables should be sized appropriately for optimum grilling and seasoned aggressively with salt and pepper. If they’re to be sliced, cut them into large enough pieces to prevent them from falling through the grill grate. Skewering vegetable chunks is convenient, but the results are inferior because less surface area is directly exposed to the heat. Things like peppers and bok choy can be cut in half through the stem, and summer squash should be cut lengthwise, but separated into slices about 1/8- or ¼-inch thick. Eggplant and onions should be sliced into rounds, and hard root vegetables should be boiled for about 10 minutes and sliced when cool enough to handle before grilling (grilled sweet potato rounds make a unique appetizer when dipped in a favorite barbecue sauce or Asian-style peanut sauce). Many choose to brush the vegetables with oil before grilling, but it’s easier (and more fun) to throw them into a bowl, swirl in a few glugs of olive oil, add some salt and pepper and toss everything with your hands until coated evenly.

Fallen or trimmed pecan and oak wood (likely available in your yard or neighborhood) are the perfect vehicles for starting a fire in the grill. Charcoal will work too, but avoid lighter fluid and other additives because the chemicals impart an unpleasant aftertaste to the food. Using a chimney starter stuffed with newspaper is a good alternative method for igniting coals. You’ll lose out on some fun and flavor using a gas grill, but it’s a trade-off for convenience’s sake. Regardless of the preferred method, the grill must be very hot to achieve that desirable smoky flavor—so hot that a hand held above the grate can only withstand the heat for a few seconds.

When using a gas grill, preheat it for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking. A wood or charcoal fire should die down until just flames and ash-covered coals or logs remain—which takes at least 30 minutes. Of course, invariably there will be hot spots on the grill, so position long-cooking veggies like eggplant, sweet potatoes, onions and beets away from the hottest coals.

Grilling vegetables perfectly demands diligence and a few tools. Long-handled tongs are useful for turning vegetables; spatulas are handy for flipping portobello mushrooms and eggplant rounds. Eyesight, however, is the best tool for judging when the food is ready. Periodically check the veggie’s underside because there’s a fine line between nicely browned and scorched. And consider the heat of the fire, how close the food is to the heat and the thickness of the vegetables. Cooking over fire is a primal joy that engages all of the senses with the smell of the smoke, the sizzle of the flames and, hopefully, the vitality of a cold beer.



Serves 4

For the vinaigrette:

2 T. minced shallot
2 T. sherry vinegar
¼ t. salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
6 T. olive oil

For the salad:

2 hearts of romaine
1 red bell pepper
Olive oil
2 oz. Manchego cheese,
  cut into shards

Light a gas or charcoal grill. In a small bowl, combine the shallot, vinegar, salt and black pepper. Let stand for at least 15 minutes, then slowly whisk in the oil. Set aside.

Cut each heart of romaine and the pepper in half, lengthwise (the root will keep the romaine together). Seed the pepper, then lightly drizzle the cut sides of the romaine and pepper with olive oil. Cook the pepper halves on a hot grill until soft, then remove to a plate to cool. Grill the romaine hearts, cut-side down, for 2 to 5 minutes, until seared. When cool enough to handle, chop the red pepper into strips. Sprinkle the seared romaine, cut-side up, with red pepper strips and shards of the cheese. Dress with the sherry vinaigrette and serve.




Serves 4

4 thornless nopal cactus paddles
2 poblano peppers, sliced in half       
  through the stem and seeded
1 white onion, sliced into rounds 
  about ½-in. thick
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ c. chopped cilantro
Juice of 3 limes
Corn tortillas
Sour cream, queso fresco
  and hot sauce, for serving

Place the vegetables in a bowl and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook the vegetables on a hot grill until the peppers and cactus paddles are soft and the onions are blackened. Remove to a plate to cool. Once cooled a bit, slice the grilled vegetables into long strips. In a bowl, combine the strips with the cilantro, lime juice and more salt to taste, then toss to distribute evenly. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Serve the nopalitos with warm corn tortillas, sour cream, queso fresco and hot sauce.




Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 portobello mushroom caps
½ c. olive oil
½ c. balsamic vinegar
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 t. salt
½ t. ground black pepper
1 red bell pepper, sliced in
  half through the stem and
1 small zucchini, sliced
  lengthwise into ¼-in. strips
4 oz. young fontina
  cheese, grated
12 basil leaves
4 hamburger buns, toasted

Place the mushroom caps in a shallow dish. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. Pour the marinade over the mushrooms and let stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes. Light the grill while waiting. Place the mushrooms, red pepper and zucchini on a hot grill, and cook for about 10 minutes on each side. During the last 5 minutes of cooking, top each portobello with 1 ounce of the cheese and cover the grill until the cheese melts. Serve each mushroom topped with three basil leaves and slices of grilled pepper and zucchini on a toasted hamburger bun.



Serves 4 as an appetizer 

4 large beets, peeled
4 oz. chèvre, room temperature
1 T. milk
2 T. chopped pecans
1 T. minced chives
2 t. minced fresh thyme
1 t. minced fresh rosemary
½ t. ground black pepper
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice of 1 lemon

Place the beets in a pot and cover with salted water. Bring to a rapid boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the beets until they can be pierced with a fork—about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle. In a bowl, combine the chèvre, milk, pecans, herbs and black pepper. Stir until well combined and set aside. Slice each beet into 3 or 4 horizontal rounds about ¼- to ½-inch thick. In a small bowl, combine the beet slices with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and the lemon juice. Toss to coat evenly. Using tongs, place the beets slices on a hot grill (avoiding the hottest spots) and cook for about 10 minutes per side. Remove the beets to a plate and let cool. To assemble the stacks, spread about a 1½ teaspoons of the chèvre mixture on top of one beet slice. Place another beet slice on top, and then repeat until there are two or three layers of cheese and all four stacks are assembled.