Move over, meat—this chef argues that produce might be even better over an open flame.
by Amanda Cushman | photography by Bert VanderVeen
When most people think of grilling, the first thing that comes to mind is often a slab of meat or a juicy burger. People love to debate the merits of their apparatus of choice—Green Egg, gas, charcoal or old fashioned wood—alongside the question of marinating, smoking, BBQ or au naturel. I’m not here to settle any argument, but to offer a new option: grilled vegetables.
Sure, it’s great to throw a steak on the grill, but as an omnivore, I enjoy eating less meat these days—and the nuances achieved with vegetables are far more interesting. Grilling requires little to no prep, minimal cleanup and few ingredients, and the finished product is always a big hit. Between the smoky flavor and the sweet, slightly charred caramelization that occurs when cooking over direct heat, grilling is a simple and quick way to prepare almost any vegetable. Especially in the warmer months when I want to be outside as much as possible—and produce
is at its peak—I love to grill vegetables.
With fresh produce, getting back to basics is the key; don’t overthink it. The umami that is achieved from the direct contact with the heat is satisfying and often unexpected. When I taught vegetarian cooking classes at a plant-based cooking school in New York City, I found my students were often surprised by the burst of flavor that comes from a simple appetizer like grilled eggplant on crispy bread with a drizzle of olive oil, topped with leaves of julienne basil and a crumble of feta. Not only are most vegetables suitable for grilling, there are so many ways you can use them once they’re cooked.
I turn to portobellos, cauliflower steaks, eggplant and zucchini for entree-style grilling. Vegetables like these have a satisfying, meaty texture and lend themselves to marinating and serving—especially with a garnish like crumbled feta, chèvre or shaved parmesan. My personal go-to is the portobello mushroom, I think of it almost like steak. I marinate portobellos whole, overnight if possible, with balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, freshly chopped thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper. When I grill them, I brush them often with the same marinade, and it takes about seven minutes per side to soften them. They’re also the perfect burger substitute, served whole on a toasted bun with cheese, arugula and tomato.
Side vegetables can range from grilled asparagus and broccoli to sliced onions and tomatoes—it’s easy to throw them on while you’re cooking a meat as your main since the grill is already hot and ready to go. Tomatoes are a particular summer favorite of mine: Simply slice the fruit about a half-inch thick and cook them just long enough to give them grill marks. A grilled tomato at the height of the season—sprinkled with sea salt and fresh ground pepper—is just heavenly. I skewer cherry tomatoes, brush them lightly with olive oil and watch them closely. They cook in two to three minutes and are wonderful added to a salad or served alongside sliced grilled lamb or chicken.
Some of my most popular cooking classes teach how to properly grill a meal with vegetables as the star, since people love grilled food and are always looking for new ways to add interest to vegetables. The opportunities for grilled vegetables are endless: Chop them up and add them to salads, pasta, omelettes or rice dishes. Serve them whole, as an arranged salad, on a sandwich or as part of an antipasto platter. Or simply serve them as they are—though as a finishing touch I often drizzle them with a vinaigrette, yogurt sauce or lemon and olive oil.
Whether they’re the star of the meal or a side to a protein, grilled seasonal vegetables offer a simple, surprisingly delicious way to include variety, color and nutrition to your meals all year round… but especially right now.
Amanda Cushman offers classes through chapelhillcookingclasses.com.