Cooking outside is one of summer’s greatest pleasures, along with long, lazy days, a glass of rosé or minty lemonade in hand, and some laid-back tunes. But nothing kills good vibes faster than under-seasoned, underdone vegetables. Avoid lackluster lettuce and hum-drum skewers with these tips from my latest cookbook, Vegetables on Fire. Get ready to step up your grill game.
Don’t fear oil. Or salt!
Any vegetables you’re grilling, from slices of zucchini to wedges of radicchio, will sit wan and untouched next to those burgers and dogs if they’re under-oiled and under seasoned. Before grilling, coat your produce with oil (vegetable and olive both work fine), and give those vegetables a light, even shower of kosher salt.
Sometimes, more is more.
While many people love vegetables getting soft and sweet on the grill, adding some combination of fat, acid, and crunch brings your meal to the next level. Cauliflower works well with both breadcrumbs and peanut sauce (though not together), toasted nuts and seeds give carrots more crunch, and fennel and bitter greens pair perfectly with tangy, herby green goddess. That said, it can all be mixed and matched.
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Marinating isn’t just for meat.
Techniques like pre-salting and marinating give your grilling an extra depth of flavor, especially with vegetables like cabbage and butternut squash. A soak in lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs, or soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, and rice vinegar, make so much of a difference. Try different flavor combinations, like coconut curry sauce or chimichurri. Be as creative on the grill as you are in the kitchen.
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Clean your grate before your plate.
Don’t just throw your vegetables on the grill. Once the grill is hot, use a stiff wire brush to clean the grate. If you don’t have a brush, rub the cut side of a halved onion stuck on a fork to remove any leftover charred bits.
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Play with heat.
Cooking directly over a fire is tricky—you don’t want charred vegetables with raw insides or a limp and lifeless meal. Get to know your grill’s hot and cool zones. For gas grills, every one is a little different. Even if you turn all of the burners to high, certain spots are hotter than others. Charcoal is a little easier to figure out. The more dispersed the coals, the more dispersed heat. Generally, vegetables do well on a medium hot fire, but experiment with different temperatures and cook times. Unlike your pricey ribeye, vegetables are relatively cheap and forgiving.
You’re only as good as your tools.
Quarter sheet trays work great for oiling and seasoning produce that don’t fit in a bowl, like carrots, asparagus, and kale. Keep vegetables from slipping into the coals without a fancy grill basket. Disposable grill toppers are cheap and can be used many times. Even heavy-duty aluminum foil also works as cooking packets for sturdier vegetables like potatoes, beets, and artichokes. Lastly, good tongs are indispensable. Skip the kind that come in grill sets and use a sturdy pair of 12” silicone tipped ones. They’ll be gentler on your vegetables.
Grilled vegetables usually taste best hot off the grill, or only slightly cooled. You’ll need to plan ahead. Prep as much as you can—chopping, blending, toasting nuts—before lighting the grill (this also helps minimize trips to the kitchen). Most vegetables cook quickly. Get your friends to come hang out with you at the grill so you don’t have to walk too far away and risk burning that beautiful produce.
Stretch your imagination.
Yes, master the slices of zucchini, ears of corn, and mixed vegetable skewers. But you (and your grill) can do so much more. Nearly all vegetables work well on the grill, from beets smoked in foil packets, to leeks and turnips. Even dishes like shakshuka and gazpacho get more nuanced with a bit of char and smoke.