The first time I brought veggies to a backyard barbecue was pure serendipity. My tiny city garden was overflowing with beautiful zucchini and summer squash, and I had zero desire to journey to the store for the usual suspects—garden burgers and tofu dogs. I remembered some amazing grilled zucchini I’d had at a Mediterranean restaurant—how the fire had brought out a luscious richness, how gorgeous it looked on the plate with its grill marks, how it felt on my tongue. How hard could it be?
Not hard at all, I soon found out. I sliced my zukes and squash into lengthwise half-inch-thick slices, brushed them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled them with kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, and snips of fresh rosemary, and loaded the whole shebang into a big reusable container. I let them slide around together on the way to the cookout. Once there, the slices required just a few minutes per side on the grill, and voila—I was hailed as a culinary genius.
Now that I know how simple it is, I would add garlicky baby artichokes, charred green onions, or even baby bok choy to the platter. I love the way grilling gives my favorite vegetables a smoky, primal flavor. Their aroma becomes more robust, but they still retain their vibrant colors and natural sweetness. I’ve also learned, from the American Institute for Cancer Research, that the grill does not produce carcinogens in plant-based foods the way it does in meat. Another bonus: Quick exposure to high heat means the veggies won’t lose vitamin and mineral value.
Once I got a gas grill and could fire up at a moment’s notice, my love of grilling was confirmed. I cook enough to have leftovers—grilled peppers and earthy mushrooms are excellent in sandwiches, and zukes, corn (kernels cut from the cob), and red torpedo onions, mixed with fresh mint and cherry tomatoes, make a cool, colorful chopped salad. With my grill, it’s easy to get the USDA-recommended 2 and a half cups of vegetables per day.
But the real pleasure of barbecuing is being outside, cooking for a hungry crowd on a warm night. Happily removed from one-touch microwave buttons and hot stoves, I feel a deeper connection to the food, the fire, and the friends—and there’s almost nothing to clean up when I’m done.
The secret to great grilling is marinades. Most have three basic elements: an acid, like vinegar, which penetrates the surface; seasonings and spices, to lend flavor; and oil, which keeps veggies from drying out and sticking to hot surfaces. After my first olive-oil-and-herb combo, I started experimenting, using my intuition—and what was in the cupboard—to guide me. Marinades are flexible and forgiving; try mixing your oil with aged balsamic vinegar or Asian rice vinegar, fresh lemon or lime juice, minced garlic or shallots, soy sauce, fresh grated ginger, or those obscure condiments in the door of the fridge. Don’t fret about marinating for a long time; veggies absorb flavor quickly. Be sure to pour some marinade directly onto the veggies once they’re on the fire—since they have so little fat, they can dry out or burn quickly.
Grilling time varies depending on the density of the flesh and the moisture content. Zucchini or eggplant, sliced one-half-inch thick, needs about two minutes per side, while quarter sections of onions might take five minutes or longer. Again, I experiment: Al dente, crisp vegetables are delicious and retain the most nutrients, but I push my grilled zucchini to the edge of melting, then savor the texture and flavor. Red peppers are also easy and amazing; I just grill them cut side up until the skin blackens.
Beyond the fundamentals lie even more impressive (but still practically effortless) combinations. The elements of a favorite stir-fry-tofu, Japanese eggplant, green onions, bok choy, soy-ginger-sesame sauce-are perfect for the open flame. Pull each off at its peak of grilled goodness and keep it covered until the whole mélange is ready. Or try a postmodern, uber-healthy eggplant parmigiana by grilling and then stacking disks of garlicky eggplant, smoky tomato, blackened red pepper slices, and portobellos. Sprinkle with a little fresh Parmesan—or briefly grill slices of a firm cheese like provolone.
Sweet as Pie
You may never have considered it, but grilled fruit is fantastic. The flame caramelizes the sugars, intensifying the sweetness while imparting an unmistakable taste of summer. A firm, juicy peach responds to heat in remarkable ways, re-creating the taste of homemade fruit pies-without the refined sugar, butter, or heat from the oven. Pay attention to the process and you’ll be rewarded with amazing scents and a connection to food that indoor cooking just can’t impart. And imagine how your status as a grilling genius will rise when you pass around that plate of peaches, bathed in their own juices and redolent of summer perfume.
Want more variety? I’ve had excellent luck skewering half-inch chunks of apples, apricots, pineapple, plums, and pears. Try basting them with dry white wine and honey, or fresh lemon juice and honey, and sprinkling with cinnamon or fresh grated ginger: Dessert is served!
Grilling is all about being creative, staying loose-and enjoying yourself. One last hint: Be prepared to accept praise and consider responding with this simple truth: “Oh, it was easy.”
Now You’re Cooking
Forget charcoal. Gas grilling is more efficient and better for the planet.
Charcoal releases 105 times more carbon monoxide than propane, according to the Propane Education & Research Council. And propane’s “stove efficiency” is nearly four times that of charcoal, meaning a lot more heat bang for your smoke buck.
Popular brands of charcoal often contain chemical additives, but even hardwood or lump-charcoal briquettes do their part to pollute the air. Stinky lighter fluid is a definite no-no—if you must use charcoal, try a chimney starter (a metal tube you fill with charcoal, then stuff with newspaper, and light). Avoid self-lighting briquettes, which are laden with chemicals and, on taste alone, should be made illegal.
And grill safely, in an open area with a fire extinguisher nearby. Even experts can have accidents.