Vegetables Are the Unsung Hero of Summer Grilling
Here’s how to prep them just right.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:30 AM
I hate to admit it, but my palms start to sweat when I am tasked with the role of pitmaster. I’d choose a gushy, sappy sweet potato with charred skin over showy protein any day. When you begin with humble ingredients, there’s just a greater delta for success, more room to impress. When you pull out the coals and the old Weber, nobody sees that head of tender gem lettuce coming. But give her a righteous place on the summer grill, and there she is: lightly crunchy but suddenly smoky, a vehicle for herbs and sauces—and toppings galore.
Next time you approach the grill, I urge you to look beyond corn on the cob and shrink-wrapped bell peppers. You have options when it comes to seasonal grilling—from root veg to cabbage—and when prepared with some know-how, you won’t even realize the meat never made it to the table.
Sweet potatoes come with a safety net: The longer they cook, the more concentrated their sugars become, the creamier their flesh, and the chewier their skin. I cook my sweet potatoes completely in the oven ahead of time and finish them by laying them straight on the coals, a simple and forgiving technique. Flex further with all kinds of toppings, from the classic and rich (compound butter, sour cream with chives, whipped goat cheese) to the spicy and saucy (Peruvian green sauce, chimichurri, salsa verde). I recommend finishing with something crunchy for texture, whether it’s fried shallots, a spicy seed mix, or crispy puffed rice.
How-to: The more color the better. Grab a handful of farmers’ market varieties, from purple Japanese yams to the classic orange-fleshed beauties. Up to five days before your barbecue, pierce and roast them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until fork-tender and store them in the fridge. When it’s party time, get your coals white-hot and slide them to one side of the grill. Lay the potatoes directly on the coals and blacken the skin, turning them frequently to cook all the way around. When they are blistered and charred, slide them over to the coal-free side of the grill to stay warm and ripe for the taking and topping.
This down-home, dirt-cheap veggie is the chameleon of the vegetable kingdom. Of course, there is always room for a raw cabbage slaw at your summer cookout, but toss some chunky cabbage wedges on the grill and you have a main course in the making.
How-to: Keeping the stem end intact, cut into six equal wedges. Oil and salt them and grill on medium-high to char their surface and soften the interior. Serve them as is or trim the core and roughly chop. You can dress cabbage like you would raw slaw (either vinegary or mayo-y), or make a creamy dressing in the blender with avocados, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic, and lime.
It’s that time of year when lettuces abound, and even I find myself experiencing salad fatigue. Toss them on the grill, and you can tear through an impressive volume of leafy greens. Lightly charred, each person will want a small head unto themselves. The lettuce maintains a fresh crunch, but once cooked and dressed, it is elevated to so much more than a side salad.
How-to: Shop for little gems at the farmers’ market or bagged romaine hearts at your supermarket (large romaine can work, too; just pull off any tough outer leaves). Alternately, try escarole, treviso, radicchio, and endive—these are all delicious when grilled, their bitterness mellowed with heat. Slice the heads in half lengthwise, keeping the root end intact. Rub with olive oil and season with kosher salt. Cook over medium-hot coals until slightly wilted and kissed with grill marks. Serve them with croutons or crushed crunchy chickpeas, with a chunky sauce gribiche or a Caesar dressing. Finish with boquerones or a heap of grated Parmesan cheese.
Radishes and Turnips
Radishes and turnips beg to be paired with rich butter, or ghee for a butter-on-steroids flavor, and their greens are a welcome added bonus if they are in decent shape. They are colorful and easy to eat with your hands, too!
How-to: Blister radishes or tender Japanese turnips (cut in half if they are more than petite), then toss them with butter/ghee and salt. If you have happy radishes or turnip greens, oil and salt them and quickly char on the grill as well. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of furikake (Japanese rice seasoning) or a Middle Eastern spice blind such as za’atar or dukkah.
If you are cooking with coal, charred beets make for an impressive vegetable main, black on the outside, jewel-toned on the inside (keep the beets on the medium to small side—the sweeter they are, the better).
How-to: Burn charcoal until the coals are white-hot. Let them cool for about 20 minutes (cook something else delicious on them in the meantime). Toss your beets directly on the coals, turning them every 5 minutes. The outside will char, and the insides will soften in about 20 to 30 minutes (check for doneness by poking them with a knife). When they are fork-tender, remove them from the coals and brush off the excess ash. Cut them into 2-inch chunks or slice them into 1/2-inch steaks, and arrange on a serving platter. Season with olive oil and salt, and serve warm.
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