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Out of the Garden and into the Fire

A barbecue enthusiast’s guide to vegetables grilled just right

by B.A. Nilsson on June 1, 2011

Nothing brings out the flavor of a costly cut of meat like charcoal grilling, but I’m enough of a pinchfist to be distressed by the amount of coals and grill space I waste each time I’m out there flipping steaks. I started sharing the heat with the side dishes and soon realized that grilled vegetables are good enough to stand on their own.

Corn and asparagus got there first, followed shortly thereafter by potatoes. I’ve since run a number of common-from-our-garden items across the grill with compelling results, and the approaches described below show how easily gourmet dining can be achieved through simplicity.

I’m an unapologetic grill snob, which means I fire hardwood charcoal briquets in a kettle grill. Lighter fluid leaves an unpleasant odor, so I start the fire in a chimney made for the purpose, which needs only a few sheets of newspaper to ignite a fat column of briquets. You can control the grilling heat by the amount and placement of coals. Spread them evenly across the lower grate for the direct method; bank the coals to one side or the other for the indirect method, which gives a number of cooking zones. The latter is usually most helpful with items like vegetables that require different cooking times.

What’s the temperature? The rule of thumb is the rule of hand; that is, how long you can hold the palm of your hand over the coals at about the level of the cooking surface. Eight seconds is low heat (about 300 degrees), medium (about 375 degrees) is five seconds, and two seconds of torture means you’re on high (about 500 degrees). Temperature is regulated both by the depth of the coal bed and, most importantly, the amount of draft coming from the vents in the bottom of the kettle.

One of the easiest and finest grilled sides is corn. Trim the tops and bottoms from a pile of freshly-picked ears, keeping on as much of the husk as possible, and soak them in water for at least half an hour. Place them over indirect heat, turning a couple of times, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the husks are big strips of burnt blackness. The kernels themselves should show the rust color of caramelization. Eat them right off the cob—don’t spoil them with butter—or strip the kernels into a salad or other side dish.

For a corn variant, make polenta, which requires you to boil a batch of cornmeal and water, stirring frequently, until it fights back. Turn it out of the pot, let it cool, slice it and hit the slices briefly on the grill. Throw some mushrooms in it to complicate the flavor.

You can bake whole potatoes over or even in a grill, but I prefer to cut the potatoes into steak fries, toss them with sliced onions, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, wrap them in tinfoil (two to three potatoes per pack) and grill them over direct heat, turning once. Figure 20 to 30 minutes. You want some color on that potato flesh.

Asparagus is another natural for the grill. Snap the stems, marinate the stalks for an hour in olive oil and vinegar (I add cumin seeds), then put them over indirect heat, perpendicular to the grill grain, turning them after about four minutes. They should be done in another 4 minutes. If you’ll be doing a lot of this regularly, a good tool is a fish grill basket, which imprisons the item to be grilled between two mesh layers and allows you to flip them with ease and without donating any of it to the bottom of the grill.

Portobello mushrooms are protean items that can be their own substitute burgers, make a terrific side dish or be sliced into a salad or other side. Toss them in olive oil with rosemary and shallots, grill them on fairly direct heat for about six minutes per side.

Eggplant pretty much begs to be sliced in thick circlets, brushed with oil and seasonings and grilled for five minutes per side. But you also should try grilling the thing whole, scraping out the insides, then mashing it with onions and garlic, tahini and parsley, cumin and lemon juice for baba ganouj.

Over at the spreading squash end of the garden, don’t forget to pluck some orange zucchini blossoms to marinate and grill them (quickly). Later you’ll be slicing zucchini and yellow squash and treating them as you will peppers and onion slices: coating them with oil and seasonings, and grilling them over indirect heat for four to five minutes per side. The combination of squash, peppers and onions turns magnificently sweet, with the blackened skin of the peppers (I leave it on) adding another flavor dimension.

Might as well grill the rest of your salad, too. Tomato slices need only a minute or two per side, while the tighter types of lettuce, like endive and radicchio, need three to four minutes per side. Don’t forget to brush them with olive oil.

Along with the usual arsenal of grilling tools—tongs, spatula, grill scraper—put together a seasoning kit of kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, rosemary and (for a blast of the other type of heat) sriracha.

Your veggie creations make for meals of their own when combined with each other or when paired with pasta, goat cheese or that polenta you made earlier. Build them into handsome stacks, toss them into colorful salads—or do as I do and consume them as they come off the fire. It’s the payoff for all that gardening.