Of all the foods we grill on perfect summer days, vegetables rank among the most exciting. Perhaps it's because the grill so thoroughly transforms everything from bland eggplant to plain-old potatoes and squash into new, richly flavored, smoky treats. Suddenly, they morph from boring must-eat sides to interesting creations.
Our family tip: Cook plenty. We always eat more grilled veggies than we ever do of the steamed or boiled counterpart. Plus, any leftover grilled vegetables happily metamorphose into yet another treat for the next day's meals. Grilled potatoes liven up potato salad as does grilled asparagus in a batch of scrambled eggs. I tuck slabs of grilled green and yellow summer squash along with tomato slices inside a pita for a terrific, unusual weekday sandwich.
Two secrets come to mind for successful veggie grilling: Keep 'em moist; season highly. Since grills offer dry heat, a light coating of oil seals in moisture when grilling cut vegetables. Alternatively, I trap moisture by wrapping firm veggies such as potatoes, beets, turnips and carrots in foil. Season sliced oiled vegetables with rubs, herbs and salt before grilling so the flavors penetrate. Likewise, season vegetables cooked in foil packets.
Sweet potatoes in the heat of summer may surprise you. We thickly slice and then sprinkle ours with a "barbecue" seasoning. A medium grill will soften the hard potatoes and char their natural sugars beautifully.
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We also like to grill Belgian endive and small heads of red radicchio for interesting sides. To do so, split them in half lengthwise, and cook on a medium grill while basting frequently with a flavorful vinaigrette. Once they're tender and the edges look golden brown, sprinkle generously with chopped fresh chives and Parmesan shavings. Yummy when served warm.
Portobellos — the giants of the mushroom family — are often eaten grilled as a main course in Italy. I like to stuff the caps with their own grilled and seasoned stems. Topped with a gently grill-warmed tomato and a wedge of exceedingly unctuous burrata cheese, they make a stunning first-course. For a meatless main, accompany the caps with pasta dressed simply with olive oil, black pepper and fresh herbs.
Any leftover stuffed portobello caps can be turned into a salad so I cook extra with that in mind. The next day, I chop the leftovers roughly and mix them with 2 or 3 cups torn country bread that's been darkly toasted or, better yet, grilled. Drizzle on some of the remaining vinaigrette or a bit of oil and stir in chopped fresh basil.
The grill and summer vegetables: A match made in heaven.
Barbecue sweet potato slices
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon sugar
4 to 6 large sweet potatoes (3 to 4 pounds total), peeled if desired
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse (kosher) salt
Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium heat. Mix chili powder and sugar together in a small dish.
Cut potatoes lengthwise into slabs about ½ inch thick. Place in a single layer on 1 large or 2 smaller well-oiled baking sheet(s). Turn potatoes to coat with the oil.
Sprinkle the potatoes generously on all sides with the chili mixture; sprinkle lightly with salt.
Arrange potatoes on the grill in a single uncrowded layer. Cover grill; cook, 10 minutes. Use a pancake flipper to carefully turn potato slices over. Grill the second side until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and edges are slightly charred, 8-10 minutes. Serve hot. Makes: 4 to 6 servings.
Roasted and salted, smoked or candied pecans make a great substitute for the toasted pecans here. I love to top each portion of this dish with a poached or over-easy egg and a generous sprinkle of black pepper. Crumbled goat cheese tastes great in place of the sour cream, too.
Barbecue sweet potatoes with chickpeas and arugula
¼ cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons smoky barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon each: olive oil, red wine vinegar
½ cup drained canned chickpeas
5 ounces baby arugula or baby kale or 4 cups roughly chopped frisee leaves
Half recipe cooked BBQ sweet potato slices
A few tablespoons thin sour cream or plain yogurt, optional
Chopped fresh chives or very thinly sliced green onions
Place pecans in a small nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant and lightly browned, 1-2 minutes. Cool, then chop roughly.
Mix barbecue sauce, oil and vinegar in a small bowl. Add chickpeas; toss to coat. Arrange greens on a large platter. Sprinkle lightly with salt if desired.
Cut potato slices into 1-inch chunks. Put into a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high until potatoes are warm, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add warm potatoes and chickpea mixture to salad greens. Toss lightly to coat everything with the dressing. Sprinkle with pecans. Drizzle with sour cream if using. Serve sprinkled with chives. Makes: 4 main-course servings.
Ricotta makes a nice substitute for the burrata; you'll need 2 tablespoons per mushroom cap.
Lemon garlic grilled portobellos with burrata and tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
Grated zest and juice from 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
6 large (about 1½ pounds total) portobello mushrooms, each 4 inches in diameter
1 medium red onion, cut into 4 thick slices
6 small ripe tomatoes or 3 medium
Half of an 8-ounce container burrata cheese
3 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil and fresh chives
Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium heat. Mix oil, lemon zest and juice, mustard and salt in a small bowl.
Gently twist the mushroom stems off the caps. Lightly brush the caps, stems and onion slices with the oil mixture. Grill stems and onion slices directly over the heat, turning once, until golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board.
Add caps to a cooler section of the grill, gill side down. Cook, 2 minutes. Flip; brush with oil mixture. Add tomatoes to grill. Grill until smooth side of mushroom caps are golden and tomatoes are warmed and softened a bit, about 3 minutes. Remove from grill; place mushroom caps on a serving platter. Use a small serrated knife to cut the tomatoes in half or slices.
Chop grilled stems and onion; put into a small bowl. Season with a teaspoon or two of the remaining oil mixture. Divide the filling among the mushrooms caps. Top with a portion of the burrata and two tomato halves or slices. Sprinkle generously with fresh basil and chives. Serve while warm or at room temperature. Makes: 6 servings.