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Gettin’ Your Veggies On (the Grill)

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It was mid-July and I was getting ready to head up to the lake for a family barbecue when I got a text from my niece: “Don’t forget to bring the veggies to throw on the grill.” As if. This time of summer, I don’t leave home without baskets brimming with plump purple eggplant, succulent squash, skeins of green beans and tons of tomatoes. For most family gatherings, I’m the one who brings the veggies to round out the meat and other side offerings. During barbecue season, we just toss the veggies on the grill with the ribs, tri-tip and chicken. So easy, tasty and almost zero cleanup.

By August, my gardens are overflowing with fresh vegetables. Besides giving them away and feeding the excess to my perpetually starving chickens, grilling is a great way to get the best mileage out of them. We just need to be in the mind frame that whenever we’re barbecuing that steak, chicken or salmon, we simply ask ourselves, “What veggies do I have that would be good to use up?” Zucchini sings and sizzles past sautéing and eggplant expounds beyond parmigiana. Tomatoes come alive on the grill and peppers pop with smoky flavor. In my opinion, there aren’t many vegetables that can’t be thrown on the barbie or wouldn’t benefit from a good grilling. I believe many veggies such as corn, beans, onions, leeks and okra are overlooked and should be given a second thought. 

To get the most out of your grilled veggies, many experts agree on a few simple rules. Vegetables have individual flavor and can stand on their own with just a modicum of seasoning. They are best slathered in a bit of extra virgin and lightly salted and peppered just before grilling to prevent them from becoming soggy. Although some claim that eggplant should be salted and drained first to prevent sponginess, I have never found this to be an issue and I suspect that the thinnest slicer on my mandoline may be the key. A sprinkle of seasoned or garlic salt, lemon pepper or even a squeeze of lemon or splash of soy sauce is just enough to push most veggies to mouthwatering status. For a little Italian flair, try basting with olive oil infused with fresh-chopped or dried thyme, oregano, rosemary and basil. Summer grilling is the perfect time to experiment with the bazillion varieties of basils that are available and I certainly don’t hold back since those days are numbered. 

While most veggies do fine right on the grill next to the ribs and chicken, some, such as green beans and cherry tomatoes, do better in grilling baskets. Try tossing some garlic cloves or mushrooms in a basket to jazz up your finished platter. Some can even be made into kabobs, if one is up to that much extra prep or has preschoolers around who need to work on development of hand-eye coordination. If you’re using wooden skewers, just remember to soak the sticks in water first so they stay intact through the grilling process. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know this; it’s all right, I see a few raised hands.

Generally, vegetables do well over a medium hot fire, but one can always experiment with different temperatures and cook times. Once the grill is hot, you can use the wire brush that came with your Father’s Day barbecue set to clean the grate. If you aren’t so blessed, the cut side of an onion stuck on a fork works wonderfully to remove any leftover charred bits, and, for a bonus, you can cut the soiled side off, slice it up and throw it on with the rest of the veggies. A good pair of tongs is indispensable. Dump the ones from the grill set and get a sturdy pair of silicone-tipped ones that are more veggie friendly. Lastly and most important, keep in mind that to get those perfect, most-sought-after grill marks, one needs to be patient and not move them around. Just sit back, sip your sangria, and let the flames do their job.

Once you get those grilled beauties on your platter, you can arrange them in a lovely pattern or experiment with garnishing, if so desired. The smoky char of the flame and those perfect tan lines already take them to a whole other level. But just imagine what a dusting of parmesan and pepper flakes or a salty smidgen of feta or blue cheese melting into every other bite could do. To add a sweet and tangy zing, give them a drizzle of plain or flavored balsamic. This is where imagination and experimentation meet no boundaries. But honestly, what is more tantalizing and gorgeous than a colorful platter of grilled veggies garnished with a chiffonade of fresh basil? And BTW, chimichurri is not just for meat anymore.

Now that you have that grilled veggie frame of mind going, just extend it for the rest of the year. You can start dreaming now of an autumn of acorn and butternut squash bathed in butter and glazed with brown sugar and a winter of charred carrots, beets and sweet potatoes doused with extra virgin and fresh rosemary and thyme. Before you know it, you’ll have those artichokes and asparagus sizzling next to a spring bounty of fava beans and cauliflower steaks. And don’t forget about cabbage, kale, and bok choy, a bit trickier, but worth the trouble in the end. Grilling doesn’t have to be just a summer fling when you can make it a year-long affair.

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