Backyard BBQs for Your Veggie Friends

It’s backyard barbecue season, and if you have a meat eschewing guest in your backyard, do more for them than provide a dry soy patty or a store-bought crudite platter for them to gnaw on. Elevate your vegetarian grilling menu to new heights and be sure your veggie friends keep coming back without feeling like they have to pack their own food. While you can type the word “grilled” into any search engine and pull up thousands of tips for carnivores, there is a dearth of good information on grilling vegetables. I pretty much suck at grilling myself, so I turned to my good friend Russ Prystash, who is a master of the craft. He approaches his grill duties with the same serious intensity that lab technicians generally reserve for medical research. Here are some of his thoughts on grilling vegetables, based on years of experimentation, trial and error.

Cathren Housley (Motif): Can you just throw vegetables on the grill?

Russ Prystash: I’ve found that, depending on the particular vegetable, you may need to purchase a grill basket or grill mat. Long vegetables, such as asparagus and zucchini, can be placed directly on the grates, but it would be difficult to prevent green beans or okra from falling through the gaps. Also, if you want to shorten grilling time, you’re probably going to slice vegetables into smaller pieces. These would likely fall to their sooty deaths. I prefer a grill basket myself – they work very well and are safe at any temperature. Grill mats are made of PTFE (Teflon) and while now most are PFOA free, they can still present health hazards if used over a very high heat of 500 degrees or more. (Note: PFOA was an essential ingredient in DuPont’s Teflon cookware for decades. It’s also used in hundreds of other non-stick and stain-resistant products. PFOA is now the subject of about 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont.)

When grilling chunky pieces of vegetables, a good alternative to grill baskets is skewers. You can get either flat ones or round ones, and both skewers work well with larger pieces, but not as well when skewering slices of onion, mushroom, peppers, carrots, or peas (ha!). Smaller pieces tend to split when they are pushed onto flat skewers, and if you use round skewers, vegetables fall apart after some time on the grill because they lose water and begin to spin. A grill basket solves these problems.

CH: Every time I’ve seen vegetables cooked on the grill, they’ve been wrapped in foil. Why don’t you do that?

RP: It’s a popular method, but I don’t advise closing vegetables up in foil unless you prefer them steamed. For me, it misses the whole point of grilling.

CH: How long should vegetables stay on the grill?

RP: I recommend checking to find the relative cook time of any vegetables you are grilling. Potatoes will take more time to complete than, say, asparagus and obviously, bigger pieces will take longer than smaller ones. If you are grilling different vegetables with different cook times or size, don’t throw them all in at the same time. Stagger them from longest to shortest cooking times.

I find a medium intensity fire ideal for vegetables. They can be brought to proper doneness with a nice char if the griller pays attention to their progress. You should toss or turn them fairly frequently (every four to five minutes) but not incessantly, otherwise your beauties will not pick up any char. Vegetables will generally pass from crisp to limp in a short time, so do test them now and again for doneness.

CH: What’s your favorite recipe for grilled vegetable?

RP: The simpler, the better. All I usually do is lightly oil them, then toss with some salt and pepper or herbs before putting them on the fire.

CH: What about the fire itself? Do you favor charcoal or those exotic woods such as mesquite?

RP: When grilling meats and poultry, it is common practice to throw some wood chunks or chips onto the charcoal, or if using a gas grill, placing chips into a smoker box to intensify the flavor. In my experience this is not a technique that works well for vegetables – the intense smoke overwhelms the more delicate flavors of vegetables. There are some exceptions, most notably eggplant whose strong flavor is enhanced by the smokiness of a few wood chips.

CH: Do you have any tips for grilling vegetarian burgers?

RP: They don’t really grill well; veggie burgers tend to dry out and fall apart, so I recommend using foil, as you would with delicate fish. The tofu dogs work better on a grill, but if you don’t score them with small cuts, they blow up like puffer fish.

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