Memorial Day is just around the corner, and with it comes the promise of pool days and evenings on the patio taking in the intoxicating aroma of smoky grills and festive fire pits. As a chef, I’ve found there’s no better way to welcome the unofficial start of summer than with recipes best suited for a grill. Get ready to welcome friends and neighbors to your Memorial Day celebration with a waft of smoky flavor destined to make almost anything irresistible. For this reason, I’d say opt for a wood or charcoal burning grill if you can. No matter your budget, there’s a grill out there waiting to impart a lot of flavor.
Grill masters using gas can impart flavor with their favorite variety of wood chips. Oftentimes gas grills will come equipped with a small “smoker box” that enables the user to add a small amount of chips. You can also improvise and make a chip-filled D.I.Y. foil-purse to help impart some smoky flavor. For distinguished restaurant-style char grill marks make sure your grill is super-hot before adding any product, which can instantly lower the temperature.
Smoldering wood and coals can easily lend their smoky essence to hearty fruits and vegetables in ways you may have never imagined. And who doesn’t want more of that? Here are my favorite ways to prepare and grill fruits and vegetables in ways that are sure to please a small get together or a crowd.
Let’s Talk Mushrooms
Few ingredients lend themselves better to the smoky heat of a grill better than fungi. Meatier varieties, prepared from fresh and kept whole maximize chargrilled surface area and time spent absorbing all of that smoky goodness. Try Maitake (Hen of the Woods), King Oyster, or Portobello and treat these mushrooms just as you would a chicken breast or a thick cut steak. Experiment with different herbs, seasonings, and marinades to encourage flavor development without overpowering their natural taste.
Try marinating Maitake mushrooms in savory herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage, along with some fresh garlic and olive oil before briefly grilling them over cherry wood or charcoal. The flowery edges of the mushrooms get charred and crispy and the “meat” of the mushroom takes on a savory smokiness that completely steals the show. Treat de-“gilled” Portobello mushrooms like a good flank or hanger steak and marinate them in a splash of balsamic vinegar, red wine, and Worcestershire sauce (perhaps even a little Dijon and herbage) grill them well on both sides and slice on the bias. Finally, halve and score a big meaty King Oyster Mushroom and lacquer it in a sesame oil-infused teriyaki sauce for a real showstopper! If you are looking for a meat-alternative to grill, mushrooms are the answer. Just remember to incorporate a bit of healthy fat such as olive or avocado oil as the drippings are what cause the grill to “flare up” and impart the char flavor we all love in the summertime.
The Often-Contested Eggplant
Next on our list of summer grilling contenders is the often-contested eggplant. For most, you either love it or hate it. I personally fall into the former category and would argue that if you don’t like eggplant, it’s probably because you haven’t been preparing it correctly! Eggplant has a very high-water content, which is why if the eggplant is truly fresh little drops of water will bead on the surface after being sliced. It’s important to help the eggplant purge some of that moisture prior to grilling which will further enhance its inherently meaty texture. This can be easily accomplished by pre-salting the eggplant prior to cooking. Simply season liberally with salt then transfer to a colander to drain for ten to fifteen minutes or even up to an hour for you diehards. Briefly rinse your eggplant and pat dry and you are ready to get cooking. Again, at this point treat your eggplant just as you would an animal-based protein.
Some naysayers may make the “tofu argument” in that eggplant is just a vehicle for flavor. While I do agree it is versatile and can lend itself to many applications, fresh eggplant has a wonderful flavor all on its own. Highlight its delicate nature with a simple marinade of lemon, olive oil, salt and fresh ground black pepper, then lightly grill and layer the eggplant with juicy summer tomatoes and creamy buffalo mozzarella for a summer-centric Caprese salad. Or season your eggplant with tantalizing curry spice, Ras El Hanout, or Thai red curry paste, and grill turning often to ensure your spices don’t burn. Thinner Japanese eggplant lend themselves brilliantly to a quick cooking charcoal yakitori application with a sweet miso glaze. Similar summer vegetables such as summer squash or zucchini can also benefit from a pre-salt purge to a marinade or straight to the grill.
We Can Grill That!
And why stop there? Even vegetables with a high-water content are suitable for the grill. I bet you never thought to grill a cucumber. As long as your grill is super-hot, a grilled cucumber can be a wonderful thing. The key is to quickly char the outside (a little oil and salt helps) without actually cooking the cucumber. This way, you maintain the signature crunch of the cucumber but impart an unexpected, char-grilled flavor that will leave you questioning everything you ever knew about cucumbers. And tomatoes? Yes please! Brush with avocado oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little bit of grill time, and you have yourself a smoky summer sandwich sans the bacon (an L.T.?). Heck, you can even grill an avocado! I like to crust an avocado half in my favorite spice/seed blend such as Furikake or Za’atar and grill it flesh side down until charred and fragrant. Spoon that on some crusty bread (also grilled) and thank me later!
Heartier varieties of lettuce such as romaine, endive, or radicchio welcome the smoky kiss of a hot grill. Sub some fresh romaine lettuce for grilled romaine for a truly impressive Caesar salad, or top with a quintessential blue cheese-buttermilk dressing and gremolata breadcrumbs for an exquisitely satisfying smoky steakhouse side. Also, pro-tip, if you are ever nervous about your grilled veggies or otherwise falling through the grates to their demise, lay down a bit of foil, or cook in a well-seasoned cast iron pan on the grill and close the lid for a bit so the smoke has a chance to permeate your veggies.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There is (virtually) no fruit or vegetable that couldn’t benefit from smooth and sultry smoke of a summer grill. So, stay out of the hot kitchen this summer, and opt instead for a quick-cooking meal off the grill, surrounded by friends, in the cool summer breeze. That’s where I’ll be.