Grilling brings to mind the almost primitive pairing of flesh and fire but there’s no reason it should. Chefs and home grillers have been creating feasts without beasts in increasing numbers. So what are they grilling up? Kebobs of course, but other items that might surprise you. At a vegetarian cookout done right, only the most curmudgeonly carnivore would wonder why the meat was missing.
Get on the Stick
Veggie kebobs can include nearly any vegetable that can made bite-sized, with the most common being peppers, onions, zucchini, and mushrooms, which all cook at more or less the same rate. Potatoes, on the other hand, don’t do well on such a skewer, but they can be sprinkled with oil and spices (cumin and curry powder are a good combo) and placed on the grill enveloped in aluminum foil (just be sure to turn the parcel often).
Quartering a red onion is a good start—the curved ends placed at the bottom of the skewer make for a sort of hand guard on a pirate’s cutlass effect. Alternating among red, yellow, orange, and green peppers (yes, snobs: green peppers) with your other vegetables makes for an attractive presentation. Adding pineapple to the mix brings a nearly exotic burst of juicy sweetness to your vegetable stack.
Though you can always brush the vegetables with oil and spices (possible additions include lime or lemon juice or vinaigrette; cilantro, cumin, chili powder, curry powder, sea salt, fresh ground pepper), marinating for an hour or two brings even richer flavor. But it’s difficult to submerge already skewered vegetables in your marinade; it’s even more trouble to marinate the chopped vegetables and then try to skewer the oily chunks. Unless you’re having company, you might want to forgo the skewers and use a grilling basket—the vegetarian griller’s best friend.
Keeping Veggies in the Fold
Grilled quesadillas—using large burrito shells stuffed and folded in half—are among the most versatile vegetarian dishes becoming anything from a grilled cheese sandwich for the unadventurous to elaborate concoctions filled with corn, homemade salsa, a medley of onions, peppers, and zucchini (raw or grilled), and beans. While black beans are tasty and healthy, “painting” a layer of refried beans on the shell first will help keep your filling from falling out. As for cheese, quesadillas give you the chance to clear out any stray cheeses that have gone a little hard or are on the verge of going green (in the bad way) in your fridge. For a sublime treat, crumble in some Stilton Double Gloucester cheese (it looks like a slice of layer cake) from Annemarie’s Dairy (stand H-4, H-5 at the West Side Market), a vendor specializing in vegetarian-friendly fare. Prepping quesadillas can take some time (vegetarians spend a lot of time shopping and chopping), so it’s best to get that out of the way before company comes and the grill is lit. Low to medium flame and a light brushing of olive oil work best, along with a close watch—deep grill marks are great, but don’t let the edges get too crispy.
The Cheese Stands Alone—and Up to the Heat
The cheese of dreams is haloumi, a semi-hard cheese popular in Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and parts of the Middle East available in Cleveland at stores with specialty cheese departments. Zagara’s Marketplace in Cleveland Heights, reliably stocks it, as do some vendors at the West Side Market. Its high melting point makes it perfect for the grill, served in one-inch cubes as an appetizer or on a kebob, or sliced into squares as an alternative to a burger. It can also be paired with watermelon as a super summer side dish. If you want to try it before committing to grilling it yourself, it’s on the menu at Nighttown on Cedar Road.
Keep Your Eyes on the Ears
Corn on the cob can be grilled in the husk or out, or both. But what is done next with the corn is what matters. Momocho on Fulton Road in Ohio City grills in-season raw sweet corn, brushes it with housemade chili-lime butter, then rolls it in cotija cheese (a Mexican cheese somewhere between feta and parmesan), adds a dollop of sour cream and pico de gallo, and serves it with lime wedges. Executive chef Eric Williams warns the bad spring weather means this popular item won’t be on the menu until late summer. In its stead is an equally mouthwatering grilled asparagus.
The Grill of Your Dreams
Crisp lettuce or cabbage wedges can be grilled and then drizzled with an oil, lime juice, and cilantro dressing and sprinkled with Gorgonzola cheese. Homemade veggie burgers—made with legumes such as lentils or black beans—can be delicious, but it takes a lot of practice with a recipe to keep the patty intact. For this reason it may not be for the novice or the particularly hungry.
Why stop at vegetables? Certain fruits thrown on the grill add an entirely new set of flavors and textures to your meal. Besides pineapples, which have been a kebob staple for years, halved peaches can be grilled (with all fruit, brush lightly with olive oil first). Paired with pound cake or ice cream, they make a perfect summery dessert (leftovers—as if—can be chopped into salsa). When watermelon is grilled, it makes a succulent side dish. Grilled grapefruit can be squeezed over vodka or gin on ice for a refreshing summery gimlet. Grilled grapefruit juice can also be used as a smoky stand-in for lime juice in margaritas and daiquiris. Some fruit grillers suggest indirect heat, and all recommend keeping a close watch, especially after downing that first grilled grapefruit juice gimlet.
As these simple ideas suggest, cookouts don’t have to be all about carnivorous consumption. Because no one ever got sick from an undercooked vegetable, vegetarian grilling allows—and even rewards—experimentation. So light the fire, open the crisper, and get chopping.