12 Secrets to Grilling Perfect Veggies, According to a Chef
From pearl onions and oyster mushrooms to Japanese eggplant and salad greens (yep, even arugula).
It can be so easy to forget to toss vegetables on the barbie alongside the shrimp. (And burgers. And dogs.) Let’s face it: Beyond potato salad, a lot of us do not consume the veggies we should come summertime. We reached out to Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of vegetable-focused restaurant Dirt Candy in New York City. Here are her top tips—including an extraordinary-sounding grilled salad—for getting all the colors of the rainbow into your diet this season.
Double-grate your grill
Cohen uses a double grate system, so the grates themselves crisscross and veggies are less likely to fall through the cracks. “Unless the vegetables are cut in really big pieces,” she says, “the smaller the pieces, the more veggies are likely to shrink.” You might be able to create a hack using a heatproof cooling rack or oven rack, depending on the size and type of grill you have. In a pinch, you could use a grilling basket, but Cohen likes those less because you can’t get as many different types of textures, and “it hinders charring.”
Grill your salad
“My go-to #1 grilled veggie is greens: Spinach, kale, any soft green like arugula, even herbs,” says Cohen. (Mind blown? Ours, too.) “Putting a big bunch of greens mixed with herbs on the grill mixed with olive oil and salt is delicious. All I do is we toss them in oil, and as they slowly shrink, I turn them a lot, and that big pile will get small very fast.” She loves that some parts get crispy, others are dried out, some are overcooked, and others are raw. “It’s all the different textures you want in one vegetable,” she insists. She grills her greens fast over high heat, turning them frequently, and will add fresh, salty and acidic notes such as basil, Pecorino, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon zest just before serving. Expect a big, delicious mess of a salad.
Sturdier greens can work, too
As for Romaine, a more popular grilling option because it’s so sturdy, Cohen would cut a head in half, oil it a bit, put it on the grate, and “get that charred flavor, but don’t cook it too much: You still want that big crispy bite.”
Sometimes you’ll want to finish cooking in a pan
Cohen loves to cook Brussels sprouts, halving them and putting them face-down on the grill to get stripes on one side, but “because they’re tougher we’ll often [finish] them in the pan.” As is true of all vegetables, she gets the grill “as hot as possible, as long as you’re watching it and can turn things a lot.” As she explains, “You can’t overcook or undercook veggies. It’s not like with meat: ‘Aw, it’s still raw inside.’” She’ll finish sprouts in a hot pan with oil, maybe garlic towards the end of the cooking time, and perhaps a splash of water to help the sprouts cook through.
You’ll get flare-ups, but don’t worry about i
When asked if these oily salads and veggies would drip and cause flare-ups, Cohen laughed, “That’s what makes it fun! It’s added flavor.” Just be careful!
Stop overcooking your squash
“Squash gets so watery that it’s a tricky one,” says Cohen. “I would say, always grill them for much less time. Grill big chunks. Get flavor on all sides. Take them off as soon as you see them start to leak.” (Read: Salt them once they’re off the heat, not beforehand, or you’ll draw out the water too early and end up with a mushy supper.)
Consider Japanese eggplants
A similarly watery vegetable is eggplant, but Cohen avoids the trickiness of dealing with big, fat slices by going for slender Japanese eggplants. “They’re smaller and easier, and I’ll usually slice them lengthwise, oil them, and grill till they’re pretty charred.” When they’re done, salt them a little to taste and add fresh herbs, lemon juice, and salt.
Don’t waste time marinating
Any need to marinate your veggies for hours in advance? “Nope,” says Cohen, “because they’re not going to soak in as
much flavor. Might as well put the marinade on on the grill.”
You can skip bell peppers if you want to
It’s true that most every veggie is good for you, but Cohen is not a bell pepper person. “I hear bell peppers and I think 1992.”
Be smart about onions
Many of us grew up seeing onions, bell peppers, and maybe portobello mushrooms as the only vegetable players worthy of the grill, usually added to skewers. They rarely seemed to cook correctly or all the way through. As for onions, says Cohen, “if you want to sort of bring it into the present, what I like to grill are scallions. If I’d grill an onion that’s what I’d grill. You have a lot more flavor.” She’d also consider spring onions or pearl onions, oiling and salting before grilling.
RELATED: 6 health Benefits of Onions
Grill better mushrooms
Cohen would skip the aforementioned portobellos in favor of “more interesting mushrooms, like oyster or king oyster mushrooms. I’d toss ‘em in oil, salt them, and grill them till they get a nice char.”
Grilled tomatoes rule
Always add fresh tomatoes to things in the summertime? Consider the grill. “A grilled tomato sauce is delicious,” says Cohen.
Don’t overcook your corn
Cohen makes a dreamy-sounding corn jam at her restaurant, but for other uses, she grills shucked, cleaned corn just until marked. “I’m a firm believer that corn doesn’t need to be cooked that much.”
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.