All fired up about grilling veggies

August 13, 2008|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

Grilled vegetables are healthful, delicious and perfect for summertime meals. But the truth is that great vegetables - evenly cooked, tender yet with a nice brown finish on the outside - are one of the hardest grilling tasks to tackle. I cooked my way through a couple of pounds of vegetables and discovered that the single biggest determinant of successful grilled vegetables is how you cut them.

You want to make the pieces long and/or wide, so they don't fall through the grate.

You want to make them sturdy, so they don't fall apart.

You want to make them of uniform thickness - shoot for about 1/3 inch - so they cook at the same time.

Read on for general tips and specific advice on the most commonly grilled vegetables.

Eggplant, zucchini

Buy smallish eggplants and medium zucchini - about 6 inches long is optimal. Cut off stem ends of the vegetable, then cut it in half lengthwise. Lay each half, cut side down, on a flat surface and cut each half in half lengthwise again for a total of four long slices. Cut smaller vegetables into fewer slices, larger into more.

Fennel

The trick here is to make sure that every slice contains a bit of the core, for stability. Trim off most of the fronds. (You can save them for garnish.) Trim the base as little as possible - only to remove any discolored or rotted bits. Cut the bulb in half through its base. Lay each half, cut side down, on a board. Now make one or two more cuts, parallel to the first, always through the base. If the "top" cut is very fat, cut off the cheek.

Carrots

Here, the goal is to cut the thicker part of the carrot so that it cooks as quickly as the thinner part. Use small, thin carrots - but not the "baby" variety. Carrots with the tops on are a good size. Cut off tops and any discoloration at the wider end of the carrot. Peel the carrots and cut off any wispy ends. Now make a cut lengthwise, from the top to the middle of the carrot, so that the carrot cooks evenly.

Onions

Cut the root and stem end off large onions and peel. Cut each onion into wide rings. Thread each slice with two metal skewers, about 1 inch apart - with only one skewer, the slice will come apart when you turn it. If you have flat skewers (rather than ones that are round in cross-section), you need to use only one per slice. Bamboo skewers are not strong enough to penetrate a raw onion.

Peppers

Cut off the bottom and top of the pepper so you have as boxy a shape as possible. Make one lengthwise slit and then lay the "opened" pepper gently on a flat surface. Remove any seeds and pith. Cut the pepper into large pieces where there are natural creases, so that they will lie as flat as possible on the grill.

Scallions

Scallions are easier to grill than onions, and they look terrific on a platter. Barely cut the roots off and trim the tops to get rid of any bruised or thin leaves. You can leave the scallions on the grill as long as you'd like.

Grilling tips

Here are some tips on how to handle your grill when you're working with vegetables:

* Make sure your grill is clean. When the grill is hot, use a metal-bristled brush to scrub any residue off the grate. Because you are going to oil the vegetables, there is no need to oil the grill.

* Be prepared. You should have close at hand: the prepared vegetables, a sheet pan or cookie tray, olive oil, kosher salt, long-handled tongs. Except for eggplant, all vegetables can be cut up to a day in advance. Place them in resealable plastic bags, extract as much air as possible and refrigerate.

* Watch the heat, and the time. Over a medium fire, vegetables will take, in general, from 3 to 5 minutes on the first side and a little less on the second side, but this varies with the heat of fire and the thickness and water content of the vegetable. Turn a gas grill to medium. With a charcoal grill, start the coals in a pile in the middle. When they are hot, arrange them around the edge of the grill. (To get a final char on an already-cooked vegetable, move it directly over the coals.)

When the grill is hot, season the vegetables: Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into the sheet pan and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Press the prepared vegetables into the salted oil and, using your hands, make sure both sides are lightly coated with oil. Place vegetables on the grill. Add more oil/salt to the pan as needed.

Once the vegetables are on the grill, cover it and do not peek for at least 3 minutes. (Walk away if you must.) After 3 minutes, use tongs to lift up the edge of a vegetable. If it is nicely browned, flip it over; if not, give it another few minutes. Do not fuss with the vegetables; fussing is the leading cause of sticking. The second side will need less time than the first.

Cook only one (or two) types of vegetables at a time. Grilled vegetables are at their best served at room temperature, so there's no need to rush to get them cooked all at once.

For serving, a platter of grilled vegetables needs nothing more than a few sprigs of fresh herbs and an anointing with good olive oil.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.

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