Fourth of July cookouts don't always mean meat

With a little chopping and some creativity, veggies can serve as the main feature on the grill

  • Made by Adam Pierce of Great Sage
Made by Adam Pierce of Great Sage (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
July 02, 2013|By Karen Nitkin
For The Baltimore Sun

The Fourth of July is not technically about the inalienable right to grill hot dogs and burgers, but to vegetarians or people trying to cut down on their meat intake, it can sure seem that way.

For those looking for a way to join in the backyard grilling without making a trip to the butcher shop first, local chefs say never fear: grilled veggies can make delicious and filling entrees.

"I love cooking on the grill," said Taueret Thomas, culinary director for the Lincoln Culinary Institute in Columbia. "In the summertime, I rarely turn on the oven, especially if the weather's nice. And vegetarian cooking lends itself well to grilling."

Thomas recommends sandwiches with grilled portabello mushrooms that have been marinated in extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper. Grilled eggplant, tomato and onion would amp up the experience. Or, she suggests, lightly char a whole-wheat pita on the grill and stuff it with grilled vegetables and feta cheese.

As executive chef at Great Sage, the vegan restaurant in Howard County, Adam Pierce knows how to make filling, meat-free entrees. And he often starts by turning the heat to high on the grill.

A popular item on the Great Sage menu is Grilled Vegetable Provencal, with a variety of grilled vegetables arranged around a mound of quinoa, surrounded by swirls of basil pesto and topped with a coulis (that's a sauce made of fruits or veggies, for those not up on their French cooking terms) of grilled tomato.

It's all pretty easy, as Pierce demonstrated in the Great Sage kitchen, moving from raw vegetables to completed dish in about 20 minutes. He started by swirling extra-virgin olive oil in a pan of vegetables that included trimmed asparagus, chunks of red pepper, zucchini and eggplant cut into long, fat wedges, whole tomatoes, and hearts of palm, which taste like crab meat when grilled, he said.

He pinched in a mixture of salt and pepper, swirled the veggies around to coat them, then arranged the colorful assortment on the grill, which had been heated to a temperature of, approximately, as hot as it would get. "Otherwise you won't get the proper grill marks," he said.

Using tongs, he turned the vegetables every two or three minutes. Though it might look exciting when fire flickers up from the grill, Pierce said the flames create an unpleasant flavor of charred oil. So make sure vegetables are not dripping with marinade, he said, and if a flare-up occurs, simply move the food out of the way.

Once the vegetables were cooked, he placed a nonstick pan on the stove, turned the heat to high, and squirted in some extra-virgin olive oil. He watched the edge of the pan until he saw the first signs of smoke, then threw in minced garlic and finely chopped fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano. Within seconds, a heavenly aroma wafted from the pan. Pierce threw in about a cup of quinoa and moved it around quickly so it wouldn't burn. "Once it's nice and aromatic it's pretty much done," he said. The tomato coulis and basil pesto had already been made, so assembly was quick. He mounded the quinoa on a plate, arranged the vegetables decoratively around it, and swirled on the tomato coulis and pesto.

"It's a simple preparation," he said "and the payoff is a lot considering how little you actually have to do to the vegetable."

Over at Heavy Seas Alehouse in Little Italy, chef Matt Seeber has been leading several classes on grilling techniques. In one class, participants grilled a mix of summer vegetables, including yellow squash, asparagus, red peppers, fennel, Belgian endive, portabello mushrooms and zucchini. Though the mix was used as a side dish, it could be a topping for pasta, said Seeber.

"Summer is peak vegetable season," he said.

Seeber recommends cutting vegetables in large pieces, creating as much surface area as possible. Zucchini and eggplant, for example, can be cut on an angle in order to maximize the area that will be touching the grill. Fennel is cut in wedges and endive in half. Tomatoes can be cut into thick slices for grilling. If smaller pieces are needed for a dish, cut the veggies after they are grilled, he said.

Once everything is cut, he says, marinate for a few minutes in extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Then get the grill as hot as you can, and place the vegetables directly on the grates, positioned — of course — so they don't fall through. Turn every few minutes until they are charred, then move them away from the hottest part of the grill. Test frequently for doneness, keeping in mind that the vegetables will continue cooking after they are removed from the heat.

While any kind of grill will work, charcoal or wood chips impart a mouth-watering smoky flavor, Seeber said.

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