Over the next few months, Maine’s farmers markets will be bringing in the bounty of the harvest – squash, corn, eggplant, peppers, onions and lots of other fresh, flavorful local vegetables.

Winter-weary Mainers crave these veggies as much as they yearn to “get their grill on” and cook outdoors.

So what can you do with these lovely seasonal foods on the grill? How do you coax out the best flavors of summer without burning it all to a crisp? How do you enhance the natural flavors of vegetables with marinades without ending up with an oily mess?

I asked three experts for their tips on grilling summer vegetables: Toni Fiore of Cumberland, author of “Totally Vegetarian” and host of the PBS vegetarian cooking show “Delicious TV”; Jack Bishop, editorial director of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, which just published an “Essential Guide to Grilling Vegetables” in its August issue; and Maine chef Frank Giglio, who takes a holistic approach to food and teaches cooking classes at the Public Market House in Portland (frankgiglio.com).

Use medium-high heat: One of the biggest mistakes people make when grilling vegetables is not getting the temperature right, says Giglio.

Moist vegetables like zucchini can stick to a grill that isn’t hot. And yet, you don’t want the grill too hot, either.

“With grilling, that char kind of gives it that caramelization where the natural sugars come out, and that’s a good thing and we want that,” Giglio said. “But you have to draw a line. If it’s black, kind of crisp, that’s not the best flavor. With grilling, you’re adding kind of a smoky element to the food, and especially if you’re doing a natural wood fire over charcoal, you’re going to impart a flavor from whatever you’re burning. You want that, but it should be subtle and not be you’re eating like a burnt piece of food.”

Giglio suggests testing the fire by running an oiled rag over the grate. If it’s hot enough, smoke will come off immediately.

Cook’s Illustrated, home of America’s Test Kitchen, recommends holding your hand 5 inches above the grill grate. The grill is the right temperature if you can keep it there for three to four seconds.

“A lot of people, no matter what they’re grilling, think hotter is better,” said Bishop. “They want a really big fire. If you’re trying to put a great crust on steaks, sure, I get that. But vegetables, having them incinerated and charred is not going to make them more flavorful. It’s just going to make them incinerated and charred.”

Bishop says if you’re using a charcoal grill, cook your meat first, because it should rest for about 10 minutes before serving anyway. By then, the fire has died down and the grill will be a better temperature for vegetables.

Cut them correctly: Giglio recommends cutting most vegetables about a half-inch thick so they still have some texture and body when they’re done grilling. Quarter bell peppers.

Most people slice onions for grilling because they usually end up on top of a hamburger. But if you’re grilling onions to use as a side dish or to place on a vegetable platter, cut them in wedges with the root still attached so they won’t fall apart on the grill.

Consider parcooking before grilling: Some thicker vegetables like Brussels sprouts and potatoes end up burned on the outside, raw on the inside when grilled. Or they just come out plain undercooked.

Fiore suggests parcooking first, using either the microwave or a little boiling water, until you can pierce the vegetable with some resistance. Then toss the vegetables on the grill for 10 to 15 minutes.

Fiore illustrates her technique with baking potatoes in a new video

In America’s Test Kitchen, new potatoes are cut in half, covered lightly in oil, and pierced with wooden skewers. They use wooden skewers because they pop the mushrooms in the microwave before throwing them on the grill. Bishop says the technique “sounds kind of fussy, but it’s actually pretty simple.”

“If you just put them raw on the grill,” he said, “it’s a long time getting them to cook through, and the outsides will burn.”

“After-marinate” mushrooms: Mushrooms are one of the most popular vegetables to throw on the grill, but people seem to have a lot of difficulty getting any real flavor out of them.

“A lot of people think if you wash mushrooms, they absorb water,” Fiore said. “They really don’t absorb a lot of anything. When you’re marinating them or brushing them, it all sticks to the outside.”

Fiore suggests grilling lightly oiled mushrooms first until they are almost completely cooked, then dip them in marinade and pop them back onto the grill.

“When a mushroom is cooked, it sucks up everything like a sponge,” Fiore said. “When it’s raw, it’s basically like brushing Styrofoam.”

To see a demonstration of Fiore’s mushroom technique, go to delicioustv.com, click on the VegEZ podcast link, and find the podcast for Portobello-Arugula Salad Burgers.

Try something different: Most home grillers stick to onions and peppers. Why not try some greens on the grill, or something else that’s a little different? Try some grilled radicchio or escarole. Grill some romaine lettuce for a Caesar salad.

Or brush some Brussels sprouts with olive oil and tamari, and toss them on the grill. “Brussels sprouts are excellent on the grill,” Fiore said. “I’ve made them for people who don’t like Brussels sprouts, but they like them on the grill. It just adds a different dimension. It’s not so cabbage-y.”

Bishop recommends trying fennel, radicchio and endive, especially if you’re doing a meal that has an Italian theme to it.

“The endive can simply be cut in half through the core end so it stays together,” he said. “Same thing with the radicchio, though you’re probably going to cut the radicchio into quarters or even into six pieces, again through the core end so the pieces stay together.

“Fennel you cut from top to bottom, again keeping that core intact so that the pieces stay together. Those are all really great vegetables that sometimes people don’t think of, in addition to the onion and the eggplant and the zucchini and the peppers.”

One of Giglio’s favorite things to grill is kale, which gains a smoky flavor from the grill and crisps up like a kale chip. He learned the technique at a restaurant he worked at in Colorado.

Start by chopping up the kale into big pieces.

“You still want the integrity, and it’s going to shrink down, so you don’t really want to cut it too small,” Giglio said. “Coat in a little olive oil and a little pepper, and then just toss it right on the grill. It will kind of instantly start to char a little bit, and kind of crisp up. You want a really nice, hot grill, and keep tossing it pretty quickly so you don’t actually burn it.”

When it comes off the grill, add a splash of lemon juice and serve with something like salmon or baked haddock.

Keep it simple: Vegetables are less likely to stick if you marinate them first, or at least brush them with a little oil. But using too much marinade can make them soggy or cause them to burn.

And while it may be tempting to use bottled marinade from the store, consider creating your own with ingredients from your pantry. It’s less convenient, but a homemade marinade won’t overwhelm the natural flavor of the vegetables.

“I’d say something that’s really great is olive oil, maybe some lemon juice, a little bit of lemon zest, fresh oregano, fresh thyme, marjoram,” Giglio said. “Those are great herbs to add in to kind of boost the flavor.”

Another advantage of a homemade marinade is that it isn’t chock full of extra sugar and salt like those processed, off-the-shelf products. If you want a little sweetness, just add a touch of maple syrup or honey.

“Vegetables are different than grilling meat,” Giglio said. “Veggies are going to be more delicate, and you want that sweetness, so a little goes a long way with herbs and all that. You don’t want to overwhelm them with tons of flavor.

“It’s interesting because some people want to mask the flavor of the vegetable and make it taste like something else, but when they’re peak freshness, you really just want just enough to bring out the natural flavor.”

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.