Grilling maximizes a vegetable’s flavor, with minimal effort and a decided measure of showmanship. No one gathers around a stove to watch you boil or steam broccoli. But sear that broccoli over a hot fire on the grill, and you both become stars of the show.
The ultimate reason to grill vegetables is taste: Fire almost always makes them taste better. The high, dry heat of the grill caramelizes a vegetable’s sugars, intensifying its sweetness. Grilling imparts a subtle but inimitable smoke flavor, which adds complexity and soulfulness to a vegetable’s already vibrant taste.
The key to grilling virtually any vegetable is the mastery of two basic methods and a couple of easy, although specialized, techniques.
Grilling tips and grilled zucchini ribbons
This is most of what the world means by grilling, and as the name suggests, it involves cooking your vegetables directly over a fire. Use this method for grilling soft, moist vegetables, like zucchini and mushrooms; leafy ones, like bok choy and kale; slender stalks, such as asparagus and broccolini; and sliced ones, from eggplant to onions.
To set up a charcoal grill for direct grilling, light your charcoal in a chimney starter, then rake the glowing coals across the bottom of your grill, mounded more thickly at the back, more thinly in the center, leaving the front third of your grill coal free. This is called a tiered, or multizone, fire; you control the cooking by moving the vegetable toward or away from the hot zone.
On a gas grill, set one or two burners on high, one or two burners on medium, and leave one or two burners off for your safety zone. Adjust the top and bottom vents on a kamado-style cooker to obtain a temperature of 450-600 degrees. Owners of the pellet grill should follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
So, how do you grill large, firm or dense vegetables that take more time to cook, such as acorn squash, potatoes or whole cauliflower? With indirect grilling, a method in which you cook the vegetable next to, not directly over the fire, with the grill lid closed to capture the heat. Indirect grilling is generally done at medium to medium-high heat and for the aforementioned vegetables takes 40-60 minutes.
On a gas grill, light the outside or front and rear burners and do your indirect grilling over the unlit burner or burners in the center.
On a kamado-style cooker, insert the heat diffuser plate — ceramic in most models, metal in some — to block direct exposure to the fire. The pellet grill set up is, by default, indirect.
When indirect grilling, you can add hardwood chunks or chips to the fire to produce a flavor indispensable to true barbecue: wood smoke. Smoking works particularly well for moist vegetables, such as tomatoes and avocados. Cut in half, season well, and indirect grill next to your wood-enhanced fire until the vegetable is lightly bronzed with smoke (8-12 minutes). Until you have experienced a smoked tomato gazpacho, you have not fully feasted.
Ember grilling is probably the world’s oldest vegetable grilling technique. When grilling on embers, you not only can burn your vegetables, but you also should. The charred skins impart a haunting smoke flavor. The best vegetables for the ember treatment are eggplants, bell peppers and onions.
Start with a charcoal or wood fire and rake the embers into an even layer. Lay the eggplants, peppers or onions directly on the coals and grill until charred pitch black on the outside and tender inside, 3-5 minutes per side, turning four times with long-handled tongs. Transfer to a metal sheet pan to cool, then scrape off the charred skins with a paring knife.
Cut the onion in half and lavish it with butter and balsamic vinegar. Or chop all three ember-roasted vegetables to make an Armenian-style salad, which you season with olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic and parsley.
• Vegetable oil, for the grill grates
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 3 tablespoons barbecue rub or spice mix
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated
• 6 medium-small zucchini
• Kosher salt
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high (450-600 degrees). Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it with a tightly folded paper towel dipped in vegetable oil and drawn across the bars of the grate with tongs. If using bamboo skewers, soak in cold water.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, 1 tablespoon barbecue rub and lemon zest, and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is softened and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.
Cut off and discard the ends of the zucchini. Using a mandoline, thinly slice one zucchini lengthwise into slices scant 1/8-inch thick. You can also use a chef’s knife to cut slices lengthwise just shy of 1/8-inch thick. Lay the slices flat on a sheet pan. Lightly brush the tops with enough barbecue butter to lightly coat and lightly sprinkle with some of the remaining 2 tablespoons barbecue rub.
Fold a zucchini slice into an accordion shape and thread it onto a metal or soaked bamboo skewer. Continue threading until all the slices from the zucchini are on the skewer. Slice, brush, season and skewer the remaining zucchini the same way. You should wind up with 6 skewers.
Arrange the zucchini kebabs, skin sides down, on the grate. Grill, basting with any remaining barbecue butter and turning to evenly brown, until singed at some of the edges, 1-2 minutes per side. Season with salt if needed and serve.
Total time: 1 hour, plus preparing the grill; serves 6.