Vegetarians are supposed to be peaceful people, unstirred by the churning of other animals' life-force in their stomachs. And by all appearances nutritionist and cooking instructor Jill Nussinow fits that description, peacefully contributing to the vegetarian cooking culture out of her peaceful home in northern California. But when her non-vegetarian husband tries to put a piece of meat on her vegetable-only grill racks, Nussinow gets a little ... ferocious.
"I fight with him about it. I mean, I don't want them to get all meaty," she says, wrinkling her nose as she fires up her trusty (and slightly crusty) outdoor gas grill for the first vegetarian barbecue demonstration of the season.
Unlike Nussinow, most human herbivores are a little reticent when summer sparks the scent of charred meat in everybody else's backyard. But as vegetarianism becomes more and more integrated into the culinary landscape, even carnivores may reach the conclusion that a few vegetables (on a grill of their own) can be an enjoyable addition to the picnic table.
As Nussinow is demonstrating, vegetables are easy to prepare. The hardest part may be heating up the grill, and even that's not very hard these days with all the fast-heating gas grills and charcoal-starting chimneys out on the market. Whatever the methods for grilling, almost all vegetables and soy or gluten-based products, such as tofu or seitan, benefit from marinating. Just fill one of those zip-up plastic baggies with your marinade and the food to be grilled, and then let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
Today Nussinow is trying something new by rubbing cubes of eggplant with a dry spicy rub mix. The rest of today's vegetables, though, have emerged from one of Nussinow's favorite flavor treatments, an Asian-style sauce of miso, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil. Except for the onion, these vegetables -- summer squash, mushrooms, eggplant -- are relatively bland to begin with, so the marinade and subsequent grilling turn them into something better. Many other vegetables can also be successfully grilled in their season: large stalks of asparagus, sweet potatoes, leeks, artichokes (precooked to near-doneness, and then tossed on the rack for a smoky finish).
Some people will grill anything, but Nussinow draws the line at things like green beans, carrots, and endive. "The whole thing about grilling," she says, staring intently at the vegetables hissing away on the grill, "the reason to do it is to add flavor. If it's not going to add anything to it, what's the point?"
Satisfied with the level of blistering on the patty pan squash, Nussinow pulls it off the grill. It's retained its golden yellow color, but the pulp, scored lightly on the broad side of the cuts to assist the marinade in penetrating, has softened and sweetened over the coaxing coals. The Asian marinade lingers only as a savory suggestion; otherwise the flavor is a kind of meta-zucchini, which is wonderful plain or showcased in Jill's tossed summer squash salad.
Onion chunks or rings seem to take a lot less time on the grill than in a frying pan over low heat to reach that lovely caramelized stage. (Or maybe just being out of the hot kitchen speeds up the clock.) And red peppers -- well, you can roast red peppers one at a time over a flame indoors. But when the price of organic red peppers bottoms out later in the summer, Nussinow loads up the grill for wave upon wave of charred peppers, which get peeled, ripped into strips, and then frozen in portion-sized packages to use later.
Vegetarian author Patti Bess has found other items for the grill beyond your basic veggie. In preparing her book, Vegetarian Barbecue and Other Pleasures of the Harvest (Lowell House, 1998), Bess found that breads, polenta and even pan desserts can be produced higher up and around the sides of the grill. But most of Bess's recipes are simple combinations and applications of the grilled-vegetable concept. They command most of the attention, both on and off the grill, and for good reason.
"You can't leave the grill," says Bess ruefully. "Because vegetables can go from a place of being perfectly cooked with those perfect little grill lines to overcooked in a matter of a minute or two."
This goes doubly so for grilled fruits such as peaches, nectarines and pineapple, which are slowly making their way onto menus. Unlike vegetables, many of which need to be cooked to be palatable, most summer fruits are already perfect when raw and at the peak of their season. So, why grill perfection? Well, just a few minutes over medium-hot heat brings out their natural juices, caramelizes any sugary glaze that you're using (Bess brushes her fruits with a honey and butter sauce), and warms them just enough to put a little melt on an accompanying dollop of ice cream.
And the pear halves that Nussinow cooked while we ate the vegetable medley turned out very well indeed, streaked with the singed remains of the spiced plum and mango chutneys that she brushed on at the last minute. Cooked cut-side-up for four or five minutes, then turned over on the cut side for just a few more minutes, the pears are juicy, smoky-sweet, and warm, seemingly just picked from a sun-warmed tree. That flavor alone worth uncovering the grill.
Marina Wolf writes Side Dish, a regularly syndicated food column, from her home in California