So, your idea of a summer barbecue is hamburgers with a side of hot dogs, and you just found out you’ll be hosting some vegetarian guests at your next cookout. What do you do? Can you just buy frozen faux-meat and slap it on the grill? Should you buy a harvest’s worth of corn on the cob and potatoes and call it a day? Don’t panic! There are so many vegetarian grilling options that aren’t just easy, they’re so damn delicious you’ll find yourself skipping a dog or two to fill up on them.
To turn your carnivorous feast into a well-rounded meal that will make your cookout just as amazing for your herbivore pals, we turned to American-made grill specialists Kenyon and veggie-grilling master Brooke Lewy to get the scoop on creating a spectacular vegetarian-friendly cookout experience.
What to Grill
Don’t Make Vegetarian Dishes an Afterthought
For meat-eating chefs, it can be challenging to come up with dishes where vegetables feel more like the main event rather than a side. Take care in planning your menu to make sure that your vegetarian guests won’t feel like an afterthought. Lewy, who is the author of Vegetables on Fire (a phenomenal resource for anyone who wants to get more veggies on the barbie), advises: “Don’t make a huge platter of hamburgers and hot dogs and then a sad plate of grilled vegetables on the side. Think about the vegetables in a complete way. I think people don’t realize they can add a lot of flavor to grilled vegetables; they think they’re boring. One thing I often tell people is that cooking with vegetables should be much less intimidating than cooking meat. They’re generally cheaper, so you’re not risking over- or under-cooking that $40 rib eye. You can buy extra produce and play around. They’re also far more forgiving than something like chicken, where you need to make sure you’re not serving your guests raw drumsticks.”
Think Outside the Box
A great start to making your vegetarian menu special is to think outside the box. “Generally, when people think of grilled vegetables, they automatically picture slices of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and peppers, or they grill up a few portabella mushrooms for their vegetarian friends and treat them like burgers,” says Lewy, “There’s a place for those vegetables, but I love to break away from the expected and grill broccoli, cauliflower, beets, asparagus, and artichokes.”
When it Comes to Vegetables, Size Matters
When you’re cooking in the kitchen, you might be prone to chopping up vegetables quickly and just tossing them into a pan or casserole dish. When grilling, you need to use a bit more care in making sure you cut veggies as evenly as possible so each piece cooks in the same amount of time. Pay attention to the size of your pieces so they won’t fall through the grate. To help with this, you can purchase a vegetable grill topper or stack up smaller pieces on a skewer. You can also chop up a tasty variety and grill in foil packets until tender.
Take a Look at Tofu
While you’re writing up a grocery list for your vegetarian-friendly feast, don’t forget about tofu. Tofu can be a great choice for a summer cookout because it grills well and readily absorbs any flavor you throw at it. Make sure to purchase extra-firm, pressed tofu so it won’t fall apart over the heat. Marinate it beforehand so it can soak up some flavor — barbecue sauce is an excellent choice for this.
Two Words: Grillable Cheese
Most people can agree that cheese — especially in its ooey, gooey, meltiest state — is incredible. It elevates almost anything, and if you get a variety of cheeses with unpronounceable names, it makes you feel real fancy. Well, if you pick the right type of cheese, you can drop a slice of that baby right on the grill for a mouth-watering appetizer that every guest will devour. “On the grill, the outside gets crisp and golden, while the inside softens without turning into a melty mess,” says Lewy. “They work very well with grilled and raw fruits and vegetables.” At some stores you can find cheese that is specifically labeled as “grillable,” but if not, halloumi (the favorite of most cheese-grillers) and kefalotyri are excellent picks. As Lewy puts it, “They’re both great, easy to work with, salty, and satisfying.”
Throw in Some Starch and Sauce
Starches and sauces are great ways to round-out grilled veggies and turn them into the main course. You can’t throw quinoa on the grill, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prep it (and other starches) ahead of time and top or toss them with grilled vegetables for a delicious meat-free meal. “Grilled vegetables all inherently get a little soft and sweet,” says Lewy, “so it’s important to first season them properly and then to add some fat, crunch, and acid. Fat can come from cheese, or a sauce made creamy with yogurt, mayonnaise, miso, or tahini (two of my favorites). For crunch, breadcrumbs and croutons are great, as are toasted nuts and seeds. For acid, some of those sauces can do double duty, or adding pickles to grilled vegetables rounds them out nicely. A squeeze of lemon always works. The key is balancing flavors and textures so you feel satisfied.”
Don’t Limit Yourself to Veggies
Ever had grilled pineapple? It’s frickin’ delicious, and so are many other fruits. Just like veggies, you can grill pretty much any fruit. “Stone fruits,” recommends Lewy. “Serve them with that Halloumi cheese! Or some burrata and arugula, and pineapple.” Many fruits can be sliced and thrown right on the grill, and smaller or chopped fruits can be wrapped in a foil packet and placed over the heat until tender (they’re excellent if you take them right from the grill and drizzle them over a bowl of ice cream).
Make Something Everyone Can Share
To simplify things and still make sure everyone is included, consider making an entrée that can be easily tailored no matter what a guest prefers. “Make something like grilled flatbreads that can be customized so everyone can enjoy the same thing. There are also recipes in my book, like grilled peppers stuff with tabbouleh, where I suggest adding cooked ground lamb. That way everyone happily feels like they’re eating the same thing.” You can also make grilled paninis by pressing vegetables between a couple hearty slices with cheese. If you’re feeling festive, serve up a grilled veggie fajita feast. Pro tip: Heat up the tortillas on the grill too).
Do a Little Research
Different vegetables will require different cook times to reach peak tenderness and tastiness, so it’s a good idea to look up this information before BBQ day. Also, if you just aren’t feeling confident about what your vegetarian guests might like, just ask! Chances are they’ll be more than happy to clue you in on their favorite dishes, ingredients, and recipe resources.
Even if you’re a grill master, you’ll need to double-check cooking instructions on vegetarian products before purchasing them. There are plenty of delicious barbecue options for herbivores, but not all vegetarian foods lend themselves to a summer cookout. Check the package instructions on anything like veggie burgers or other meat substitutes before adding them to the menu.
Know the Difference Between Vegetarian and Vegan
While vegetarians may eat dairy products like cheese, vegans don’t, so make sure you know your guests’ preferences before planning a menu. If you’ve got vegans attending, check any sauces and condiments you plan to use to make sure it fits their diet (there are tons of vegan condiment options, such as this vegan barbecue sauce, on the market). You can also pick up vegan cheese as an alternative to dairy.
How to Grill
Oil: It’s a Good Thing!
When it comes to grilling vegetables, a good olive oil is your friend. First, it’s vegetarian-friendly. Second, as Lewy puts it: “Every single grilled vegetable needs oil and salt.” Tossing your veggies in olive oil and a dash of salt before grilling will make them extra tasty and keep them from drying out over the heat.
Speaking of Oil…
Marinate those veggies! Letting vegetables marinate before you grill them will elevate the taste, and it’s even easier than marinating meat. A quick soak in olive oil and herbs adds a kick of flavor, and you only need to let veggies soak for about 15 minutes before cooking. “In grilling, you can never go wrong with salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon,” says Lewy, “I also love tahini, which adds fat and richness without weighing the vegetables down. Any kind of bright, salty pesto works extremely well. A marinade made with soy sauce, some sugar, and rice wine vinegar adds a nice umami note to grilled vegetables.” When you take them off the heat, sprinkle some more seasoning on top before serving and they’ll taste even better.
Grease the Grill
Without the fats that act to grease the grill with meaty foods, vegetarian options (even veggie burgers and dogs) are more likely to stick to the rack while cooking. Be sure to brush some oil onto the grill (or spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray) before you throw them on. (Get more grill tips by listening to this episode of The Manual podcast.)
Clean and Don’t Cross-Contaminate
If you’re cooking for both meat-eaters and vegetarians, remember that vegetarians aren’t going to want their food simmering in leftover hamburger grease or picking up bits of charred steak from the grill. If your grill has seen its fair share of meat, be sure to give it a good scrub with a grill brush before you cook. Don’t throw your veggie entrée on with the burgers and dogs — be sure to grill them separately, or even use a separate grill for each if you have a spare. You can also make use of things like grill toppers. “I prefer disposable grill toppers to other kinds of grill baskets,” recommends Lewy. “They’re cheap, allow more of the heat and smoke flavor to reach the vegetables, and the sides can be bent up to prevent produce like cherry tomatoes from rolling off. They can be used several times and generally minimize cleanup.”
Without further ado, here are some simple, tasty recipes courtesy of Brooke Lewy and Kenyon to get you started:
Quinoa Tabbouleh Stuffed Peppers
(From Vegetables on Fire: 50 Vegetable-Centered Meals from the Grill; ccourtesy of Brooke Lewy and Chronicle Books; serves 4)
“Skip those grilled veggie kebabs. This is an elegant presentation for a substantial, yet refreshing, vegetarian meal. Want to make it more substantial (and less vegetarian)? Sauté some minced onion with ground lamb and add that to the peppers before stuffing them with tabbouleh.”
- 4 red bell peppers
- 4 oz (110g) feta cheese, cut into 8 slices, plus more for topping (optional)
- 2 cups (35g) finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup (180g) uncooked quinoa
- 1 cup (150g) cherry tomatoes, halved
- .5 cup (80g) salt-cured olives, pitted and chopped
- .5 cup (20g) finely chopped fresh mint leaves
- .5 cup (60mL) plus 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 green onions, finely chopped
- 1 English cucumber, diced
- Juice from 1.5 lemons (approx. 4 to 5 tbsp/60 to 75mL)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- In a medium saucepan, bring the quinoa and 2 cups (480 ml) of water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the quinoa is cooked through and all of the water is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the cucumber, tomatoes, olives, green onions, parsley, and mint. In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the ¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil and the lemon juice.
- Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. When the quinoa is done, add it to the bowl with the vegetables and herbs. Pour the dressing over all and toss well until the ingredients are fully combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning of the tabbouleh before setting aside.
- Preheat your grill to medium.
- Cut the bell peppers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and ribs. Brush the peppers with the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle the inside with a pinch of salt.
- Grill the peppers, cut-side down, until they take on grill marks and begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and place a slice of feta cheese in the cavity of each pepper. Grill until the outsides of the peppers have grill marks and the cheese is slightly melted, another 5 to 6 minutes.
- Remove the peppers from the grill and fill each pepper cavity with tabbouleh, topping with more feta, if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature.
(Original recipe created on Kenyon City Grill; courtesy of Kenyon)
- 4 avocados
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 jalapeños (optional)
- 2 limes
- 1 red onion
- 1 bag of pitas
- Handful of cilantro
- Add 16oz liquid to drip tray and preheat grill to high.
- Cut pitas into small triangles and place on grill.
- Grill each side for 1-2 minutes until nicely browned. Sprinkle with salt.
- Cut tomatoes, limes, and avocados in half.
- Cut jalapeños in half and remove seeds.
- Slice onion into rings.
- Place everything on grill face down until charred (you may need to do two rounds of grilling to fit everything).
- Let everything cool, then chop onions into a bowl.
- Squeeze lime juice into bowl over onions and let soak for a few minutes.
- Chop up jalapeños and tomatoes and add into bowl.
- Add avocado into bowl and mash everything together.
- Add cilantro to taste.
- Serve with pita chips.