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JUNE 2012: Burgers, move over! Eggplant and mushrooms need space on the grill, not to mention watermelon.

The All New American Barbecue
Not your father's menu

Barbecues have long been the epitome of summertime fun. At these carefree get-togethers, so unlike their wintertime counterparts, you come as you are and do as you like—except when it comes to food. For barbecues are traditionally meaty affairs centered on burgers, hot dogs, chicken or ribs. At least, they used to be.

Now, a new tradition is emerging at Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day gatherings. Pure grilled vegetarian fare is showing up, with environmental and health benefits for all.

If you think of vegetarian grilling as second best, think again. The smokiness that turns a good burger into a great one performs the same magic with plant-based foods.

Practically anything that can be broiled can be grilled, provided it is large and firm enough to stay atop the grid. Besides corn in the husk and whole baking potatoes, which have long been barbecue staples, good choices include:
  • Portobello mushrooms (whole)
  • Eggplant (horizontally sliced or peeled and vertically sliced)
  • Zucchini (horizontally or vertically sliced)
  • Fennel (vertically sliced through the base)
  • Red peppers (seeded, vertically quartered and flattened)
  • Beets (horizontally sliced)
  • Endive or radicchio (sectioned through the base)
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes (vertically halved if plum tomatoes, horizontally sliced if beefsteak)
  • Small artichokes (whole and parboiled first for best results)
  • Small onions such as cippolines (whole)
  • Medium sized red or Spanish onions (vertically sliced through the base)
  • Extra firm tofu ("pressed" first)
Preparation is as simple as you want to make it. Marinating the food beforehand for 20-30 minutes augments the flavor and juiciness, but isn't necessary. Flavorings can be added at the tail end of cooking to great effect. Try garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, orange, Thai fish sauce, teriyaki sauce or barbecue sauce.

Just prior to grilling, salt the food and brush it with oil. Brush or spray the grilling surface as well to prevent sticking. Cooking time varies with the item, but is typically brief.

Midway through cooking, turn the vegetables over, as you would do with meat. Leave them where they are the rest of the time to get those beautiful grilling stripes. For cross-hatching, rotate them once on each side to the left or right by 90 degrees. Large foods, such as whole potatoes, must be moved away from the fire at a certain point so they can cook through on the inside without burning.

When the food is done, dress it with fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive or nut oil and a squeeze of lemon or lime for a flavor boost. Serve it with pesto, salsa, guacamole, hummus or other condiments.

You can also use the grilled foods to make panini. First, combine them with other ingredients in sandwiches, then brush the outside of the sandwiches with oil and grill them briefly on both sides. Winning combinations include:
  • Grilled red peppers and onion with mozzarella and pesto on a ciabatta
  • Grilled beets and endive with goat cheese on multi-grain bread
  • Grilled eggplant, tomato and onion with hummus and chopped parsley in a pita
Don't forget the fruit!

A turn in the barbecue caramelizes a fruit's natural sugars and intensifies its flavor. Sliced pineapple is a popular and delicious choice, though not very local in most parts of the U.S. My personal favorites are halved peaches, nectarines and apricots in season. Small fruits, such as strawberries, can be combined with chunks of other fruits on skewers.

Use fruit that is just ripe. If it is too soft, it will turn to mush on the grill.

Clean the grate beforehand so the fruit doesn't pick up other flavors. Feel free to cook the fruit first—it's perfect at room (er, outdoor) temperature. Brush it with oil or melted butter when you're ready to grill and also brush or spray the grate.

For more complexity of flavor, macerate the fruit prior to grilling for 20-30 minutes in juice, vinegar, lemon, wine or alcohol with sugar, ginger and spices. (Be prepared for the fire to flare if you use alcohol.) In addition to the "sweet" spices, you may want to experiment with cumin, curry powder or cayenne. You can also baste the fruit with maple syrup or honey while cooking. A squeeze of lemon at the end adds kick.

Unsweetened or lightly sweetened grilled fruit makes a great side dish when served plain or combined with other ingredients in salads like these:
  • Grilled watermelon chunks with feta, basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  • Grilled orange slices with thinly sliced cucumbers and radishes, olive oil, lemon, mint and a pinch of salt
As you might imagine, grilled fruit also makes a terrific dessert, especially when served with ice cream.

If a purely vegetarian menu is not for you, pair some of the items featured here with meat, chicken or fish. However you put the meal together, it will be the most surprising, colorful, environmentally friendly barbecue you've ever had.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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POST YOUR RECIPES at This Green Blog for grilled vegetarian foods and pick up a recipe for homemade chipotle barbecue sauce.



Propane grill
THE CLEANEST, MOST ENERGY EFFICIENT FUELS for grilling are natural gas and propane. Charcoal and wood deliver better flavor but release the greatest amount of unhealthy ash and smoke into the air.

If you opt for wood, look for sustainable hardwood chips certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)—though I can't promise you'll actually find any. (Many webpages reference them, but I couldn't track any down.) If you will be cooking with charcoal, avoid briquettes, which contain additives, and buy lump charcoal instead, such as Lazzari's mesquite lump charcoal.

Photo: Lightfusegetaway



REDUCE THE WASTE at your barbecue by using real plates, glasses, cutlery and cloth napkins. If washing dishes is out of the question, or you're worried about breakage, use disposable products made of recycled plastic, such as Preserve's On the Go line, biodegradable bioplastics (made from plant ingredients instead of petroleum), bamboo or palm leaves.



Resources


NRDC
The Omnivore's Green Grill

About.com
Vegetable Grilling Guide
Tofu Grilling Tips

Grist
Tips for Earth-sensitive and Tasty Barbecuing

Whole Foods
Grilling Methods & Techniques



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.