My good friend Sam is a great barbecuer. As a matter of fact, he instantly became my good friend about two seconds after I tried his ribs for the first time. My good friend Diane is Sam's wife. Despite being married to Sam for many years now, she has never tried Sam's ribs or any of his other barbecue creations. Why? Well, Diane is a vegetarian.
Now don't ask me how they've made their bond work so well with such drastic differences, but sometimes I liken their relationship to Willie Nelson marrying a deaf woman (hypothetically speaking, that is). This still presents a quandry for having Sam and Diane over for a barbecue. Let's face it - how many of us give as much thought to the non-meat components of the menu as we do to the meat?
But now my problems have been solved, courtesy of Andrea Chesman and her book, "The Vegetarian Grill". With over 200 recipes, plus lot's of key tips for grilling vegetables, Chesman has helped me to see there's more to throw on the grill than just the meat du jour.
Within the first paragraph of the introductory chapter, Chesman urges the reader to make their key investment for grilling vegetables - an enamel-coated metal grill rack. This is advice you'll want to heed. I found a 9" x 12" rack at the local outlet of a large, Arkansas-based discount chain store that was the same price as this book.
The 11 chapters of the book progress from simple grilled vegetables and salads to pizzas. There's a chapter on vegetarian burgers and another on pasta dishes. Grilled fruits make their way into the book in the chapter on desserts. All in all, it makes for a very comprehensive look at vegetarian grilling and the recipes are laid out in a pretty straightforward fashion.After re-r eading the basic recommendations for grilling vegetables (i.e., they contain no fat so don't forget to brush with some oil or toss with a marinade to prevent them from sticking to the grill), I was ready to road test some recipes.
Since I decided to do my experiments at a barbecue contest, I would have an ample number of taste testers as well as my friend Diane (I swear the woman must be a saint - she accompanies Sam to most competitions and cheerfully looks on as pounds and pounds of meat are cooked in his smokers while the vegetable dish is usually beans). I chose four fairly simple recipes, lit the fire on an available catering grill and boldly begun my tests.
The first item was "Simple Grilled Beets". The recipe lived up to its name: simply slice your cleaned beets about one-quarter inch thick, brush them with oil and place them on the grill. The recipe said to cook 15-20 minutes over a medium fire, but I quickly discovered that beets are a very dense vegetable and the recommended time stretched to nearly 45 minutes. Eventually the beets showed signs of doneness (slightly charred and flexible), but not before I'd subjected Diane to some samples that were less than done (she would kindly suggest they "might need a few more minutes"). In the end, grilled beets taste like...well...beets. But they were really good beets.
The next recipe was "Marinated Cauliflower". This was also easily concocted - I pieced out a head of cauliflower, put it in a Ziploc bag and added a bottle of a favorite marinade (teriyaki in this case). Like the beets, the cauliflower took a bit longer than I expected but after 20 minutes the marinade began to nicely carmelize and the cauliflower became tender but still firm. This recipe worked well as the flavor of the marinade greatly complemented the cauliflower.
With the easy recipes completed, it was time to move on to ones that involved a least a few more ingredients. Next up, "Honey Mustard Sweet Potatoes". The sweet potatoes are prepared much like the beets, in quarter-inch slices. These are tossed with a honey mustard dressing (add canola oil, fresh lemon juice, thyme and salt and pepper to prepared honey mustard) and cooked over a medium-low fire. After about 20 minutes, the slices began to blister, a sign that they were close to being finished. A couple of samples later, the slices were tender enough to pull off the grill and allowed to cool. Be forewarned - grilled sweet potatoes form a nice crust on the outside and a have creamy inside that reminds one of molten lava when they first come off the grill.
My last experiment was "Sherry-Marinated Mushrooms". A marinade of extra-virgin olive oil, thyme, pepper, fresh minced garlic cloves and sherry vinegar was prepared and allowed to sit at room temperature for one hour. The mushrooms hold the marinade well and made a great aroma when they were put on the grill. They browned quickly and were ready in about 10 minutes.
So what was the feedback? I think Diane was being kind when she gave her approval to all four dishes. But then again, I was the only person cooking vegetables at what is pretty much a meat-cooking contest. Most passers-by did stop to see what I was grilling and several even tried some. The mushrooms and cauliflower disappeared quickly and the sweet potatoes didn't last much longer (however, I should point out that four sweet potatoes makes alot). The beets were the last to go. The consensus? Surprisingly positive. Most people found it refreshing to see vegetable (besides ears of corn) on the grill and one person even insisted on getting the recipe for the mushrooms (I made her promise to still buy the book).
So now I'm a changed man. Have I become a vegetarian, you ask? Not a chance! Meat is still the first priority for me. But now at least I have new enlightenment on vegetarian grilling. And I've got to invite Sam and Diane over for a barbecue soon.