I spend all year daydreaming about summer. More specifically, I daydream about throwing an entire farmers market’s worth of produce onto a flaming grill. I know what you’re thinking: What about burgers and hot dogs? Alas, thanks to legions of soggy bell pepper-zucchini skewers and undercooked slabs of eggplant, grilled vegetables tend to be a tough sell among the meat-eating crowd — woe to the marinated portobello that dares to compete with a rack of pork ribs. And that’s a shame, because a few smart techniques can make charred cabbage just as craveable as a juicy burger.
“The fragrance of the smoke when you’re eating a vegetable that came off the grill stimulates the appetite,” says Lara Lee, author of Coconut and Sambal. “Grilling adds quite a wonderful textural contrast, too: flaky, crisp skin and a soft inside. It just tastes like summer.”
So consider the following guide to grilled vegetables a friendly invitation to gild all your favorite produce with a bit of char, from classic corn on the cob to juicy watermelon. Don’t forget to stock up on charcoal. It’s going to be a smoky, delicious summer.
Compound butter is the quickest way to upgrade classic corn on the cob. Lee channels the popular Indonesian street food jagung bakar for hers, mixing a few tablespoons of butter with half a chopped red chili, palm sugar (or brown sugar), and a drizzle of kecap manis. “There’s smoke from the fire, heat from the chili, sweetness from palm sugar, and kecap manis adds a savory-sweet umami stickiness that helps the corn to char along with the sugar,” she says. Once the cobs are peppered with black kernels, start basting with chili butter until you’ve reached your Ideal Char. Then finish with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of citrus to cut through the richness. And — why not? — add a bit more chili butter, too.
If you’ve ever dipped pita after pita into a plate of baba ghanoush, you’re familiar with the wondrously smoky-sweet charms of grilled eggplant. Make a silky dip by piercing a few small eggplants with a knife (to prevent any, um, explosions) before tossing them whole on the grill to char. Turn them regularly until charred all over and tender, then allow to cool enough so you can peel off the blackened skins and purée into dip.
“Zucchini is full of water and basically steams itself if you don’t cook it on a hot-enough grill. A lot of people salt their squash prior to cooking and let it release some of that water, but if I’m being honest, I usually can’t be bothered,” says Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Simple. Instead, she takes a page from the Dishoom cookbook and makes a marinade with a salty Indian pickle to draw out some moisture and level up the flavor. Swanson also opts for smaller, firm squash, which she slices lengthwise into quarters and trims away the watery central “seed zone.”
Grilling scallions mellows out their signature sharpness and adds tenderness. Leave them whole for ease of flipping and maximum aesthetics. A grill basket can help ensure they don’t fall through the grate. Round out the grill with a few lemon halves (cut-side down!) to squeeze on top for an unexpected burst of acid. Serve alongside any protein you’re grilling, slice ’em into a salad, or borrow a page from beloved LA taqueria Sonoratown’s playbook and add a scallion to a platter of tacos.
Need a quick but substantial summer side? Grill a few lobes of cabbage until they’re equally charred and caramelized, with lacy, crisp edges and a soft center. Start by cutting the cabbage in half through the core to ensure it won’t fall through the grates, then cut each third into wedges and coat with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Leave it on the grill for around 10 minutes, then let it sit for a few more to ensure the center is fully tender. Offset the char with something creamy and fatty: torn mozzarella, dollops of tzatziki, or a drizzle of lemon-spiked tahini would all be excellent.
“Mushrooms are hearty and substantial and love to be grilled. They’re quite straightforward if you keep a couple things in mind. First thing, if your mushrooms are a bit dirty, gently wipe them with a damp towel. Never soak them,” says Swanson, noting that absorbent mushrooms can quickly take on too much water. “Second thing, always prep and grill more mushrooms than you think you’ll want. They collapse in size remarkably during cooking, and I always wish I’d made more.”
Just about any sandwich is improved with a pile of grilled bell peppers. A relatively thick skin acts as a protective layer on the grill, allowing peppers to essentially steam in their own juices (kinda like roasting en papillote, aka wrapped in parchment), which concentrates flavor and imbues a hint of smoke. Rotate to let the skin char all over, and then, a la eggplant, peel it away to reveal collapsing, tender peppers with concentrated smoky-sweet flavor.
Don’t forget about fruit! Staring down a bowl of slightly underripe peaches that you can’t wait any longer to devour? You know what I’m going to say: Toss ’em on the grill. Cut each peach in half vertically, remove the pits, and brush the cut side with a bit of olive oil to prevent the flesh from sticking on the grates. Wait until you see strong grill marks to ensure the sugars are fully caramelized. Serve with labneh, vanilla ice cream, or toss into the best fruit salad of all time.
High heat encourages most of the watermelon’s, well, water to evaporate, distilling flavor and adding a little smokiness. Slice into thick wedges (as bulkier slabs have a habit of breaking when flipped) and brush with a bit of olive oil, then grill until each slice is barely softened but bears thick grill marks. Top with lots of lime juice and Tajin, and add corn nuts for a crunchy twist.
Aliza Abarbanel is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. This summer, she plans to eat her weight in stone fruit.