Cauliflower is great for grilling. Its sturdy structure and ability to absorb sauce and spice make it a natural choice for a main grilled vegetarian dish. The problem is, we have recently been asking too much of cauliflower. It is now our flour, our rice, our chicken, and our steak, and its overexposure mostly leads to groans among both vegetarians and anyone who would like to introduce a second vegetable into their system.
“Whenever I do an offsite event, the cop-out dish is cauliflower for vegetarians,” says Greg Baxtrom, chef and owner of Olmsted, Patti Ann’s, and Maison Yaki in Brooklyn. “There’s, like, four courses of some poor vegetarian getting cauliflower for everything.” So for your summer grilling plans, it’s time to look for flavor where no one wants it. It’s time to grill weird, unpopular root vegetables.
Baxtrom says his favorite vegetables to grill are things like kohlrabi, turnip, and rutabaga. “They’re usually pretty cheap because nobody wants them,” he says. They work because, like cauliflower and so many other vegetables, they are all members of the brassica family. They are sturdy and can easily take on the flavors of whatever you use to season them. But they also each have distinct flavors and textures. Rutabaga is both sweet and bitter, with a somewhat creamy texture. Kohlrabi is crunchy and zesty. Turnips and parsnips are like nuttier and earthier potatoes. And of course, there’s the ever-popular sweet potato, which you should freeze before you bake and grill.
Unlike flimsier zucchini slices or asparagus spears, these vegetables do need some prep work. Baxtrom says he’ll cook bigger kohlrabi and rutabaga whole, unpeeled, in an oven at 300 degrees for about three hours, until they’re fork tender. Then he’ll peel them, slice them, and throw them on the grill to char. But you don’t necessarily need to utilize your oven to do this. Eli Goldman, the chef behind Queens pop-up Tikkun BBQ, says he often roasts pumpkins and potatoes indirectly in his smoker, or on a rack above the grill, where they take on the flavor of the fire and whatever else is cooking.
Serving a slice of parsnip or potato with cross-hatch grill marks and a sweep of sauce is absolutely a way to serve them, but you don’t have to pretend that steak is the only thing a vegetable should emulate. For pumpkins, Goldman says he sears them off on the grill, then dices them and uses them in tacos and quesadillas. You could create a smoky puree as a base for a different vegetable, or cool them and make a grilled potato salad, or layer them on a sandwich. But Baxtrom says that even if you’re serving grilled root vegetables with meat, variety will give you the best meal. “I’ll just buy one ribeye for six people, and then will have a bunch of grilled scallions, asparagus, ramps, turnips, piles of different vegetables,” he says, all with different sauces and spice mixtures. “That is what makes it interesting.”
Niki Waters is an editorial illustrator based in Vallejo, California.