Fourth of July cookouts don't always mean meat

The Fourth of July is not technically about the inalienable right to grill hot dogs and burgers, but to vegetarians or people trying to cut down on their meat intake, it can sure seem that way.

For those looking for a way to join in the backyard grilling without making a trip to the butcher shop first, local chefs say never fear: grilled veggies can make delicious and filling entrees.

"I love cooking on the grill," said Taueret Thomas, culinary director for the Lincoln Culinary Institute in Columbia. "In the summertime, I rarely turn on the oven, especially if the weather's nice. And vegetarian cooking lends itself well to grilling."

Thomas recommends sandwiches with grilled portabello mushrooms that have been marinated in extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper. Grilled eggplant, tomato and onion would amp up the experience. Or, she suggests, lightly char a whole-wheat pita on the grill and stuff it with grilled vegetables and feta cheese.

As executive chef at Great Sage, the vegan restaurant in Howard County, Adam Pierce knows how to make filling, meat-free entrees. And he often starts by turning the heat to high on the grill.

A popular item on the Great Sage menu is Grilled Vegetable Provencal, with a variety of grilled vegetables arranged around a mound of quinoa, surrounded by swirls of basil pesto and topped with a coulis (that's a sauce made of fruits or veggies, for those not up on their French cooking terms) of grilled tomato.

It's all pretty easy, as Pierce demonstrated in the Great Sage kitchen, moving from raw vegetables to completed dish in about 20 minutes. He started by swirling extra-virgin olive oil in a pan of vegetables that included trimmed asparagus, chunks of red pepper, zucchini and eggplant cut into long, fat wedges, whole tomatoes, and hearts of palm, which taste like crab meat when grilled, he said.

He pinched in a mixture of salt and pepper, swirled the veggies around to coat them, then arranged the colorful assortment on the grill, which had been heated to a temperature of, approximately, as hot as it would get. "Otherwise you won't get the proper grill marks," he said.

Using tongs, he turned the vegetables every two or three minutes. Though it might look exciting when fire flickers up from the grill, Pierce said the flames create an unpleasant flavor of charred oil. So make sure vegetables are not dripping with marinade, he said, and if a flare-up occurs, simply move the food out of the way.

Once the vegetables were cooked, he placed a nonstick pan on the stove, turned the heat to high, and squirted in some extra-virgin olive oil. He watched the edge of the pan until he saw the first signs of smoke, then threw in minced garlic and finely chopped fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano. Within seconds, a heavenly aroma wafted from the pan. Pierce threw in about a cup of quinoa and moved it around quickly so it wouldn't burn. "Once it's nice and aromatic it's pretty much done," he said. The tomato coulis and basil pesto had already been made, so assembly was quick. He mounded the quinoa on a plate, arranged the vegetables decoratively around it, and swirled on the tomato coulis and pesto.

"It's a simple preparation," he said "and the payoff is a lot considering how little you actually have to do to the vegetable."

Over at Heavy Seas Alehouse in Little Italy, chef Matt Seeber has been leading several classes on grilling techniques. In one class, participants grilled a mix of summer vegetables, including yellow squash, asparagus, red peppers, fennel, Belgian endive, portabello mushrooms and zucchini. Though the mix was used as a side dish, it could be a topping for pasta, said Seeber.

"Summer is peak vegetable season," he said.

Seeber recommends cutting vegetables in large pieces, creating as much surface area as possible. Zucchini and eggplant, for example, can be cut on an angle in order to maximize the area that will be touching the grill. Fennel is cut in wedges and endive in half. Tomatoes can be cut into thick slices for grilling. If smaller pieces are needed for a dish, cut the veggies after they are grilled, he said.

Once everything is cut, he says, marinate for a few minutes in extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Then get the grill as hot as you can, and place the vegetables directly on the grates, positioned — of course — so they don't fall through. Turn every few minutes until they are charred, then move them away from the hottest part of the grill. Test frequently for doneness, keeping in mind that the vegetables will continue cooking after they are removed from the heat.

While any kind of grill will work, charcoal or wood chips impart a mouth-watering smoky flavor, Seeber said.

Shirlé Hale-Koslowski, chef and owner of Four Corners Cuisine, a personal chef service in Baltimore, recommends making pizzas topped with grilled vegetables. Start by cutting vegetables, marinating them in extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper, then grilling them until tender, she says. (She suggests buying a wire basket with a lid that closes, which can hold smaller vegetables, making turning easier and assuring that nothing falls through the grates.)

Onions, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms are particularly good, she said. When they have softened and smell delicious, pull them off the grill with tongs. Chop them into bite-sized chunks, and cover with foil to keep warm. Meanwhile, take a pre-made or homemade pizza crust, add whatever sauce or cheese you desire, then top with the vegetables. Cook on a pizza stone or cookie sheet placed directly on the grill, she said, for about 12 minutes.

"Let it sit for a few minutes to set, and cut it," she said. "That's always been a fun thing to do."

Grilled Vegetable Provencal

Makes four servings

16 pieces of asparagus

4 zucchini, cut in fours

2 eggplant, peel and cut into long wedges

12 hearts of palm

2 red peppers, seeded and cut into six pieces each

Toss with extra-virgin olive oil just enough to get a light coating and a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Grill on high heat, turning frequently, until they are grilled on all sides, 7-10 minutes. 

Grilled tomato coulis

Yields eight servings

Toss two beefsteak or other large tomatoes in olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill over high heat until the outside of the tomatoes are charred and cracked, and the interior flesh has collapsed. Core the tomatoes and blend, adding more olive oil for body if the coulis is thin, and more salt and pepper to taste.

Basil pesto

Combine in a blender:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon organic cashew pieces

1/2 cup fresh basil

1/4 tablespoon organic lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon pink peppercorn

1/4 tablespoon salt

Toasted herb quinoa

1 cup organic yellow onion

2 cups quinoa

3 cups vegetable stock

1 sprig each fresh organic thyme, rosemary and oregano

salt and ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon peeled organic garlic.

In a medium saucepan, caramelize the diced yellow onion in a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil until golden and aromatic. Add dried quinoa and toast with the onions until it smells toasted and nutty. Deglaze with the stock. Once it comes to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the stock is gone. Each quinoa grain also has a "tail" that will pop out when the grain is done. Set the quinoa aside to steep  for 10 minutes while you chop the herbs and garlic. In a nonstick pan, swirl in a small amount of olive oil. Toast the garlic and finely diced herbs until the garlic is aromatic and golden brown. Add the quinoa and toast until the quinoa is crisp. Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble: Mound one cup of quinoa on a plate, surround with vegetables, stacking them attractively. Swirl on tomato coulis, and drizzle basil pesto around the plate.

—Recipe courtesy of Adam Pierce of Great Sage


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