My husband Stephen is an on again off again vegetarian. Well, he’s more on again these days than off.I guess I’m what you’d call a flexitarian, I go through meat eating phases and vegetarian phases. Even when I’m in a meat eating phase I don’t eat the typical American quantity—which may have to do with the quality I buy. I’d rather support my farmer friends, the prices are higher than the supermarket (but, they’re still not really making a living wage!), and the quality is vastly superior. The point I’m trying to make is this—we never eat much meat and I miss grilling.
A number of years ago a friend of mine gave me a nearly un-used Webber kettle grill. It’s perfect! I love it! But, aside from experimenting with my spice rubs, I rarely use it—because, how much grilled corn-on-the-cob or potatoes baked in the coals can you eat? I have tried grilling various vegetables in the past but, I struggled with getting them cooked properly (i.e. at all or I’ve turned them to mush). My biggest problem and I’m sure I share this with many novice grillers, has been using too much charcoal which leads to the heat being just too much. I guess I thought that I was doing some sort of grill stir-fry.
My over confidence, as a cook, coupled with my enthusiastic but inexperienced grilling resulted with an interesting, if not fully edible side dish one Thanksgiving. I thought it would be great to roast root vegetables on the grill—they would be sweet, tender, smoky, and just a tiny bit singed.The reality? Tough, mostly raw (and not in a good way), burned on the outside—yuk! I was horrified to watch my father try to navigate one such parsnip, he was so polite! It seems that Pittsburgh* is not a good way to cook vegetables!
Last year I experimented with grilling fruit (apples and pears smoked with mulling spices) and through that I learned a lot about grilling delicate things and grilling in general. I found a blog called Extraordinary BBQ, in it the author gives amazingly detailed advice on grilling and there I learned the importance of not using too much charcoal, and how to stack it properly. Using only a few lumps of charcoal I could really control and slowly cook the fruit—developing its sweetness without turning it to applesauce. That’s when I realized the fullness of my heat mistake with vegetables and with meat for that matter. Only, for me I love to sear a steak and I’m not looking for anything but rare; so I had never appreciated the error of my ways.
When you grill vegetables you’re really roasting them over an open fire (how awesome is that!) and like roasting vegetables in your oven they need time to cook.With the understanding, of course, that different vegetables require different amounts of time and heat to cook; for instance, asparagus requirements are not the same requirements for squash.
*I’m familiar with this term because my mother grew-up in the Steel Town, if yours did not you might need an explanation. Pittsburgh refers to steaks that have been seared/charred on the outside while remaining nearly raw on the inside.It seems that no one knows exactly how this came to be—some stories say that steel workers would sear their steaks on the outside of the smelting ovens .(read more )
Let’s Start at the Beginning:
Before getting further into it, I think it would be good to have a quick lesson a few key elements of grilling.
First is the charcoal. I know many people use a gas grill; it’s certainly easy, but it just doesn’t produce the same flavor as a charcoal.I’m not against gas and I can tell you that my neighbors who grill with gas grill a lot more frequently than my neighbors use charcoal. For the purpose of creating a guide for vegetarian grilling, I’ll be using and discussing charcoal—the gas grill folks can simply roll their eyes as they humor me.
Charcoal comes in two main forms: briquet and lump. Briquette is the classic Kingsford, Matchlight, etc. kind that has been processed and shaped into squares. Lump is hardwood that has only been processed into charcoal and looks like charred wood.
Briquets are a charcoal version of Pringles “potato chips” mashed up stuff formed into a consistent product and shape.According to The Sweethome web-site briquette charcoal was invented some hundred years ago by Henry Ford who wanted to make something out of his waste lumber and saw dust.Indeed, according to Wikipedia Henry Ford founded the Kingsford Company in the early 1920’s. In the same article it lists the ingredients found in Kingsford briquets (in 2000; the ingredients have recently changed, according to the Kingsford web-site, they’ve increased the wood char): Wood char, Mineral char, Mineral carbon, Limestone, Starch, Borax, Sodium nitrate, and Sawdust. Some people find that briquette charcoal gives off a chemical smell, though many note that it burns off and believe there are no problems once the coals are covered with the white ash. There are, however, all natural briquettes—with far fewer ingredients.Due to its density and consistent shape briquette charcoal is easier to work with creating consistent heat for longer periods of time. Which lead some people to prefer briquettes for smoking.
Lump charcoal is typically made from hardwood tree limbs that have been charred in a kiln (Kingsford.com). It is lump charcoal’s simplicity and flavor that win fans. Of course, the flavor can vary greatly depending of the wood used, which opens-up a whole realm of flavor subtly that can lead a person into obsession. And, it’s the simplicity that I like. Maybe it’s because I’m an ex-smoker and am really tired of “additives.”Many people who use ceramic grills (like the Green egg) prefer lump charcoal because it produces less ash (apparently ash clogs its vents making it difficult to control the heat).
And, getting the heat right is the key.For me, it’s the challenge.It requires thought and planning; which is difficult for me, since I’m more of an intuitive cook. I don’t always have an idea of what exactly I’m making until it happens.Grilling forces its organization requirement on me so it makes for a good lesson. I think it’s the technical aspect of grilling that makes it so appealing to so many. You need a plan; you need to work the plan.If you tend to be rule bound then, I think, grilling can be very satisfying. Or, if you’re a timid cook, grilling gives you it’s parameters which makes it less intimidating.
I’ll begin my experiments with a hardwood lump charcoal. I love how rustic it looks! And, immediately I can understand why some people put their coals a disposable aluminum roasting pan (they poke holes in the bottom first), the size of the lump charcoal does vary a great deal and I had a lot of pieces that fell right through the grate. So, the roasting pan makes sense, it keeps the coals up where you want them which helps you regulate the heat. I lit the charcoal in a chimney so I didn’t realize that the smaller lumps would disappear. As I was losing coals to the floor of my grill I had to dig around in my charcoal to find large enough pieces to use, and that was a messy process.
This month I’ll be making Baba Ganoush, a Mediterranean spread similar to hummus but used grilled eggplant instead of chickpeas. I think this is a perfect starting point because the end product is not fussy, it doesn’t have to hold its shape and the slower it’s cooked the tastier the eggplant. The only fear with this dish is under-cooking the eggplant and that’s easily remedied. I saw a recipe that had you toast and grind your own sesame seeds for the tahini, so I’m going to do that on the grill too. (It’ll also be a nice illustration of toasting spices for those of you interested in that!) I suspect freshly toasting and grinding the sesame seeds for the tahini will make a huge flavor difference over regular store bought tahini, and that flavor difference I can imagine, but, I’m curious how tasting them over the coals will affect the flavor.Sesame seeds toast quickly will they be over the heat long enough to gain a smokiness? We’ll see!
In short, I think toasting and grinding the sesame seeds was fun and I’d do it again because it allows you to make the amount you want. But, next time I’ll do it stove-top, it’s faster and easier. Roasting the eggplant took longer than I thought but, it was REALLY good in the Baba Ganoush and definitely worth the time.
- 1 medium eggplant (about 1 ½ lb)
- 1/3 cup tahini
- 1 clove of garlic, pressed
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Salt and pepper
Roast eggplant on the grill—be sure to use plenty of charcoal; if you use a chimney –fill it.Roast until the eggplant is fully cooked and looks wrinkled and is very soft.
As the eggplant is grilling make the tahini. Place sesame seeds in a dry caste iron pan, over medium-high heat. Shake frequently, when the seeds are fragrant remove from heat (you can let them get a light golden color if you want but be sure to remove them from the hot pan immediately if you do --sesame seeds retain their heat and will continue to cook after their removed from the heat. So you want to be careful not to over toast them.) Grind the sesame seeds in a blender or spice grinder (a food processor will not work very well) add olive oil to help the process along and grind until you get the right consistency—like a thin-ish peanut butter.
When the eggplant is done scoop the meat out of the skin and let it drain for a few minutes (I just let it sit on a plate and then drained the plate). Put the eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper into the blender and pulse until smooth.Let the dip rest for 15-20 min.Taste and correct the seasonings.
Serve with pita bread, or fresh veggies—be sure to make a little olive oil pool on top!