Greens, Meet Grill: Grilled Salads

Reprinted from The Barbecue! Bible. Photo copyright © Ben Fink.

When I was growing up, barbecue meant meat. Preferably steak. And more steak. The idea of grilling a bell pepper or a portobello mushroom, or (gasp!) lettuce would have seemed as foreign as landing a man on the moon. Meat went on the grill outdoors. Salads were prepared in the kitchen. Period.

Well, we did land a man on the moon, and we do now grill salads. We’re not alone. For centuries, Italians have grilled radicchio and other robust lettuces prior to drizzling with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Throughout the Mediterranean, bell peppers are roasted directly on the embers (or on your stovetop) to make smoky grilled pepper salads. And the grilled Caesar salad—pioneered by Walt’s Wharf Restaurant in Seal Beach, California—has gone viral, turning up at restaurants literally around the world.

So what’s so remarkable about grilled salads? Grilling caramelizes the natural plant sugars in peppers, onions and other vegetables, heightening their sweetness. The hot fire singes the edges of lettuce leaves, imparting a smoke flavor. Add a whiff of wood smoke (from wood chips, wood chunks, or logs), and you’ll have the makings of a salad with astonishing depth of flavor.

Here are five things you need to know:

  • When grilling romaine and other lettuces, cut in half or quarters, rinse well, and shake dry. Work quickly over a hot fire—just long enough to singe the edges, but keep the center raw and crisp.
  • The best vegetables for grilling have a high water content: corn, onions, mushrooms, etc. Grill over a hot fire until the outside is browned and smoky.
  • When grilling slender vegetables, like asparagus and scallions, for salads, line them up to make rafts and pin crosswise with toothpicks. It’s easier to grill and turn an asparagus raft than individual stalks.
  • To grill small or small pieces of vegetables, like mushrooms, sliced squash, etc., use a grill basket. Shake the basket so the veggies grill evenly.
  • The best way to grill many vegetables is caveman style—directly on the embers. Lay whole bell peppers, eggplants, and sweet potatoes directly on a bed of hot charcoal (no grill grate needed). Grill until the skins are charred completely black. (The charring process drives a smoke flavor into the flesh.) Wear suede grilling gloves and use long-handled tongs to protect your hands from the intense heat of the fire.

Once you embrace the idea of grilled salads, the possibilities are limitless. Serve as starters or side dishes. Turn a grilled salad into a main course by slicing your favorite grilled protein (beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu) on top. And don’t forget grilled fruit salads for dessert.

Here are four of my favorites:

Grilled Caesar Salad: Brush quartered hearts of romaine lettuce with great extra virgin olive oil (the same oil is used in the creamy dressing), and grill over a hot fire—just long enough to singe the edges (leave the heart crisp and cool). Anchovies optional.

Grilled Salade Niçoise: From Nice on the south coast of France, comes this colorful salad of green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, olives, hard-cooked eggs, and canned tuna. My version takes full advantage of the grill. Not only do I grill beans, potatoes, and sushi-quality slabs of fresh tuna, but I also smoke the eggs. Next time, I’ll smoke the olives, too. Recent grads of BBQ University raved about this salad. Now, you can have the recipe, too. Note: A grill basket is a big help here.

Grilled BLT Salad: Here’s the salad version of the BLT. (Think of it as the iconic sandwich deconstructed.) You’ve never cooked bacon the grill? You’re in for a revelation. No spattering bacon fat and no mess on your stove. Just build a medium fire and leave at least half the grate free of bacon so you have a place to move the strips if you get flare ups.

Pepper capers pine nut salad

Grilled Pepper Salad with Currants, Capers, and Feta: This technicolor salad appears on the Raichlen table often in the summer. Grill the peppers caveman style (directly on a bed of hot embers) or grill over a hot fire until the skins blacken, turning as needed. Scrape off the skins with a paring knife, then stem and seed the peppers. You can char the peppers up to two days before assembling the salad.

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