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Vegetarian Grilling

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,

Sorry for deviating from our editorial schedule: we promised a crash course in ribs this month to coincide with the release of Raichlen on Ribs. The book has been delayed a few days (don’t worry, it will still be out in time for Memorial Day), so instead, we’ve taken a 180 degree turn—an issue on vegetarian grilling.

Nancy Loseke
Assistant Editor

There was a time when the notion of a meal—particularly a barbecue—without meat sounded more like punishment than pleasure. Even cookbooks targeted to vegetarians had penitential-sounding titles like “Meatless Days” or “Diet for a Small Planet.” Meatless grilling would have seemed the epitome of sacrifice and self-denial.

Well, to quote one of my favorite musicians, “The times, they are a’ changin’.” Proof positive—the most requested recipe ever from my BBQ University show on PBS was for Mac and Cheese with Grilled Onions, Chiles, and Corn. We could barely keep up with the volume of e-mail. We eventually threw up our hands in a cyberspace version of “Uncle!” and posted the recipe.

We also had lots of requests for the recipes for two other meatless dishes: Portobello Mushroom “Burgers” and Ginger-Studded Tofu “Steaks”. People even asked for vegetarian recipes from past seasons such as Barbecued Bean and Cheese Chili Rellenos and Grilled Gazpacho.

Call it the carnivore’s capitulation or the vegetarian’s revenge, but interest in meatless grilling is growing. Below, you’ll find some terrific dishes for the vegetarian in your family or on your guest list. Use it to fill those “I feel like something light tonight” menu gaps, or in a supporting role to a more traditional meat-centric main course.

You probably know that I’m a carnivore and an enthusiastic and unrepentant one at that. What you may not know is that I also have some vegetarian street cred: wife Barbara and daughter Betsy were vegetarians when I was writing The Barbecue Bible. (Thank goodness they saw the light.) I even wrote a vegetarian cookbook (High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cookbook), which won a James Beard Award in 1996.

The fact is, most vegetables and many soy foods, like tofu and tempeh, respond spectacularly well to smoke and fire. (Remember my mantra: if something tastes good baked, boiled, fried, or sautéed, it probably tastes even better grilled.) The high dry heat caramelizes the natural plant sugars in vegetables, making onions, peppers, and their brethren taste even sweeter and smokier than normal. There’s even a health advantage: grilling preserves the vitamins and minerals that can be leached out by other cooking methods.

As a rule, vegetables with a high water content are good candidates for direct, high-heat grilling: the short list includes asparagus, endive, mushrooms, okra, scallions, tomatoes, and zucchini. All of these vegetables benefit from a light brushing of oil—extra virgin olive if you’re working in a Mediterranean mode, sesame oil if you’re feeling Asian—in either case, robustly seasoned with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Even dry, dense, or relatively low moisture vegetables—like potatoes or artichokes—do well on the grill. The secret is to grill them using the indirect method—adding soaked wood chips to the coals if a smoke flavor is desired—basting them with sweet butter or garlic butter or that elixir of life, extra virgin olive oil.

Below are 9 great tips for honing your vegetarian grilling skills this summer:

    1. When grilling moist vegetables, like quartered tomatoes or onions, skewer them on two prong skewers or flat metal skewers. This keeps them from slipping or spinning.
    2. When making vegetable kebabs, grill each type of vegetable on a separate skewer. Peppers and onions take longer to grill than zucchini or tomatoes—the separate skewers let you cook each the amount of time needed for perfect doneness.
    3. When indirect grilling round vegetables, like onions or artichokes, stand them upright in a grill ring. (The spike conducts heat to the center, speeding up the cooking time.) Don’t have a grill ring? Make one from a twisted ring of aluminum foil. Note: I’m normally not a big fan of grilling vegetables—or anything—wrapped in foil.
    4. One cool way to grill long slender vegetables, like asparagus, scallions, and green beans, that might otherwise fall through the bars of the grill grate, is to cut into uniform lengths, laid side by side, and pinned crosswise top and bottom with toothpicks or bamboo skewers to make a sort of raft. (It’s a lot quicker and easier to turn one asparagus raft than 5 individual stalks.)
    5. While we’re on the subject of toothpicks, the Japanese and Koreans make grilled garlic kebabs by impaling whole cloves on toothpicks.
    6. Smoke-roast large baking potatoes (use indirect medium-high heat and cover the grill) until squeezably soft, about 1 hour. Serve with your favorite toppings, like gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onions. Check out the very cool stainless potato grill rack to make this task even easier.
    7. A large platter of grilled vegetables is an easy way to make your life easy. It’s colorful and tasty, even at room temperature, so you can grill it ahead, which is always useful when entertaining. Select vegetables that are in season with good color and textural contrast. Brush with olive oil, season generously with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Grill over a hot fire. Dried basil or oregano optional.
    8. You know my enthusiasm for grilled corn, but remember to grill it naked. (The corn, not you.) Remove the husk and silk, brush the corn with melted butter or olive oil, then grill it over high heat until browned on all sides. Exception to the rule is what I call extreme grilled corn: Build a bed of glowing charcoal or wood embers and lay the corn in the husk on top. Grill until the husk burns completely off and the kernels are darkly browned. The resulting smoke flavor is absolutely incredible. (Don’t forget to brush with melted butter before serving.)


  1. Speaking of “extreme grilling,” sweet potatoes and beets are fantastic grilled in the embers. Lay them in the coals and grill until charred on all sides. (This is a good dish for you grillers out there who have a tendency to burn things.) Cooking time is about 30 to 40 minutes—turn often for even cooking. For complete instructions, see page 390 in How to Grill.


Grilling mushroom slices, pepper strips, sliced garlic, or other small pieces of food? Get yourself a wire grilling grid, which keeps the food from falling through the bars of the grate.

Making kebabs? Load up on wide metal or bamboo skewers, which keep vegetables from slipping or spinning. Alternatively, use 2 prong skewers—again to keep the vegetables from slipping.

Grill rings are designed to hold whole vegetables, like onions or cabbages, or even fruits, like apples and pears, upright for indirect grilling. Alternatively, you can fashion donut-shaped rings out of aluminum foil, but the veggies won’t look as cool.

Yes, you guessed it, Steven’s Best of Barbecue line features all of these items, and a brand new Vegetable Grilling Kit.


We hope these tips and recipes inspire you to cook an entire vegetarian meal on the grill. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, it’s good every once-in-a-while to have a break from a relentlessly carnivorous diet. And you’ll definitely score points with the committed vegetarians in your circle as they will no longer have to bring their own soy to your cook-outs.

Thai sweet chili sauce is available in the ethnic section of most supermarkets or from www.importfoods.com. One good brand is Mae Ploy.

Serves 4.

2 pounds extra-firm tofu, drained

For the marinade:

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce (nuac mam or soy sauce)
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus oil for the grill
3/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce

Cut each block of tofu in half through the short side to make to flat slabs or “steaks.” Arrange them in a non-reactive baking dish.

Make the marinade: Place the garlic, coriander root, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, salt, pepper, ground coriander, fresh lime juice, and oil in a blender container or the bowl of a small-capacity food processor and pulse until smooth. Pour over the tofu slices and let marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 to 4 hours, carefully turning the tofu pieces several times to ensure even marinating.

When ready to cook, set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium-high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Arrange the tofu steaks directly on the grate. Grill until sizzling and well browned, 3 to 5 minutes per side, brushing with half the chili sauce for the last 2 minutes. Continue to grill until the chili sauce is sizzling. Transfer to plates or a platter, pour the remaining chili sauce on top and serve at once.

According to our admittedly meat-loving editor Nancy, Soyrizo is the vegetarian equivalent of the Spanish sausage chorizo. It is available at health food stores, supermarkets, and at www.melissas.com.

Serves 6 to 8.

1 medium-size head of cabbage (about 1-1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 ounces Soyrizo, about 3 inches, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

Large grill ring or foil crumpled into a donut shape for steadying the cabbage

1-1/2 cups wood chips, soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained

Set the cabbage on a cutting board on its crown. Cut out the core by angling your knife about 3 inches down toward the center of the cabbage, and cutting in a circle that is about 3 inches in diameter. Pull out the core and discard it. The piece you’ve removed should look like a cone. Put the cabbage upright on the grill ring, cavity facing up.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Brush a little melted butter (about 1/2 tablespoon) over the outside of the cabbage. Add the onion, garlic, and Soyrizo to the skillet with the melted butter and cook over medium heat until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Spoon the Soyrizo mixture into the cavity in the cabbage. Pour the barbecue sauce on top, and top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Season the outside of the cabbage with salt and pepper.

Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center. If using a gas grill, place all the wood chips or chunks in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch and preheat on high until you see smoke, then reduce the heat to medium.

When ready to cook, if using a charcoal grill, toss all the wood chips or chunks on the coals. Place the cabbage on its grill ring in the center of the hot grate, away from the heat, and cover the grill. Cook the cabbage until very tender, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours; when done, it will be easy to pierce with a skewer. If using a charcoal grill, you’ll need to add 12 fresh coals per side after 1 hour, if the cabbage is not yet done.

To serve, peel off any dried-out or charred outside leaves and discard. Present the cabbage on its grill ring to your guests, then cut into wedges and serve.


Vegetarianism, even when it’s occasional, is usually a matter of personal choice. Not everyone, however, has the freedom to make dietary choices as we were reminded this past week when we received a letter from Bob Richards of Longview, Washington:

“I enjoy watching your program and have gotten some good ideas from your show and also your web site. The reason I am writing is that in your rubs, on the steaks, I see you use course grain sea salt. This is great, unless you are like me, and the tens of thousands of other folks who have congestive heart failure. I am down to less than 1000 mg of salt a day per my doctor. Is there a rub that I can use, and those like me, so I get a great tasting steak that won’t send me to the hospital the next day? Thank you much and keep up the great work.”

The Salt-Free Lemonade Chili Rub from Kansas City barbecue great Paul Kirk, published on page 35 in Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades was just what Bob was looking for.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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