Last weekend was Memorial Day, a day that many Americans view at the official start of summer grilling season. A great time to shine up your grilling tools, showcase your garden, and bust open those summer brews alongside beloved friends.
This was my first barbecue as a vegetarian. We have always had plenty of veg-friendly options on account of my mom and grandparents who haven’t eaten meat for several decades. But for me, the smell of charcoal brought only memories of meat.
By far the hardest part of being a new vegetarian is cravings. Having tasted all kinds of meat before, not too long ago, it is easy for our minds to remember those foods and the way they make us feel. I used to think nothing could replace the joy of a cheeseburger under the summer sun. Until now.
I thought about my mom and how she would always make delicious marinades, and then run away while my dad washed and cleaned the chicken legs that were about to be slathered in her delicious blend. My mom knew what the marinade tasted like by itself…it’s just the meat itself she had objection to. Then I realized that, in addition to our traditional meatless barbecue selections, there were some new things I could do to calm my cravings without eating the meat that I knew I didn’t actually want. I could enjoy all those classic barbecue flavors while sticking to this new diet.
1. Grilled Corn: Every family barbecue at my house starts off with grilled corn. It’s so easy, and so delicious, and sure to please just about everyone. Simply remove the corn husk and those little strings attached to it, and throw them on the grill! Rotate every 2-3 minutes (depending on how burnt you like it), and serve. Now here comes the critical part: don’t just settle for slathering your corn with butter as traditional American cuisine dictates. The secret to my family’s grilled corn is spice! In a small bowl combine cayenne pepper, black pepper, and a little sea salt. Then slice a lemon, and dip it in the spice mixture. Rub the spice-coated lemon wedge all over your corn cob and prepare to smile! The bite of the lemon and the kick of pepper really enhance the natural sweetness of the corn and complement the burnt barbecue flavor.
2. Portabella Mushroom Burgers: It’s not for no reason that veggie burgers have a reputation for being foul and unnatural Frankenfoods. Most of the available varieties in the supermarket are flat, flavorless, and highly unsatisfying. What’s worse is that if you actually read the ingredient labels, many of these “veggie” patties are made primarily for grains, and contain very few actual veggies! This can cause a major carbohydrate overdose and leave you feeling sluggish and unhealthy. Nobody wants that.
You have two options: First, make your own patties using mashed beans, bread, and seasoning. I’ve tried this, and it’s not easy. It’s one of my “works-in-progress” recipes, and I’ll be sure to tell you my tricks should I master it. But option 2 is much better: portabella mushroom caps. Back when I ate meat, mushrooms were my favorite burger topping, so the idea of replacing the meat with this delicious fungi was mouth-watering to me. It’s so easy and flavorful that even your non-veg guests will want them (just like mine did).
Start by making a marinade: ½ cup each of balsamic vinegar and olive oil (pure, not extra virgin), 1 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon, 1 teaspoon finely chopped basil, and black pepper and sea salt to taste. Wash the portabella caps thoroughly, and let them marinate ideally overnight (or for at least 2 hours). Grill them for 3 minutes on each side (if you grill them too long they shrink). I like to melt a slice of Swiss cheese over them for the last minute of grilling.
If you don’t like mushrooms there are a lot of other things you can use. Try eggplant or zucchini cutlets, falafel, or a big slab of roasted red pepper.
3. Grilled Onions: Since becoming a vegetarian, most of my carnivorous cravings have been for buffalo wings. It was absolute torture…until I realized it was the spicy hot sauce and cool blue cheese I wanted, not the meat. I’ve found dozens of recipes for meatless buffalo chicken that use healthy ingredients like cauliflower instead of chicken as a vehicle for that irresistible spicy-creamy combination. So it is with barbecue: I was actually craving the charcoal flavor of the burger, not the actual meat. Grilled onions will give you that smoky flavor you desire, plus crunch and spice!
Simply peel an onion, and cut it into medium rounds. Place them straight on the hot grill until they start to blacken on the edges. Add to veggie burgers, salads, or other sauteed veggies and add to sandwiches.
4. Eggplant: Roasted eggplant is one of my favorite dishes from Indian cooking. My grandmother usually makes it by drizzling eggplants with olive oil, wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven until the skin gets charred. She then sautes the soft middle with red onion, tomatoes, turmeric, cayenne pepper, curry powder, and coriander. It takes a long while this way, so when the grill is hot we always stack on the eggplants.
Another great thing to do with grilled eggplant is make baba ghanoush. Store-bought versions always taste more like mayonnaise than anything else, and it’s so much easier (and cheaper) to make it at home. Start by wrapping the eggplant (whole and with the skin on) in foil. Add a few cloves of peeled garlic and half an onion inside the foil packet as well. After about 10 minutes (yes, it’s that quick), remove from the grill and let cool. When it’s cool remove the skin from the eggplant, and mash the soft flesh with a fork. Chop the garlic and onions and add to the eggplant pulp. The garlic will be soft, so you could even just mash it with the spoon. Add 3 tablespoons each of tahini and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then eat it! I like it with Triscuit crackers, but it’s great on sandwiches, pita chips, toast…anything!
Enjoy and Happy Grilling!