I’m not sure if there’s a rule carved in stone somewhere – like not being allowed to wear white until after Memorial Day – but the solstice last week means it’s now officially summer, which thereby grants us formal permission to fire up the barbecue.
Not that we don’t grill in the middle of December at my house, mind you, but there’s a big difference between winter squash and pork chops cooked in the rain and sweet corn, peppers and fresh salmon grilled under the lingering evening sun with a cold beer in hand. Aaahh… (Although admittedly, the drizzle earlier this week made it feel more like the former than the latter.) In any case, summer is indeed officially here, and it’s time to partake in the ancient ritual of consuming food prepared over an open flame.
Vegetables aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about barbecue, so it’s no surprise that a lot of folks have limited experience cooking them on the grill. So I will tell you a secret: The number one tip to successfully BBQ vegetables is to never walk away from them. Veggies cook rather quickly and need frequent turning, and if you aren’t careful they can char up with even a few moments of inattention.
The other big trick is to have a squirt bottle of water handy. I liberally mist my veggies whenever I turn them because it keeps them from drying out and it introduces a little steam to the cooking process. There is also the issue of flare-ups, and the squirt bottle is invaluable for knocking those down right away.
Vegetables cooked on the grill taste great, and the fresh flavors really pop out, especially if you don’t do much to them beforehand. As a general rule, all I ever do is toss veggies with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Asparagus, carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini and other summer squashes – all of them grill up great with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. (For mushrooms, add a little red wine to the mixture and see how you like it … and portabellas are fantastic with a little chevre or feta melted on the gill side when they are nearly done.)
Of course, corn is the season’s headliner — the singular vegetable that screams summertime and conjures nostalgic visions of tasty barbecue all on its own. Some folks grill corn by shucking it and wrapping it in foil with a little butter. It’s pretty hard to mess it up that way, but somehow it just doesn’t taste authentic to me, like the good stuff you get at the county fair. That’s because corn on the midway is almost always grilled in the husk, which steams it and makes it taste smoky at the same time. It’s actually pretty easy to do:
Start by pulling the husks back (but not off!) and remove the silk. Then put the husks back in place and soak the ears in water for at least 30 minutes. If you want, you can pull the husk aside again and brush the kernels with olive oil or butter before putting it on the grill. Cook over medium heat and turn the ears several times so no one side gets overly scorched, about 15 minutes. When it’s done, you can peel back the husk and use it as a handle as you walk around and eat it– just like at the fair!
The other summer grilling treat that I look forward to every year is stone fruits, which (like corn) have already started arriving in the weekly boxes. Yes, I am talking about fruit on the barbie! It may not be common practice, but peaches and nectarines are absolutely amazing grilled because it caramelizes the sugars in the fruit. Just cut them in half, remove the stone and brush both sides with a little olive oil before grilling for a couple minutes on each side. (You can do the same thing with pineapple.)
I like to sprinkle mine with cayenne for a zing that works really well with the sweet, warm fruit, but many people use brown sugar, cinnamon, or grated coconut or ginger if they want a topper instead. However you go about it, grilling fresh fruit for dessert is a great way to wind up any barbecue –- no matter what the calendar might say about the beginning of summer or wearing white.