The Grilling Issue: Smoke plus stove equals perfect veggies

By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Full disclosure, right upfront: A grill-saute technique for vegetables demands a little more effort and time than basic grilling. But trust me: It's worth it.

I am the most unrepentant of weeknight shortcut-takers. I'll microwave vegetables if I have to. But I turn to this combo method at least a couple of times a week in the summer. It's simply the best way to handle hard-to-grill vegetables.

The union of grilling and sauteing might be new to you, but it is as natural a pairing as chocolate and peanut butter. That's because a saute pan can fill in a grill's gaps, so to speak. Grilling corn and onion halves or whole small onions can present challenges: Cook them quickly over a hot fire and they burn. Grill them gently over a moderate fire and they dry out. But when you grill them until they get a little color and smokiness and then transfer them to a saute pan to finish cooking, they acquire a tender, almost saucy texture to go with their grilled char.

The two-step strategy also does wonders for vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant and peppers, which grill just fine but don't easily pick up additional flavors; vinaigrettes or light sauces either pool on top of them or make them soggy. And if you just chop these vegetables and toss them together as a salad, they lose their heat and a measure of freshness. Throw them into a hot skillet with those sauces after a brief spell on the grill, and they take in all sorts of flavors without damaging their light essence.

The accompanying grill-saute recipes speak to both vegetable groups. Because the method calls for relatively high heat on both the grill and stovetop, it doesn't take much more time than it would just to grill the vegetables.

No doubt you have grilled and sauteed (separately); combining the two is easy enough, particularly if you have one of those handy side burners on your gas or charcoal grill. Start by grilling the vegetables over a medium-hot fire for a couple of minutes so they get nice marks and pick up some smoke. Then chop, toss into a hot skillet coated with a light film of oil, and quick-braise with some sort of liquid: broth, wine or a light sauce. Cook until the vegetables soak up the surrounding flavors and reach the desired level of doneness. Hard-to-grill vegetables should be grilled until tender, while more fleshy vegetables such as zucchini or peppers are best left a little firm or al dente.

In the hard-to-grill camp: Onions are made for grill-sauteing. I've always preferred grilled onions and their smokiness over the stovetop-caramelized kind, but grilling onions so they achieve that perfect balance of browned and tender demands finesse, not to mention patience. Prolonged grilling only offers more opportunities for that terribly frustrating scenario: rings falling through the grates. But quick grilling and a subsequent saute render them almost foolproof. Grill for color, then transfer the onion slices to a skillet with a little red wine, sherry or balsamic vinegar. Cook, stirring to incorporate any caramelized fond on the bottom of the pan, until the onions become sweet and slinky. The eventual smoky loops are a versatile accompaniment for burgers, grilled chops or steak, or they can tossed with pastas or grains.

Ears of corn respond well when they are husked and grilled for a short time to pick up bits of char. Sauteing the stripped kernels for a couple of minutes softens them and provides the right environment for adding toasted spices and grilled peppers, as in Smoky Southwestern Corn, Pepper and Scallion Saute.

Give quarter-inch rounds of new potatoes a brush of oil and some salt and pepper, then cook them over a hot fire long enough to achieve grill marks. Cut them into cubes and finish cooking them in a nonstick skillet, with peppers, onions and a touch of chicken or vegetable broth. Grill baby artichokes, then braise them briefly with white wine, butter and chopped capers.

A classic ratatouille is a perfect example of the technique's efficacy with hard-to-flavor vegetables. Grilling tomato halves and wide slices or strips of eggplant, peppers and squash for a few minutes gives the eventual saute a wonderful smokiness and evenly cooked components.

The technique can even create a faux stir-fry. Grill green beans, asparagus or zucchini. Cut them as desired, then toss in a hot pan with garlic, spices and toasted sesame oil. The vegetables will taste smoky and have the crisp-tender texture of vibrant Asian cooking.

Grill-sauteing can be liberating, and in the end, that's what I like best about it. Vegetables can be grilled up to four hours in advance, or even a day ahead for corn, peppers and potatoes. That frees up space on the grate and allows you to serve the vegetables freshly sauteed yet full of grill flavor. It's two small steps, and one big advance for backyard barbecue cooks.


Smoky Southwestern Corn, Pepper and Scallion Saute

Grill-Braised Red Wine Onions

Grill-Sauteed Ratatouille With Toasted Garlic and Thyme

Spicy Sichuan Zucchini

Rosenfeld can be reached at

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