In a few days, grills will be ceremonially set ablaze for Labor Day (“it’s the end of summer,” we’ll say, even though the first three weeks of September are still summer, technically and temperamentally). Many of those grills will be piled high with vegetables. Good: Direct heat and smoke can do lovely things to plant matter. But the most common technique for grilling vegetables, the kebab, is performed incorrectly by the vast majority of American grillmasters of the universe — even though most other countries mastered the technique sometime around the time it was discovered that fire hurts when you touch it.
Stabbing things with a skewer and putting them over open flame is just about as primitive as it gets, and we still do it because it’s 1) a convenient way to grill bite-sized pieces of food 2) fun and 3) delicious. Pretty much every culture has independently invented some version of the kebab, whether it’s brochette or yakitori or pinchos or satay or döner. For some reason, we Americans have chosen to ignore all of these kebab styles in favor of just one: shish kebab, a mutant version of Turkish şiş kebab that is a fairly simple riff on skewered grilling. If one had to pick a single way to grill vegetables until the end of civilization, it’s not a bad choice at all, with dominant flavors of lemon, oregano, mint, and olive oil.
The typical American kebab consists of cubes of raw meat or fish or shrimp, marinated (or maybe not), shoved onto a skewer in an alternating pattern with raw vegetables like onion, bell pepper, zucchini, and mushroom. These kebabs are then grilled, badly. The problem is that each vegetable needs a different amount of cooking. A pepper benefits from a hard, quick char, but a mushroom takes awhile to cook; it needs low or indirect heat for a long time. Zucchini falls somewhere in the middle, best cooked at a medium amount of heat for a medium amount of time. Putting all of these items on the same skewer and expecting the same amount heat applied for the same amount of time to cook each of them properly is the equivalent of putting raw hamburger meat onto a bun and putting it in the toaster: By the time the burger is done, the bun will have crumbled into ash.
The solution, which many Americans refuse to acknowledge, is that each ingredient should get its own skewer. Literally everyone in the world who is not an American citizen does this when cooking skewers over an open flame: Your chicken-skin yakitori is not skewered with chicken thigh; your lamb shashlik is not skewered with mushrooms; your peanut-rubbed chicken satay is not skewered with mutton. So why is your dumb green bell pepper skewered with a cube of zucchini?
Grill each vegetable separately, then combine them on your plate. This will be sort of a bummer for those who love the one-skewer-per-guest model; an entire meal on a stick just rubs us the right way. I sympathize! An all-in-one kebab is like a corn dog delivered by an Amazon Prime drone. Just the thought of it arouses me. But it can be — and in this case, trust me, it is — worth it to make things a little bit less convenient in the interest of flavor and texture.
It can be fun to treat these like little mini-courses or tapas; “Hey guys, the mushrooms are ready! Next up, scallions!” “That sounds great, we love you, grill-master!” And they will love you, because cooking all these ingredients separately is more difficult from the grill-master’s perspective. You have more things to keep track of on your grill; you have to know how to cook each individual vegetable; and it may be very difficult to have all these vegetables finish at the same time. But a properly charred pepper, a delicately blistered tomato, a slow-roasted smoky mushroom — these are wonderful wonderful things that are worth the effort and lack of convenience. SEGREGATE YOUR SKEWERS, AMERICA.
But! This doesn’t mean that you can’t combine some ingredients; vegetables with similar cooking needs can be grouped together. Here are some of my favorite ways to grill skewered vegetables:
— Skewering beans or peas is weird but fun; charred sugar snap peas are incredibly good and will be very impressive to guests. Char them on high heat quickly, so they get just a little blistered, then top with a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, chili paste, and brown sugar (this is good on pretty much any vegetable; just keep trying it to get the balance right. If it’s too sweet, add more lime and fish sauce; too sour, add more sugar) and crushed peanuts.
— A simpler one: take mushrooms (the traditional whole button or chopped portobello mushroom work fine, or even a mix); put them in a ziploc bag. Take a microplane and grate several cloves of garlic (more than you think you need) into the bag, along with some salt and olive oil. Seal, toss, and let sit for as long as possible, up to a day, before skewering and grilling.
— Marinate several kinds of cubed summer squash, which all require roughly the same amount of time on the grill (not exactly the same, but close enough if you avoid crook-neck squash), in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh thyme. This is a fun one because they’re all slightly different, in color and shape and texture, but can be grilled on the same skewer.
— Onions are a tricky one; I’ve never managed to cut an onion so that it stays together and grills evenly. Fuck it! Switch to scallions instead. You can pierce them right through the white bit, near the root, with a thin and sharp skewer. If you can, place the white part on a slightly higher heat than the green part. But the great thing about grilled scallions is that the green parts, when charred, are ABSURDLY DELICIOUS. You just want to make sure the white part is cooked enough to lose that raw onion flavor. Top with salt and pepper, or soy sauce and just a drop or two of sesame oil right before serving.
— How about fruit? Yeah! Grill some fruit! This is an opportunity to mixx it up a little, too: most kinds of stone fruit can be grilled together: cherries, plums, pluots, and apricots are my favorite, because ripe peaches/nectarines (did you know they’re the same fruit? True story.) are a little delicate for grilling. Serve with Greek yogurt sweetened with honey and some chopped mint or basil.
Skewered and grilled vegetables can be just as smoky and flavorful and ceremonial as any grilled meat. Or more! The sugars in vegetables can caramelize and the skins can char and crisp in ways that meats can’t, or shouldn’t. Grilling vegetables respectfully and carefully is a great way to celebrate the near end of summer produce before we move into fall. You can always have a burger in February, but the days when you can grill a perfectly ripe pattypan squash? Waning. Waning hard.
Photo by Joshua Bousel