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Get Your "Five-a-Day" the Grillin' Way

By Kay Blakely
National Guard Bureau

FORT LEE, Va., July 1, 2002 – When it comes to grilling, most of us think of steaks, chops, chicken or ribs. But you're missing out on some of the best eating of the season if you fail to include fresh vegetables grilled right alongside your main dish.

Grilling's a perfect way to make sure you get the recommended five servings from the fruit and vegetable food group each day. And sometimes, the vegetables can even be the main dish. Such is the case with portobello mushrooms, which are so large and meaty they are often considered the "steaks" of the mushroom family.

Almost any vegetable you would normally steam, boil or saut can be cooked on the grill. Potatoes, zucchini and yellow squash, sweet peppers, onions, any kind of mushroom, fresh corn grilled in the husk, even tomatoes, are all prime candidates. Cabbage cooked on the grill develops a delicious sweetness I've never been able to duplicate by any other cooking method. Even though I'm normally not fond of eggplant, I love it cooked on the grill.

Try your hand at vegetable grilling and you're sure to come up with a few of your own favorites as well. Grilling is easy, and success is almost guaranteed as long as you keep a few tips in mind:

o Grill vegetables over a medium-to-hot fire. A charcoal fire is ready when the coals are completely covered in gray ash, usually about 30 minutes after the fire is lit.

o Vegetables can be halved, quartered or cut into rounds, but the trick is to cut all pieces roughly the same thickness (no thicker than 3/4s to 1 inch) so the veggies will cook evenly.

o Be careful not to overcook. Depending on the vegetable and its thickness, a total grilling time of two to five minutes per side is sufficient.

o Brushing vegetables with olive oil or vegetable oil will keep them from sticking to the grill. And certain items, such as asparagus, eggplant and cob corn, will benefit from a 30-minute soak in cold water prior to grilling.

o If you plan to use wooden skewers for kebabs, be sure to soak them in water to prevent smoldering or flaming once they reach the grill.

o For small vegetables that would fall through the grate, either use a hinged grill pan or cook them wrapped in foil.

Once you have a bit of experience under your belt, knowing the specific handling required for each kind of vegetable will become easy. If you're trying it for the first time, though, the following list will probably come in handy. It's a good one to clip and save in your recipe box for reference.

Asparagus: Trim off the tough lower ends and soak in cold water for 30 minutes to an hour if the stalks are a bit wilted. Pat dry, then place directly over the coals, turning every minute or so. Remove when the tips begin to turn brown. (These are really good!)

Bell peppers: Cut peppers in half, top to bottom. Remove stems, seeds and whitish ribs. Cut into strips about 2 inches wide; brush lightly with oil and grill 2-3 minutes per side. Or leave the peppers whole and grill until completely blackened. Close the hot peppers in a plastic bag while they cool for 10-15 minutes, then peel off the blackened skin. The crusty skin comes off easily, but it's a messy job. Split open and remove seeds. Eat as antipasto with oil and vinegar, or use in any recipe that calls for roasted peppers.

Cabbage: Cut a large head of green cabbage into 4-8 wedges and remove the core. Sprinkle wedges with garlic powder, salt and pepper and generously dot with butter. Arrange wedges back together, as if a whole head again, and wrap tightly in heavy- duty aluminum foil or a double layer of regular foil. Grill over medium coals for 45 minutes to an hour or until tender. After the required cooking time, leave the wrapping intact and move to the back of the grill to keep warm while other menu items finish cooking.

Carrots: Use full size carrots, but not too big -- the smaller ones are best. Brush with olive oil and cook over medium to low coals until tender, or brown over higher heat and move to a cooler portion of the grill to finish. They will take at least 10 to 15 minutes to cook.

Corn on the cob: Gently pull back the husks, but don't remove them. Remove the silks and cut off the very tip of the cob. Soak in cold water for about 30 minutes. Pat dry and brush generously with butter. Fold the husks back down and tie or twist the ends to secure. Place over medium coals for about 5 to 8 minutes, turning often to avoid burning. Keep warm on the back of the grill, away from direct heat, while the remainder of the meal is being grilled.

Eggplant: Slice larger varieties into rounds about 3/8-inch thick; smaller versions can be sliced in half lengthwise. Brush with olive oil and grill until they start to brown, about 5 minutes per side. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar or serve with an Italian salsa verde (garlic, basil, parsley and tomatoes -- all fresh and all chopped; add salt and extra virgin olive oil to taste).

Garlic: Take whole bulbs and cut off the root end. Brush with olive oil and place cut side down over a hot fire. Grill for about 10 minutes or until the skin is brown.

Mushrooms: Clean and remove stems. Toss in a bowl with oil, then thread on metal or wooden skewers, or spread them loosely over the grill if they are large enough. Grill 4-5 minutes for small mushrooms and 6-8 minutes for larger ones.

Onions: Sweet varieties such as Vidalias are best, but any onion will do. Peel and slice onions about 1/2-inch thick, brush with oil and grill about 3-5 minutes per side. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar, if desired. Onions can also be quartered or chunked and threaded on a skewer with other vegetables for a nice kebab.

Tomatoes: Cut in half top to bottom. Grill cut side down about 2- 3 minutes.

Potatoes: Wash and dry whole potatoes. Rub with vegetable oil. Wrap in aluminum foil and grill 35-40 minutes or longer, turning occasionally. To test for doneness, squeeze gently with a hand protected by an oven mitt. When they give to gentle pressure, they are done. Or, place small new potatoes and fresh green beans on a large square of aluminum foil, dot generously with butter, and season with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly, folding edges of foil securely to prevent butter leaking. Grill for 35-40 minutes. Thick slices of potato can also be grilled directly on the grate. Brush with oil, season with salt and pepper, and cook for about 3 minutes per side.

Zucchini (or any other summer squash): Small squash can be halved lengthwise, large ones should be cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Brush with olive oil and grill 2-3 minutes per side. Use a hot fire so they cook quickly and stay firm, but watch carefully so they don't burn.

All of this is so simple, you really don't need to follow a specific recipe, but I've included a couple anyway. They are all exceptionally good. So get grilling and enjoy.

Marinated Grilled Vegetables

1 medium eggplant 2-3 small zucchini or summer squash 1 each red and green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed 1 medium onion 10-20 mushrooms, stems removed 1/4 cup olive oil 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Wash vegetables. Mix olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and oregano together. Let sit. Slice eggplant into half-inch thick rounds. Cut squash in half lengthwise or into half-inch rounds. Cut peppers into squares or wide strips. Cut onions into wedges. Toss vegetables with oil mixture to coat evenly. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least one hour. Preheat grill. Place everything on the grate and cook 10-20 minutes, brushing remaining oil mixture over the vegetables every few minutes. Remove vegetables from grill as they become done.

Variation: Use 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil instead of oregano.

Notes: Bottled Italian salad dressing also makes a good, easy marinade. It's especially good on zucchini. Vegetables may be threaded onto skewers before grilling, if desired, rather than grilled on the grate. Serve vegetables hot from the grill, at room temperature or as cold leftovers.

Grilled Portobello Mushrooms

4 portobello mushrooms 1/3 cup canola oil 1/4 cup chopped onion 5 cloves garlic, minced 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Clean mushrooms; remove stems and reserve for other use. Place caps on a plate with gills up. In a small bowl, combine the oil, onion, garlic and vinegar. Pour mixture evenly over the mushroom caps and let stand for one hour. Grill over hot coals for about 5 minutes per side, brushing with additional marinade if desired. Serve immediately. Serve as you would a hamburger with all the trimmings, slice and use as a side dish or over lettuce leaves as a salad or serve whole as a vegetarian alternative to steak.

(Kay Blakely is the consumer advocate in Defense Commissary Agency Europe. Blakely's article was provided by DeCA Headquarters, Fort Lee, Va.)

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