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Tuesday, July 23

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Airbags

I'm blessed to have a small backyard within the city limits of Chicago. It's not large enough to fit all my friends in, and it isn't the prettiest, but it is mine and we have a grill. I generally look forward to Memorial Day weekend every year as the inaugural outdoor party weekend. But this year we decided to begin the facelift process of our backyard. All of the sidewalks were broken up and piled up along our fence line, awaiting removal and then framing and then repouring of the new concrete.

Which means that one of my favorite weekends of the year has been spent hauling brick, digging up unwanted foliage and pouring dirt into new areas. I like having dirty hands. I like knowing where the basil will be planted, where the rosemary bush will spend its summer, where the chives will be. But I like eating these herbs in dishes I've cooked on the grill more than I like planting them.

So instead of spending my weekend whipping up great barbecue dishes, I've been spending it thinking about all the people who I'll be able to invite over for dinner soon. And I've been thinking about all of the dishes that I'll make for them. As I went through this list of people and possible dishes, I tried to keep in mind all the vegetarians and vegans that I could have eating in my yard this summer.

I admit to having purchased frozen vegetable burgers in the past so I've got something on hand for them to eat while everyone else crows over the smoked brisket. My goal this year is to have enough dishes to feed even my vegan friends so they leave not only full of friendship, but also of tasty food. I figure if people have been cooking over open pits of fire for thousands of years, I should be able to make something that will fit this need.

I wrote two years ago about cooking veggies, beans, etc. in little aluminum foil pouches on the grill. It's a great and easy way to make veggie- and vegan-friendly dishes. However, because the food is locked up in an airtight pouch the dishes don't char, they steam. So if you want to feed your friends delicious foods full of grill flavor, you need to get out of the steam and into the char.

And what better way to do that than by sticking your items on little sticks of bamboo and placing it directly on your grill? (Hopefully you've been kind enough to actually clean off the meat drippings for your veggie friends and you've got an extra pair of veggie-only tongs for them.) But there are a few things to know that will make your kebab experience easier on you and tastier for your friends.

Keep items together based on how long it takes them to cook.
This makes sense, right? You don't want crunchy carrots while you lose mushrooms to the fire. The harder a vegetable, the longer it will take for it to cook; the softer a vegetable, the less time it will take for it to cook. Place chunks of sweet potato on a skewer with chunks of jicama. Place mushrooms and cherry tomatoes on the same skewer. Place zucchini on a skewer with chunks of bell pepper. You don't have to jam food on so the whole skewer is full. If you keep your vegetables sorted by cooking speed, and you leave space between the veggies, they'll cook faster and will encourage people to grab a few so they get a variety.

Just because vegetables taste good on their own, there isn't any reason you shouldn't marinate them in flavorings to make them taste even better.
Not to mention, the chopping of the veggies, the creating of the marinades, and the soaking of the vegetables are all things that can be done the day or morning before you plan to cook them. This way all you have to do before your guests arrive or while the grill is warming up is place the vegetables on skewers and have them ready to grill.

Meat and vegetables aren't the only things you can grill.
Marinated seitan grills well, especially if there is something sweet in the marinade so it creates a bit of a glaze over direct heat. Tofu can be pressed to remove the excess water, cut into 1½" cubes, marinated, and grilled. (I even read that freezing tofu overnight and letting it thaw will improve the texture and make it firmer for grilling.) And chunks of cheese can be grilled as well. Small buffalo mozzerella balls will work great on the grill for a short time. If you pare them with cherry tomatoes and leaves of basil, you can get a warmed caprese-style salad in just a few minutes. Thick chunks of firm cheese, like Halloumi, also would work really well.

Don't cut your vegetables too small.
It might be tempting to make delicate, bite-sized vegetables so your guests don't have to use a knife or figure out how to cut the vegetables smaller once they're cooked. But it is better to go larger instead of smaller. This way fewer of your vegetables will fall through the grill. And if your vegetable is very watery (think tomatoes or squash) use their skin to help them stay on the skewer. Cherry tomatoes work better than chunks of a cubed tomato. Whole button mushrooms work better than chunks of larger mushrooms. Cutting a smaller squash in half and piercing the skin twice is better than cutting rounds of squash. Think chunks instead of slices when preparing your vegetables.

Don't be afraid to grill fruit.
Seriously! Apricot halves, pineapple chunks, mango chunks, plums, banana, melons (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, etc.) are just as good cooked on a stick as they are eaten raw. Maybe even better since you can also marinate the fruit or brush it while it cooks to glaze it and then serve it with a bowl of ice cream if you like.

And, yes, you can grill meat kebabs at the same time you grill veggie kebabs. As long as you use different tongs and keep them from touching each other, there's no reason why the meatsa meatsa crowd can't get their food cooked at the same time as the vegetarians. The rules and recipes here will work for meat as well as veggies, and the same type of rules apply. Keep one type of meat per skewer, keep your meat chunks the same size and shape so they cook the same, and marinate them for a few hours before cooking to get the most flavor.

If you're really strapped for time, you can purchase a pre-made marinade. But chances are you've got enough flavorful ingredients in your refrigerator and spice cabinet to create a decent marinade. Here are a few ideas that will work well for any veggie or meat skewer. You can serve any extra marinade for brushing over the veggies as they grill, and they can all be used as dipping sauces for your kebabs. However, if you've marinated meat, you'll have to bring it to a boil before using the marinade as a dipping sauce.

Basic No-Cook Barbecue Sauce
1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon of canola or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of molasses
2 tablespoons of honey
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dry mustard
1 teaspoon of paprika
1 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon chili powder

Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 2 cups of marinade.

Basic Lemon Marinade
Juice from 1 lemon
1/3 cup of olive oil
zest from 1/2 lemon that has been finely chopped
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, oregano or tarragon
salt and pepper to taste

If you're using tofu with this marinade, double the lemon juice, herbs and pepper. Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1/2 cup of marinade.

Mexican-Inspired Marinade
juice from 4 limes
3 cloves of minced garlic
1 tablespoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro

Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1/2 cup of marinade.

Balsamic Vinegar Marinade
1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of chopped fresh basil
2 cloves of minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon of salt
several grinds of fresh black pepper
3 tablespoons of olive oil

It would be great to soak some small, fresh mozzarella balls in this for a few hours before grilling with cherry tomatoes. Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1/2 cup of marinade.

Thai Chili Marinade
4 cloves of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon of thai chili paste
1 teaspoon of minced ginger or ginger paste
3 tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro
juice from 1 lime

Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1/2 cup of marinade.

Citrus Marinade
Juice from 1 orange
Juice from 1 lemon or 1 lime
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of chopped chives
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1/2 cup of marinade.

Spicy Chipotle Marinade
1 small can of chipotle chiles in adobo, minced
2 teaspoons of dried cumin
1 tablespoon of olive or canola oil
juice from 2 limes
juice from 1 orange
2 cloves of minced garlic
1/4 cup of chopped, fresh cilantro
salt to taste

This is great for mushrooms, seitan, tofu, sweet potatoes, or other vegetables that you can imagine eating in tortillas. Mix all of the ingredients together and pour over your kebab ingredients. Let your veggies or meat sit in the marinade for at least 3 hours before grilling.
Makes about 1 cup of marinade.

For fruit skewers, you probably don't want to actually marinate the fruit before grilling. Making the fruit juicier will likely cause it to fall off the skewers. However, you can brush them while grilling to create a glaze. I'd at least brush a little canola oil on them to keep them from sticking to the grill and I'd sprinkle them with a little salt. The salt will actually make the fruit taste sweeter, but sprinkle sparingly. Or you could brush some honey on the fruit and roll it in dried coconut before grilling to add some more interest. For pineapple, I'd suggest melting 1/4 cup of butter and mixing in 1/4 cup of rum and brushing on the pineapples spears while they grill.

If you're nervous about cooking for vegetarians, or if you're nervous about getting things wrong when cooking, kebabs really are about the easiest thing you can make. If your marinade is a little too tart, no big deal, because it will likely mellow out when placed on the grill. Likewise if you added a little too much salt. If your marinade just tasted blander than you hoped, then the grill flavor will just shine through your food.

If you've got a marinade that is foolproof, a mix of kebab ingredients that make you happy, or a request to have something written about here, please leave it in the comments.

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Comments

Danielle / May 27, 2008 10:13 AM

I love this article...I just actually made vegan shrimp on my bbq this past weekend. Your marinade recipes are great and I'm def going to try the spicey chipotle for the next time I grill tofu! Thanks!
http://chesrow.blogspot.com/

shylo bisnett / June 2, 2008 11:31 AM

For the fruit, you could also try brushing on simple syrup infused with mint or fresh, crushed peppercorn. Just for a minute or so.

anne / June 3, 2008 10:48 AM

Think this would work over an open fire? I'm going camping, and was thinking some veggies to offset the encased meat bonanza might be nice. I know I might end up holding my long metal skewers for a while though, so I don't know if I want to attempt it.

Cinnamon / June 4, 2008 12:57 PM

I think it would take a long time to get the meat to cook. If you don't have a grill grate, how about leaving some room at each end of the skewer and setting each end on large rocks so the skewer is above the flame but you dont' have to hold it?

 

About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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