Chow Town

Let vegetables be a star as grilling season begins

Vegan Kansas City BBQ Beet Sandwich
Vegan Kansas City BBQ Beet Sandwich

With Memorial Day weekend upon us, grilling season has officially begun. Hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, steaks and more will be filling tables and plates throughout America for the foreseeable, sun-soaked future months.

The winning combination of flesh, fat, meat and the heat of a grill is an appetizing custom as old as civilization and rightfully so. But the grill is merely a piping hot conduit of flavor that holds an endless array of flavorful possibilities, including vegetables.

Vegetables have as many versatile and tasty grilled variations as meat, if not more. I’m not just talking about the small specks of onion and pepper adorning a kabob, which lets be honest, are really more placeholders helping keep meat in proper position.

Vegetables of all types have as storied a history of romance when kissed by the flame as any meat, and for good reason, they are downright delicious.

The first step to maximizing the potential of grilling vegetables is deciding what part of the meal they will be starring in. Unlike many meats, they can occupy every course of the summer grill out, from appetizers to side dishes and salads, or even the main course, the vegetable is the ultimate multitasker.

This allows you to to let the market dictate your menu as well. Using the best seasonal produce you can find will always lead to a better quality vegetable and thereby a tastier grilled meal.

When using the best local, seasonal vegetables, the best way to figure out their role on the grill is to think about the characteristics of each vegetable. Grilling July corn is a different proposition than eggplant or beets because it is made up differently.

Some vegetables are starchy, like potatoes, while others are very soft fleshed and made up largely of water, like tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms. These are the factors that will dictate how you should cook the vegetables on the grill.

Heartier options like onions and peppers can take the force of a high, direct heat on the fire, resulting in that pleasingly dark, blistered char that is the hallmark of grilled foods.

For more delicate vegetables, you want to go with a tamer, indirect heat that will take in the smoky grilled goodness without burning the more tender flesh. You can even grill those gorgeous summer lettuces and greens to make salads that blend the unique textural contrasts of char grilled flavor and the giving consistency of cool greens.

Grilling vegetables gives you a number of options, be it serving a course that satisfies the vegans and vegetarians at your barbecue, or mixing meat and vegetables to enhance and complement each other in new ways.

Asparagus on the grill is a wonderful thing, for certain. But wrap that asparagus in bacon, and finish it with a squeeze of freshly grilled lemon … and you have a smoke infused nirvana.

As spring gives way to summer, and the prizes of the season make their way to the market, let vegetables take a starring role as you light up the charcoal and ring in the grilling season.

Vegan Kansas City BBQ Beet Sandwich

This sandwich is a vegan ode to the meaty tradition of Kansas City BBQ. The beets are first roasted whole on the grill, or in the oven, then sliced and slow smoked or grilled with a barbecue rub as you would pork or beef. You can baste the beets as they slowly cook, or simply move to the direct high heat portion of the grill for a minute or two to finish. This creates an extra layer of caramelization that gives the unique depth of flavor found in BBQ and grilled foods.

Makes 4 sandwiches

4 medium sized Golden Beets, roasted and peeled, cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds

1 yellow onion, sliced into 1/8 inch thick rings

4 small baguettes or French bread loaves

2 cups of baby kale and chard, or other young greens

1 cucumber, sliced into 1/8 thick rounds, quick pickled with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons of barbecue spice rub, or salt, pepper and paprika

2 tablespoons of cilantro, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons grapeseed or extra virgin olive oil

Smoked pepper aioli or your favorite barbecue sauce

Preheat your grill with a two level heating area, one high and one low. While grill is heating, sprinkle sliced cucumber with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar, allow them sit and extract moisture.

Drizzle two tablespoons olive oil on the beet rounds, followed by a sprinkling of your favorite barbecue rub or a mix of salt, pepper, garlic and smoked paprika. Drizzle onion rounds with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When grill is ready, put beets on the low heat and allow to grill and caramelize, about 10-15 minutes, then flip and grill another 5-10 minutes. As beets finish, put onions on hot section of grill and grill until charred and tender, but not burned, about 4-5 minutes. Cut open baguettes and grill for one or two minutes to toast over high heat.

To assemble sandwiches, lay out the open grilled bread, and put a small bit of greens on the bottom bun along with some of the grilled onion. Place beet rounds on top, followed by the quick pickled cucumber and cilantro, then more greens. Drizzle the smoked pepper aioli or barbecue sauce on top bun and place on top of sandwich.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.