6 of our favorite Southern ways to grill fruits and vegetables
Grilling season is in full swing and really there’s nothing better than a perfectly grilled steak or burger at a cookout. But these meaty mains aren’t the only things that belong on the grill; if you’re not heading to the produce section you’re really missing out.
There’s a variety of fruits and vegetables that can grilled to give sides, salads and even dessets a more complex flavor profile. I chatted with Chef Jeffrey Gardner about the science behind grilling produce, and gathered up several recipes to showcase his techniques.
Jeffrey explained that a chemical reaction causes the flavors to deepen when a fruit like pineapple hits the heat on the grill. “Anytime something hits direct heat it starts to caramelize the sugars,” he said. “Pineapples are naturally very acidic, and they have a good amount of sweetness, so when they hit the grill you’re tempering some of the acidity by enhancing the sugars as they deepen and caramelize.”
Think about the differences between table sugar and caramel sauce. Caramel sauce has more intensity than table sugar because it has cooked over heat and caramelized. Most fruits and vegetables react the same way when they hit the heat because almost all of these foods contain natural sugars. Even something bitter like cabbage will sweeten when it cooks over heat.
Peaches and pineapple reign supreme when it comes to grilling fruit in the South, but that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with other fruits and vegetables. Gardner recommends throwing everything from figs to lemons on the grill. Other stone fruits, such as apricots and nectarines, work perfectly well when you cut them in half and grill over high heat, just like you would prepare grilled peaches. Gardner does, however, recommend keeping berries and apples away from the grill.
When grilling vegetables like zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes, make sure to cut the veggies into large slices, so they have a larger surface area on which to cook when they hit the grill.
If you have a grill basket, you have more flexibility with smaller types of produce that would otherwise slip through the grates of the grill. In this case, Gardner recommends using the grill basket for asparagus, green beans and one surprising fruit: grapes. Grapes pick up a great smoky favor when they are grilled or roasted, and once they cool down they make a great addition to a summer salad.
Here are our favorite ways to use grilled fruits and veggies in everything from salsa to salad.
Grilled Pineapple Salsa
If grilling up a fresh pineapple snack wasn’t sweet enough, we’ve transformed it into a sweet and savory salsa that is so good you might just want to eat it straight out of the bowl. The sweetness and acidity of pineapple makes it a perfect partner for grilled meats, poultry and fish. This salsa goes well on tacos, pulled pork sandwiches or on top of your favorite grilled seafood.
Coleslaw is a staple at picnics and cookouts throughout the South, but it is often quite boring. To amp up its flavor, we like to grill the cabbage before making the slaw. Grilling the cabbage imparts a smoky flavor, but still allows it to maintain a crunchy texture. Instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing, we’ve tossed the cabbage in a bright orange and vinegar dressing for a lighter summer-style coleslaw. Make sure to toss the cabbage in the dressing while it’s still warm to allow the cabbage to absorb the vinaigrette. And if you want to create a fancy Southern hot dog, use this coleslaw as a topping.
Grilled Mexican Street Corn
Popular in Mexico City, this grilled corn on the cob gets its richness from a coating of mayonnaise, which is then used to affix salty cotija cheese to the surface. This is a fantastic side dish, but you could also follow the same recipe, cut the kernels from the cob, toss all the ingredients together in a bowl and use the resulting “salad” as a topping for hot dogs or tacos. Cotija cheese is a slightly aged Mexican cheese with a similar flavor to a young Parmesan. If you cannot find cotija, substitute queso fresco or, in a pinch, feta.
Grilled Peaches with Almond Cream
Like we said before, we love grilling peaches. To create a dessert or sweet side dish from the fruit, we’ve paired the charred halves with a light and fluffy almond cream. Peaches and almonds have a great affinity for one another, and the combination of sweet, nutty almond cream and caramelized grilled peaches is no exception. Charring the peaches adds a slight bitterness that brings depth to the dessert.
Grilled Green Beans with Orange and Sesame
We broke out the grilling basket to perfectly grill this side dish, which we’ve made totally our own with orange juice and sesame. Grilling green beans brings out their mellow sweetness in a way that only direct heat can. Leave the beans a little crunchy when blanching, as they will soften more as they cook on the grill. Be sure to pour the orange juice over the beans while they’re still hot so they can absorb the bright citrus flavor.
Grilled Zucchini And Summer Squash Salad
Zucchini and yellow squash are the stars of this warm grilled salad. Grilling the vegetables over high heat imparts a quick char before they begin to turn too soft. Lightly toasting the pecans brings out a more intense nuttiness that shines through against the subtle flavors of the grilled vegetables.