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The Magic of Grilling The right grilling techniques and finesse can bring out the best in produce

A big fan of grilled produce, chef David Guas seasons okra with garam masala and lime before grilling and finishes cooked artichokes (above) with a few minutes on the grill, serving them with grilled lemon and Parmesan shavings.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

A big fan of grilled produce, chef David Guas seasons okra with garam masala and lime before grilling (left) and finishes cooked artichokes with a few minutes on the grill, serving them with grilled lemon and Parmesan shavings.

Grilling’s transformative effect on produce is magical—gorgeous fruits and vegetables take on nuanced flavor, appealing grill marks and enhanced aroma when flame-kissed over a grill. Two factors make grilled produce a menu trend worth implementing. First, the flavor of fire captures the imagination of today’s diner. Loved for its primal quality, grilling relays premium cues of simple, honest and better-for-you fare. Second, produce, now asserting itself as a star player on menus, needs extra attention in order to meet higher expectations. Grilling really does chemically change flavor and texture in extraordinary ways. Grilling allows fruits and vegetables to show off center-of-the-plate potential, dessert finesse and sides worthy of a return visit. Here’s a snapshot of how talented chefs from around the country are harnessing the power of the grill and applying it to produce.

Unlocking Umami
Intensified flavor is the key reason chefs like to grill produce. Everybody has favorite items: Young fava beans in the pod, asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, corn, stone fruits—even avocados, grapes and unripe strawberries. Many point to lemons and tomatoes as transformational wonders on the grill. Their radical morph from tart/sweet to savory/mellow when grilled is due to their high amount of glutamic acid—the substance that reacts with taste sensors to create savory, umami flavor. Raw, the glutamic acid is trapped inside the cells of the fruit. But add the high heat of the grill and you unlock the umami.

At Seven Lions in Chicago, executive chef Chris Curren’s medley of charred leeks with figs, compressed apples and mustard vinaigrette was first offered as an accompaniment to a wild boar entrée. The sweet/savory side was so popular, Curren added it to the menu a la carte and it quickly became one of the top-selling side dishes. “The interplay of the charred leeks with the spicy freshness of the cider-compressed apple, sharpness of the vinaigrette and sweetness of the fig is just so incredibly flavorful,” says Curren.

“It really is amazing what grilling does to a lemon,” says chef David Guas, host of Travel Channel’s “American Grilled” and author of Grill Nation (Oxmoor House, 2015). “They become so much more juicy and flavorful.” Guas likes to slice lemons in half to expose as much of the fruit to the grill as possible, smoking and charring until tender. “You’re not grilling until you dry them out, but you are going past just having mahogany grill marks,” Guas explains. He uses the lemons to make charred lemon vinaigrette and even lemonade. “Lemonade made with charred lemons has the most wonderful smoky element. It makes a delicious cocktail.”

San Francisco Bay Area chef Cindy Pawlcyn, of Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is equally enthusiastic about grilling citrus fruits. Lemons are the heart and soul of one of the perennial favorite dishes at Mustards: Lemon and Garlic Chicken. Lemon zest and herbs season the grilled chicken, whole lemons are poached with garlic to make the sauce, and halved grilled lemons are squeezed over the finished dish as it is presented to the guest. “That’s one dish guests will never let me take off the menu. It’s always in the top one or two spot,” says Pawlcyn. “With the grilled lemons, you just have to be sure to grill them long enough to get good caramelization and maximum juiciness and flavor.”

Her grilled citrus panzanella is another menu star. Pawlcyn combines toasted bread with tomatoes, chiles, scallion and a mix of grilled lemon, sweet lime and orange. “You can do it two ways: Halve the citrus, grill it, scoop out the flesh and slice it into pieces to toss with the other ingredients—or slice each citrus fruit thinly, grill, and then toss the thin grilled slices in the salad,” she says.

Chef Kevin Willmann, owner of Farmhaus in St. Louis, Mo., conveys a similar passion for charred tomatoes. “Romas—we burn them off on the grill, peel them, add a bunch of wine and braise them down to make the charred tomato sauce we serve with our meatloaf,” he says.

Great Grilled Greens
At Bodega Negra in New York City, grilled produce complements Latin-influenced dishes like this lobster taco.

While grilling coaxes the savory out of fruits, it also sweetens and tames the bitterness in greens. Lactones and glucosinolates—bitter-tasting compounds in cruciferous vegetables and vegetables like kale and radicchio—break down quickly over high heat.

“I’m not a fan of lettuce on the grill,” says Willmann. “But big, huge, leafy greens like tatsoi, kale and collard greens? That’s another story.” He gives the greens a gentle brush of oil, chars them quickly over high heat and roughly chops them.

Aaron Woo, chef/owner of Natural Selection, a vegetarian restaurant in Portland, Ore., agrees. “Quick-charring takes the bitter edge off of leafy greens like cress, chicory, escarole—it releases a little sweetness and adds a nice dimension to the plate.”

Bodega Negra, the Tao Group’s Latin eatery in New York City, has had great success with its grilled kale taco with onion, squash and mushroom. “We narrowed it down to kale as the heart of this taco pretty quickly,” says Michael Armstrong, executive chef. “It’s the meaty nature of that green—very fibrous and strong—that works well with grilling, takes on a nice charred flavor, but keeps the textural crunch.”

Willmann loves grilling asparagus—white or regular—using “super hot fire and just a little olive oil and salt to maintain that just-barely-cooked result—those charred ends and perfect crispy texture in the middle.” He serves it in a salad with mustard and tatsoi greens, whipped egg, cave-aged Tomme and a bit of ham or prosciutto.

The Ballet of Grilling
Other factors that play into the grilled-produce flavor equation include temperature and water content. When grilling, high heat is preferable for charring and applying nice grill marks. To achieve that over wood: Woods come up to temperature best if they are really dry. So the less the water content and the drier the wood, the better for grilling produce. Conversely, most vegetables and fruits have a high water content. That’s not a bad thing as the water content ensures a juicy, aromatic result when produce is grilled. But achieving the right textural result—nicely grill-marked and charred exterior, with just enough tenderness and crunch on the inside—can be a challenge.

“That’s the dance—the ballet of grilling,” says Guas. “I’m constantly moving vegetables from direct to indirect heat, sometimes brushing them with some kind of fat, which adds moisture but also invites that little flame kiss. It’s a constant balancing act.”

Adding to the challenge, high-sugar-content items such as fruits and roots brown or char much more quickly than lower-sugar items. “You have to be really careful to move things around to different heat zones,” says Mark Amborn, sous chef at Japanese robata grill concept Roka Akor, with units in Chicago and Scottsdale, Ariz. Asparagus, broccolini, sweet potatoes, sweet corn and shishito peppers are all regularly on his three-level grill. But Amborn also has a warm spot for stone fruits, which he thinks work especially well grilled and served in salads. His cured duck salad features mizuna with fresh-grilled red plums in a salted ume (plum) vinaigrette.

At Bodega Negra, Armstrong creates a Mexican-style strawberry shortcake dessert, tossing whole trimmed strawberries in sugar and lime juice, then charring them in a grill pan. “Grilling the strawberries brings out the fresh sweetness, and the char adds a nice savory note,” says Armstrong, who serves the strawberries on halved, housemade conchas (sweet Mexican buns) with whipped cream and mint.

Matthew Jost, research and development chef for the four-unit, Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Weber Grill Restaurants, also grills strawberries—as well as peaches and bananas. To prepare the strawberries, Weber uses a very large grill basket over direct high heat for a short period of time. The grilled berries are cooled in a lemon-cinnamon-ginger-Chambord syrup. “And then per order, we warm the strawberries on the grill in a small skillet to serve over ice cream or grilled pound cake,” Jost says.

While the chain uses both gas and charcoal grills, Jost says gas grills make the flavor of the fruit less bitter.

Jost also notes that different varieties of the same fruit yield different textures. Weber Grill’s grilled apple pie is made with Gala and Granny Smith apples. “Those hold their shape and texture better when grilled than other apples we’ve experimented with,” he says. Jost also says he gets better results with slightly under-ripe fruit on the grill. “Very ripe fruit just sticks to the grill grates and falls apart.”

Grilling produce can be time consuming. To get optimal results more quickly, some chefs say they may slightly sous vide or even quickly blanch produce before grilling in order to ensure the results will be both fork tender and char-marked, without too much time on the grill.

“It just depends on which item you’re grilling,” says Greg Denton, chef/co-owner with his wife Gabrielle, of Ox, an Argentinian wood-fired grill restaurant in Portland, Ore. “Some things work well grilled raw, like asparagus, but other kinds of produce—globe artichokes, for example—are too fibrous and dense, and it would be hard to get them cooked through without burning. With those, we like to blanch them first.”

Brined, Poached & Ember-Roasted
Poaching in savory liquid or brining are other creative methods chefs use when grilling fruits.

At the Trenchermen in Chicago, chef Patrick Sheerin has found that brining lettuces and chicories helps add flavor and keeps the leaves from turning into ash. “We salt-brine both before grilling and charring so you get this great juxtaposition of a cooked green with the more tender, raw hearts,” says Sheerin. He says brining also works well with more bitter/spicy root vegetables such as radishes, daikon and turnips. Also in Chicago, chef Michael Taus of Taus Authentic brines pears before grilling them as an accompaniment for pork entrées. And at Ox, Denton poaches them in wine with sage, rosemary, thyme, pepper and salt before grilling.

When destined to become a purée, soup, sauce or salsa, where flavor is primary and the look or shape of the finished grilled produce doesn’t matter as much, chefs may grill or char produce to a greater extreme. “I love to char whole eggplant on the grill,” says Langham Hotel chef Tim Graham at Travelle, the hotel’s seasonal American restaurant in Chicago. “Eggplant already leans toward that smoky flavor, and grilling it just brings that out more. I like to use the flesh in baba ghanouj, lasagna and soup, and I’ve started making a charred eggplant bread to go with our beef tartare,” says Graham.

Sauces, compotes and such are also a good way to incorporate smoky essence into grilled fruits that don’t hold shape well. “I’ve ruined a lot of apples and tomatoes trying to grill them,” says Graham. “But those apples made an awesome grilled apple butter.” Chef Woo feels the same way about grilled plums. “They’re not so good for presentation. But I like to make them into compotes and jams served with salads as an appetizer.”

Much also depends on the type of grill that chefs have at their disposal. For those lucky enough to have wood-burning grills, options increase. At La Brasa, a wood-burning-grill-focused concept in Somerville, Mass., chefs Frank McClelland and Daniel Bojorquez do a lot of tatemar-style (ember) grilling.  For this, vegetables are tossed whole right into the hot embers, often left to fire-roast overnight. Peeling off the charred exterior reveals a tender, succulent interior that has retained maximum smoky, charred flavor. “Turnips, potatoes, celery root, beets, carrots, even sunchokes work very well,” says Bojorquez.

At Roka Akor, Amborn grills eggplants for eggplant salad right on the coals, as well as whole onions. “Anything that’s especially high in water content works really well on the embers,” says Amborn. Vegetables get much the same treatment back at Ox. “Baseball-sized beets, Walla Walla and Willamette sweet onions—we bury them in the coals and slow roast them overnight,” says Denton. One favorite recipe he is featuring in the restaurant’s forthcoming cookbook combines ember-roasted onions and beets with blue cheese, walnuts, chives and a drizzle of saba or balsamic glaze.

“There is something about grilling over coals or embers that just makes vegetables so succulent,” says Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens in San Francisco. “Plum tomatoes, Early Girl tomatoes, whole poblano chiles and onions—we grill all of these over coals. Grilling adds intrigue. It’s just much nicer than serving produce roasted or raw.”

About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.