By Benjamin Goodin
Nothing quite says summer like the tantalizing, savory sizzle of the barbecue. The perfect combination of a warm evening spent outdoors, cool drinks, companionship, and a burger fresh off the grill evokes a warm satisfaction that belongs solely to the season of the longest days. Of course, most everyone has at least one fond memory of a lazy summer day gathered around the picnic table with family and flame-grilled food; however, for many, the family cookout is changing. As tempting as the savory smell of burgers and dogs fresh from the fire is, many are looking to change their diet in a way that cuts out traditional red and processed meats.
Forgoing your classic cookout favorites doesn’t, however, mean skipping the festivities all together. You could always opt for a cheat day on the diet, but contemporary dietary wisdom encourages smarter eating habits, which can mean creating some crafty substitutions and introducing all-new ideas to the patio and picnic palate.
If you still want the flavor of the classics without the calories or other unhealthy additives, there are plenty of options.
There are, of course, the popularly mocked options of tofurkey hotdogs, veggie burgers, and even grilled tofu itself. Admittedly, it will take some adjustment to get used to the decidedly non-meaty texture of meat substitutes, but the flavor can come incredibly close with some creative problem solving. Most meat substitutes don’t pack powerful, or even meaty, flavors all on their own, but they will readily soak up flavors of spices and cooking mediums that you use. Tofu is especially great at sponging up flavors, and it grills up surprisingly like a slab of meat; all you need are the right spices. For that savory char that you desire, start with seasonings that impart smoky flavors: smoked varieties of paprika and salty make noteworthy starters for a rub, along with liquid smoke, Worcestershire, and kicky adobo and chipotle peppers. Never underestimate the power of a good marinade the night before to bless your seitan, tempeh, and veggies with gorgeous grill-worthy flavors. A dash of flavored olive oil or garlic-infused butter can help you get the right seared texture and up the flavor profile. Don’t forget your fuel either — with standard charcoal grills you always have the option of adding a tray of wood chips for those lovely mesquite notes.
If you’re bothered that meat substitutes come close, but just not close enough to a fresh cut of meat, let the instrument dictate your method, not your choices — its not just meat that benefits from a crispy char and flame-broiled goodness. You may need to detach from the idea that a hot grill demands a generous cut of steak, and start thinking outside the cast-iron box. Veggies on the grill will never be meat on the grill, but that’s exactly the point!
Here are some options to help wean you off the meat addiction with some beefy texture. Lentil burgers may sound a bit odd at first, but they definitely satisfy the desire to have something hearty to chew on; you can still have your savory flavors by sneaking onions and garlic (an even peppers) into the mix, but you won’t mistake a lentil burger for a hamburger — they’re something entirely different and delightful in their own way. Cauliflower steaks might sound like a joke for unapologetic carnivores, but even a devoted meat eater will have a hard time denying the hearty bite and texture of an easily seasoned cut of a cauliflower head. Even thick cuts of garden-grown zucchini grill up surprisingly well and have a satisfyingly fresh flavor and great, chewy texture. Portabella mushroom caps and eggplant slices make fantastically tender and hearty steaks and are even better with grilled veggie fixings, like some smoked or caramelized onions.
If you’re not sold yet on the idea that you can grill without meat, consider some of your old favorites, sans the animal. Kebabs and skewers have always been a cookout favorite, offering a variety of sweet, savory, and fresh flavors all in one skewer. Grab your favorite brush-on marinade and forget the meat for a great side dish or even a satisfying main course. If you’ve ever been camping, you’ve probably cooked up a foil pack at some point: a foil packet containing sliced potatoes, onions, and sometimes carrots and other veggies steamed to piping perfection. Don’t limit your creativity to old camp standbys; shake it up with slices of summer squash, juicy-sweet peppers, and even some asparagus to spice up an old favorite. If you’re not sold on the veggie main course yet, then you’ve never tried elote. A Mexican favorite, elote is fresh ears of corn, braised right on the rack, and they come basted in a special chili yogurt-mayo and sprinkled in salty Cotija cheese, making for a beautiful blend of smoky and sweet grill flavors. The original could use a bit of adaptation to make it healthier, but it’s a fine example of why veggies can be the king of the grill.
One last idea to start your grilling fire: fruit. Love a good vegetable skewer? Try a kebab of banana (or plantain), pineapple, apricots, papaya, or mango for a caramelized, indulgent treat sure to change your mind about grilling. Add a brush-on sauce with spicy cumin, cayenne, or jalapeño for tangy, addictive kick. Want an easy side dish or desert? Toss pineapple rings, halved peaches, or even watermelon slices on the grill and heat until they’re seared and slightly reduced; you may never go back to boring barbecue chicken and burgers again.
Back to Top