To me, just about everything tastes better grilled—and that includes salads. (My mantra isn’t “If you can eat it, you can grill it!” for nothing.) Have you ever noticed that a grilled steak gets twice the raves of a non-grilled one? Well, I’ve watched this happen over and over, and it got me thinking: If grilling does wonders for steak, shouldn’t it do the same for salad?
It all started when I was looking for ways to jazz up ordinary grilled vegetables, something beyond flavored butters or vinaigrettes. I wanted explosive flavors, attention-grabbing textures, and zippy colors. In short, I was trying to create vegetable dishes that I would truly hunger for and not consume simply because I know I should eat more vegetables. As I mulled over the options, I decided that salads possess all the qualities I was looking for: contrasting textures, complimentary flavors, and, in the best cases, an element of surprise. By adding the intense flavors of grilled vegetables to the mix, I knew I couldn’t go wrong.
The joy of caramelization. Even hot-house vegetables taste sweet and flavorful when grilled because the cooking process concentrates their natural sugars, which the high heat then browns or “caramelizes.” Next time you have a cookout, try this little experiment: Boil a few asparagus spears in salted water until bright green. Next, brush a few of the spears lightly with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and cook on a hot grill until browned on all sides. Now call over a friend and taste each one. I’ve done this experiment lots of times with my friends, and 99.9% of the time, the grilled entry wins.
The elements of an unforgettable grilled salad
It takes variety to keep my palate interested. Toss grilled vegetables with fresh greens and you’re off to a great start, but it’s even more exciting to include other elements as well. I like to add:
Something savory. A bit of cheese or meat or both can do wonders for a salad’s flavor, while also making it more substantial. I added prosciutto and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano to the Charred Onion Salad. And the Grilled Mushroom Salad has Comté cheese, a French Gruyère with a complex, nutty flavor.
Something crunchy. Salads are more satisfying when they contain crunchy nuts or grilled bread. To see what I mean, try the Grilled Mushroom Salad (it’s got hazelnuts).
Something starchy. Adding a starch such as rice, bulgur, couscous, pasta— even bread—turns a grilled salad into a more substantial dish. Give me a plate of the Chopped Vegetable & Couscous Salad or the Charred Onion Salad, which contains grilled Italian bread, and, frankly, I don’t need anything else.
A standout dressing. As much as I love adding savory, crunchy, and starchy elements to grilled salads, the truth is, sometimes all a salad needs is a killer dressing. Case in point: the Grilled Romaine Hearts with Blue Cheese Dressing & Bacon. The juxtaposition of warm, smoky, wilted romaine (don’t be wary of grilled lettuce—you’ll love it) with creamy blue cheese and salty bacon makes this the one salad I crave so much that it almost seems like a guilty pleasure.
Tips for grilling vegetables
- Always coat the vegetables with a thin layer of olive oil to help them cook evenly.
- Sprinkle with kosher salt or sea salt (and freshly ground pepper, if you like). The salt is essential: It helps draw out the natural sugars and promote caramelization. I prefer Morton kosher salt for grilled food because it has large grains that don’t melt quickly.
- When grilling vegetables, the grill fire, whether charcoal or gas, should be medium to medium hot. If the grill is too hot, the vegetables will burn on the outside and be undercooked inside. Be sure the cooking grate is clean and hot.
- Arrange the vegetables in the opposite direction of the cooking grate to keep them from falling into the fire.
- Turn the vegetables with tongs. Slide the tongs gently under the center of the food in the thickest part when turning.
- In general, turn the vegetables only once halfway through the cooking time.
- Remove vegetables like zucchini and asparagus when they’re crisp-tender; they’ll continue to cook after they come off the grill. Bell peppers and eggplant, however, should be grilled until soft all the way through.
- Taste the grilled vegetables while they’re still warm, and if they need more salt, add it before the vegetables cool down.
- Experiment with all kinds of vegetables. Even Brussels sprouts taste better from the grill.