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It might sound strange, but you can toss a great salad right from the grill. We got the idea from a friend who spends a lot of time in Italy. During a balmy evening spent in her backyard (yes, it can get balmy in Minnesota), she recreated a simple salad she often ate in Tuscany. She lavished some fruity olive oil on split heads of Belgian endive, sprinkled them with coarse salt, and grilled them on one side until slightly charred. Though our friend served the grilled vegetables with just a squeeze of lemon and a few shavings of Parmesan cheese, the salad was more deliciously complex and flavorful than any salad of raw vegetables— bittersweet and slightly smoky, with a pleasing contrast between the caramelized edges of the charred side and the crisp raw leaves of the other.
We decided to try this simple, rustic technique on some of our favorite salad combinations. We loved the results we got from grilling asparagus and portabella mushrooms, and a grilled version of salade niçoise came out great.
Salad fixings should be charred outside, tender inside
The goal when making a grilled salad is salad fixings that are lightly charred outside and thoroughly cooked inside. You won’t need to grill every ingredient, of course; certain vegetables respond well to the grill, and others are disasters. Delicate greens and herbs wilt and get slimy when you grill them, so save them to use as a crunchy bed for your grilled ingredients. Hardy greens such as bok choy and cabbage grill up well over medium-high heat. Grilled radicchio is delicious, too, but heat will dull its purply-red color. Sweet, delicate tomatoes will blacken quickly as they become soft. Green beans, asparagus, and sugar snaps char unevenly (but that’s what you’re after) and are delicious crisp-tender. Endive and radicchio char and turn tender in spots, staying crunchy in others.
Root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, and beets) all need quartering, as well as much more time and lower heat to get crusty on the outside and thoroughly cooked and tender within.
Tips for grilling successful salads
A lot depends on how hot your grill is and the size of the vegetables, but here’s a short primer on time windows for grilling salad fixings.
Short-grilling salad ingredients include asparagus, beans, bell pepper slices, bok choy, leeks, sugar snap peas, summer squash, tomatoes, and zucchini. Time window: 5 to 8 minutes over medium-hot coals.
Medium-grilling salad ingredients include cabbage wedges, eggplant slices, endive, large mushrooms, and onion slices. Time window: 13 to 20 minutes over medium-hot coals.
Long-grilling salad ingredients include beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips. Time window: 25 to 35 minutes over medium-low coals.
A light coating of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt bring out the flavor
All grilled salad ingredients need basic preparation, and you should prep the grill, too, by brushing it with a little oil to prevent sticking.
Toss vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle them with coarse salt. The oil coats the vegetables, adding flavor and protection from drying out. Salt adds flavor by itself and helps intensify flavors by pulling moisture out of the vegetables and bringing it to the surface. We like to use coarse salt. Finer salt is harder to control, so you risk oversalting the vegetables.
Shift, roll, and keep a close watch
Because vegetables and grill heat both vary, no two vegetables will cook alike. You’ll have to dance them around the grill, keeping a close watch, rolling and turning them to keep them from burning. Pour a glass of wine and start a conversation, but don’t get too distracted—the “doneness” of each vegetable is key to the success of the salad. As you’ll see from the recipes, cooking times will vary depending on the heat of the grill and the size of the vegetables. When you can easily insert a fork into them, they’re done.