Grilling vegetables is fraught with peril. Little pieces disappear through the grates. The big guys cook too quickly on the outside while their insides remain cold.
Want to solve all this and make insanely good charred-yet-tender veg without any hassle and look like a hero of the grill every time?
Of course you do.
The trick to achieving greatness: Get rid of the grate and cook right on the coals.
Start with some quality lump charcoal. Make a fire and let the flames settle down. When a light dusting of mellow gray ash appears, carefully nestle your vegetables directly onto the red-hot coals.
Now watch nervously. Things are gonna sizzle and blacken and burn. Resist the urge to scoop your poor eggplants out to safety. Leave them to their fiery fate. Don't worry: Good things are happening, much of it beneath the surface. The idea is to char the skin while the interiors quietly cook in their own juices.
"It's a fine line between delicately cooked and total incineration," says Seamus Mullen. The chef-owner of NYC's Spanish favorites El Comado and Tertulia—where he has a serious hand-cranked Grillworks indoor wood-fired grill—appreciates what he calls the "primordial" pleasures of on-the-coals cooking.
Skip the grates; throw these guys straight on the coals.
"I like to use a cake-tester to check for doneness as I char my vegetables and make sure to rotate them on the coals as I go," Mullen says. "When done well, the end result is something wholly different from what you expect from the grill. The burning exterior of the vegetables lightly smokes and perfumes the vegetable, giving it the flavor of the grill, while the interiors have the tender moisture of steam cooking."
Obviously this isn't going to work with all members of the plant kingdom; peas will burn away; tomatoes will pop.
Try it with things that can stand the heat, like eggplant, especially diminutive Japanese eggplant or the smaller, white-ish rosa bianca varieties at the farmers' market now. Or whole onions, skin on. When they come off the coals, peel away the charred outer leaves. This works especially well with spring onions, too. And corn: The carbonized husks protect the kernels within.
Whatever you use, brush away the burnt bits, though a little ash lends a bit of bitter interest to whatever you're making. And take heart: Cooking with ash is in vogue now. All the New Nordic folks are doing it—and so are you.
Take the now tender meat of the eggplant, dress it in some olive oil and micro-planed garlic and smear it across grilled toast. Pull the smoky-sweet corn from the cob and put it in a salad. Serve dark, slow-burnt onions with a pork chop or steak.
And get comfortable getting one step closer to the fire.