Award-winning barbecue guru Steve Raichlen on summer grilling: “Less meat, more vegetables”

When it comes to the Fourth of July weekend and barbecuing, many of us try to conjure the skills of grillmasters like Steven Raichlen.  The author of the New York Times bestselling “The Barbecue Bible” cookbook series has won five James Beard Awards, been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, and is now out with a new book about barbecuing vegetables over live fire. It’s called, fittingly, “How to Grill Vegetables“.

Raichlen connected with Salon Talks recently to discuss the book and some of the misconceptions about grilling vegetables. He even touched upon the art of grilling fruit like avocados and peaches as part of main dishes, sides and desserts.  Born in Japan and raised in Maryland, grillmaster Raichlen integrates many elements of Eastern cooking into his recipes, celebrating the incredible flavors of vegetables. 

Reached at his home in Chappaquiddick, MA, and surrounded by his grill and smokehouse, Raichlen shared his reasons for writing the book.  “Grilled vegetables taste great, and if you think about it, the range of flavors and textures in the vegetable kingdom is actually much more so than the range of textures and flavors in the meat kingdom,” he said. “The difference between a smoked winter squash and a smoked summery tomato – they’re phenomenally different. Eating a largely planted-based diet is also good for you, and it’s good for the planet.”

Raichlen’s top reason, however, for focusing on vegetables versus meat? “It was a matter of self defense: my daughter is a full-bore vegetarian, my cousin is a vegetarian, and my wife is hangin’ on by a thread”, Raichlen laughed. “I’ll be honest: I am a devout carnivore, but I really adhere to the Southeast Asian model of eating, and that is, a little piece of meat, a lot of plant food and bold-flavored condiments.”

Before writing the book, Raichlen admitted, his own vegetable grilling game was pretty straightforward, but now, he’s come to appreciate the vast vegetable options available to try on the grill. Sharing a holiday weekend tip for grilling asparagus, Raichlen taught viewers to make an “asparagus raft” by laying the vegetable against several other stalks, like a river raft. Lining up four or five in a row and pinning them with a toothpick, Raichlen explained, really brings out the flavor more than the single stalk on the grill. Give it a try this weekend, to broaden your holiday barbecue flavors.

To learn more, read or watch our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

So, I understand you wrote this book to celebrate the incredible flavors of vegetables, which are often maligned. So, and some of the recipes you included even contain a little bit of meat, right? So it’s not about ideology as much as great eating and great tastes. So why should more Americans be grilling their vegetables?

Well, first of all, the grilled vegetables taste great. And if you think about it, the range of flavors and textures in the vegetable kingdom is actually much more so than the range of flavors and textures and the meat kingdom, right? I mean, a steak is a steak is not a steak is not a steak, but in a way, all steaks, have a very close family resemblance. However, the difference between asparagus and zucchini, between grilled corn and portobello mushrooms, between a smoke roasted winter squash and a smoked summery tomato, they’re phenomenally different. The colors are different, tastes, the textures, the flavor, everything is different. Very, very now that’s the first reason.

The second reason is that eating plant foods, a plant-based diet or a largely plant-based diet is good for you. And it’s good for the planet. But my actual real reason for writing this book, aside from those very valid and legitimate reasons was a matter of self-defense. My daughter is a full bore vegetarian, cousin’s are vegetarian. My wife has just hanging by a thread, if I leave the house for 24 hours I’m worried she’ll be a full-time vegetarian when I come back. So it was really self-defense.

Well, that’s right and it’s a lot of estrogen in the house, it seems like. So you got to that… So you’re still the meat eater and, but they’re good with you making all this beautiful stuff for them and you still have your little corner or no?

Yeah, yeah. And I love it. Look, to be honest with you, I am an avast carnivore, but I really adhere to the Southeast Asian model of meat eating. And that is a little piece of meat, a lot of plant foods, a lot of old flavored condiments. That’s my favorite way to eat, frankly, when I cook a steak, there’s leftovers the next day for lunch.

Well and leftovers are great. You raise an interesting point that you began. It sounds like to integrate a plant-based diet more into your own because of the family you love so much. Have you actually seen the health benefits for yourself in making kind of a shift a bit?

Honestly, I’ve been a pretty healthy eater all the way along. And even as far back as a book like Barbecue Bible, the vegetable chapter in that book is an inordinately large because that is how we eat at home. What was fun in this book though, was I would say that prior to this book, my vegetable grilling was pretty straight forward. And in this book I really came to understand the breadth and versatility and depth that vegetables can bring to your grill.

And they are delicious. What would you say your favorites are? 

Oh boy. Well, that’s kind of a little bit like the favorite child question and any given day I can answer it, but probably corn. I mean, grilled corn is just fabulous. We had it for dinner last night. We turned the leftovers into a grilled corn chowder, but I love asparagus… By the way, I have a cool tip for asparagus, which I can actually show you with my hands.

Grilling one asparagus stock, right? If you multiply that times 20, that is a complicated grill setup. And the risk of losing asparagus through the bars of the grate can be daunting. However, if you take your asparagus, you line up four or five in a row and pin them crosswise with a toothpick, you make an asparagus raft. And that raft is super easy to grill, much easier to grill four or five rafts than 20 individual asparagus stalks. So the seasoning, I take a cue from Japan, where I was born, brushed the asparagus reps with Sesame oil, sprinkle with a core sea salt and pepper. Grill over a hot fire. It takes a commonplace vegetable and just transports it to the unbelievable

I’m going to try that. I’m thinking about the physics of it. And it makes so much sense. Do you have to turn them because they’re layered?

Yeah. You turn the rafts. So we’ve got a raft here. This is my fire. So it’s about three to four minutes per side, one side, turn it over three to four minutes on the other side. And by the way, any slender vegetable is great grilled in this raft fashion. Okra, that was one of the real discoveries of this book. Okra is grilled in Japan. It’s generally reviled in the United States except in Louisiana, but grilled okra is awesome. It’s not slimy, it’s crisp, it’s burden. And it looks cool too.

No, I was going to say I… first of all, I love grilled corn so much. There are actually seven grilled corn recipes in the book, and I love grilled okra so much. There are three grilled corn recipes in the book.

In the book you include a lot of vegetables, like in okra, that’s reviled here. I mean, I always thought of it as what you put in the bath when you got chicken pox. Right?

Seriously. I didn’t know that. I try and learn something new every day and I think that’s going to be the fact of the day.

And now there’s another vegetable you talk about in the book that doesn’t seem like one that most people would think of grilling, and those are avocados. And yet you talk about smoking and grilling them and using that to actually transform the taste of guacamole in a… The traditional guacamole, which can be flat. How does that work?

So well, actually, first of all, interestingly and I learned this in writing the book and avocado is not a vegetable. It is botanically, it’s a fruit, it’s a berry with one big seed, but we use it as a vegetable of course. And avocado is a great example of how grilling and smoking can take a commonplace food that we eat so often we know we don’t even think about it. And just all of a sudden make you sit up and say, wow, I’m appreciating this in a new way. So the grilled avocado split in half screaming, hot fire, you go 90 degrees then rotate 90 degrees to get a nice cross hatch of grill marks. And that cup is great for a sauce, I propose something called a [foreign language 00:11:22] , which is a Spanish, grilled vegetables and nuts sauce. You can also do a salsa.

I think I have a salsa for… It’s a pepper do. A pepper raisin and a pine nuts salsa, but it’s a great recipient, it looks fantastic. You can serve it hot. You can serve it at room temperature. It’s great. Now the avocado, that’s a simple, smoking the avocado. And when you make guacamole a with smoked avocado. For me smoke is kind of the umami of barbecue and it just adds much flavor and depth. And it just, we eat oceans of a guacamole every year, but this is what I guarantee you, when you taste it, you will sit up and take notice.

I want to try that, a hundred percent. I think a lot of people are intimidated by a grill, even though in its most basic form. It seems very simple, right? Fire cooks food. What are your top tips for grilling safely for somebody who’s new?

Well, first of all, the whole goal of this and in all of my books, the whole goal is to teach you to control the fire rather than let the fire control you. I think a lot of people just approach it, real thinking this is a wild force that somehow if I throw the food on and I kind of say a prayer and get lucky, it will come out cooked without burning. But in fact, the most useful tip for that when you’re direct grilling, cause we’ll talk about direct and indirect grilling, is to build what I call a three zone fire. So your coals are mounded thicker in the back of the grill for hot searing zone, spread out a little thinner in the middle of the grill for a cooking zone and most important. The front third of the grill is coal free.So that’s your safety zone.

If your food starts to burn, if your fire’s too hot, you simply move it to the safety zone and your beautiful. If you’re working on a gas grill, the same way you approach that is, so grill on one side, set on high grill in the middle set on medium, burner on the other side off, and the way you move, it’s very different than the way we cook indoors. We kind of lower raise and lower the heat with a turn of a knob, right? But outdoors, when we grill it’s by moving the food closer to further away from the fire. So I think those are two very good tips. One more for you. And that’s a common mistake of beginners. Always leave a third of your grill grade food free. So thinking about the guy, cause it’s usually a guy who wants to cover every square inch of his grill with food, problem with that is if you get a flare up, there’s no room to maneuver, but if you leave a third of your grill free, food free, you can always move the food around you. Have you have space to maneuver.

Are you saying that women are better at the physics of grilling? You said it’s a guy who covers the entire thing. They plan better.

I am saying that women are better at everything. Just ask my wife. Actually I think women are better grillers in a way. And we think of grilling as kind of a male dominated activity in the United States, but there are cultures in the world like Vietnam, Thailand, Serbia interestingly, and even Mexico, where a lot of the really important major award-winning grilling is done by women. So strike that misconception off the list.

I think for guys like so much of the live fire thing is tied up in this sense of machismo and everything, and I think women approach it more calmly and methodically.

So you’ve mentioned that fruit can be grilled because the avocado with a pit, obviously it’s a fruit. And you think about sometimes in salads, I think, I feel like we see grilled peaches. Is that a thing?

Yeah, grilled peaches is popular here in the vineyard. There’s a restaurant called Detant that when they’re in season, they do gold bud peaches grilled with taleggio cheese. And it’s just one of those, one plus one plus one equals about 15. That’s sort of my goal in many of the recipes in this book, many are quite simple, but I’m always looking for that sort of extraordinary arithmetic where a few simple ingredients, but the sum is much greater than the. Whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

It is and especially when you think of the variety that you can yield from a grill, right? The variety of different kinds of foods. So you talk in the book about actually making your breakfast on the grill with an egg. How do you recommend doing that?

So, And there is a breakfast, it’s got… I think it’s called a Gaucho breakfast. So what you do first of all, you grill portabella mushrooms and they become the vessel for your egg, then there’s a really cool tool called an egg spoon. And it’s about 18 inches long. And it has a wrought iron bowl at the end into which you place, extra-virgin olive oil and you hold that over a charcoal fire or better yet a campfire. And when it’s good and hot, you crack an egg into it and you fry the egg. Now you’re literally frying the egg because this in this bowl-shaped recipient. It’s unlike a skillet, which is flat and the egg flattens out the egg is surrounded by oil spoil. So it comes out really crisp that goes in your grilled portabella mushrooms. We add chimichurri on top. And then there is grilled crumbled, Serrano ham, which is optional. If you’re a vegetarian, omit it. And it’s eggs, it’s bacon, or ham, your vegetable, bright sauce. And I guarantee you that will wake you up.

This is going to be an unpopular opinion probably, but I’ve never been a fan of mushrooms. And I really try to like them. And I thin you talk in your book about a particular way that you can make a mushroom, which has a really sort of other worldly tastes, tastes like something else. It is used a lot in, in vegan and vegetarian recipes as a meat substitute. Right?

Absolutely. It’s funny, you should say that because I kind of in a way have that same problem with mushrooms, but I think there’s a very simple way to do it. So I make something, I call umami butter. And if you’re a vegan, I guess you would do with the extra Virgin olive oil, but I take a sheet of Nori seaweed, toasted over the fire until it’s crisp, crumble it into the butter, and then maybe this garlic, or maybe the shallot or scallion and the butter and I based the mushroom and grill it over a high heat. Ideally you’re working over wood-fire or wood enhanced fire. So you get some smoke flavor in and you crisp up the edges, which gives the mushroom more interesting texture. And I think if you were to try that, you might get over your reticence about mushrooms.

I think it’s beautiful to hear how you have you integrated the Japanese culture and the food of your upbringing with a sort of Americanized take on grilling fruit, vegetables, and meat. As a kid, what is your recollection of if there was any, the balance of different cultures on the table?

So as a kid growing up, first of all, interestingly, coming back to our conversation about gender and grilling, my mother was the family grill mistress. She was very impetuous. She was a ballet dancer. So her idea of grilling, it was very meat, [trend 00:19:58] centric. She built a raging fire, often lit with and enhanced with gasoline, which is something I do not recommend. And then she’d take a really thick T-bone steak and put it over the fire. And it would come out the color of coal on the outside and the inside, the heart would still be beating, still beating. We call that Pittsburgh rare. And when you had a steak that good, that robust, that primal, you didn’t need anything else. When I was growing up, I mean, there were barely vegetables period and certainly no grilled vegetables, at least in our household.

Did they bring any of the culture from Japan? Because it sounds like you… I’ve been listening to you and you use a lot of the Japanese elements and you mentioned it earlier.

I’ve been to Japan many times. I battled the “Iron Chef” in Tokyo on Japanese television. And one, if I may say. So I would say that all of my Japanese influence has really come in my adult life from trips to Japan. But that is a superb, I love the grilling of Japan, by the way talk about a culture that reveres grilled vegetables. I think the Japanese probably have a greater breadth of grilled vegetables than any other culture. However, it’s a pretty mono dimensional way. They cook them. They don’t go in for a lot of rubs or sauces or condiments, but just the sheer variety of vegetables that are grilled in Japan. It’s astonishing.

Now I have to ask you going into a July 4th weekend, right? Big grilling weekend. You talk about the tool you need to make the egg over the grill. Do people need a lot of fancy gadgets and tools to do this well?

You really don’t. Really all you need a set of long handled spring loaded grill tongues. You need either a grill brush for… More politically correct these days they wouldn’t grill scraper to clean your grill. It helps to have a set of leather or suede gloves for handling hot materials. That’s pretty much it. You don’t need an instant meat thermometer because you don’t cook vegetables to temperature the way you do meat, a slender metal skewer is helpful because that’s how you test the doneness of a large vegetable like let’s say a acorn squash or a potato. If you can pierce it easily with a secure it’s ready for the rest of vegetables, thin vegetables like asparagus or corn, or zucchini, you’re using a visual cue. If it’s a gorgeously, dark brown it’s cooked.

Can you make me like squash?

I can. And are we talking about winter squash or summer squash?

Any squash in the family? I have tried pumpkin, yellow squash. I can’t stand zucchini unless you kill it with tomato sauce. It’s just, I don’t know that it’s maybe like most, squashes my okra. So tell me what we could do with squash that would make it more tasty. Its so bland.

Okay. Yes it is bland. Okay. So let’s start with zucchini, which problematic and also extremely abundant, especially in August. So, zucchini, two great ways to approach it. One is what I call a zucchini burnt end, where you slice the zucchini paper thin on a tool called a mandolin, and then you weave it on a skewer and you season it with, I think it’s melted butter or maybe a little garlic, maybe a little barbecue rub. But the key is you grill it over a screaming hot fire, and you char the edges because the zucchini is so thin the edges crisp rather than becoming soggy or mushy. Okay so, that is a fantastic way to do to zucchini. Now, another way, because this is a vegetable forward book, but not a strictly vegetarian book. Something I call a zucchini [foreign language 00:24:36] like the Italian roast here. It’s a zucchini split and have stuff with pepperoni and cheese wrapped in bacon, indirect grill in a super hot fire so that you crisp the bacon and the cheese melts and pepperoni goes a long way toward making anything tastes good.

Got to bring you along with two winter squash recipes. Okay. Yep. First one, acorn squash roasted on assault slab, indirect grill till they’re tender, turned over, filled with a parmesan custard. Re cooked a little woodsmoke, so you get your protein, you get your flawn, you get your vegetable. That’s really nice. And the other one butternut squash, which is easy, I suppose it’s easy to hate if you’re not a squash lover that in my book has done [foreign language 00:25:31] style with that Japanese barbecue sauce. That’s a little sweet with hoisin sauce and a little aromatic with star anise, a little salty with soy sauce. And that is a fantastic way to cook a butternut squash.

Where can people find the book is, is available everywhere. It’s “How to Grill Vegetables” by grillmaster Steven Raichlen, who has been good enough to join us today. Can people find you in person somewhere?

Well, easiest way right now is we’re coming out of COVID is by my website, which is or on television my project fire TV show airs on public television. And we’re actually just coming up on episode 12 this weekend. And finally in person in person, I just got back from it on Sunday. But once a year, I do a barbecue university to crash course on all things barbecuing and grilling at an exceedingly luxurious hotel. That’s the only way I can get my wife to come. And that takes place at the Montage Palmetto Bluff resort in Bluffton, South Carolina. We do that every year and you can find out about that on as well.

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