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It's the most wonderful time of the year: summer. Long days, beach trips, patio drinks, pickup soccer in the park. Sure, it's also the time of year when I get eaten alive by mosquitoes, and when the New York subway is at its sweaty, sweltering, smelly apex, but I'll gladly take those wrinkles in exchange for the good stuff—like awesome Greenmarket produce and grilling season.
After cooking commodity supermarket vegetables in a cramped kitchen all winter, there's nothing better than making an early-morning run to the farmers market to pick up way too many green things, some stone fruit, a crusty loaf of bread, and maybe a steak, all of which will get offered up to the grill gods for dinner. Unfortunately, a lot of the great vegetables available at farm stands this time of year don't get treated with the care that they deserve once they hit the grill.
Don't get me wrong. I love the tenderness and flavor of vegetables that get the grilled-then-marinated treatment, like grilled ratatouille, radicchio, or this summer squash with chimichurri. I'm all about that antipasto/pintxo room-temperature-food vibe, especially when it's hot outside already.
But what about green vegetables that you want to eat while they still have some snap to them? I can't stand flaccid grilled asparagus, beige broccoli, and squeaky-but-also-somehow-mushy green beans. And don't get me started on the ubiquitous vegetable-medley skewer. Whoever came up with the notion that cutting different vegetables into awkward chunks and impaling them on a stick would mean that they'd all cook at the same rate over the high heat of a grill was more than a little misguided.
All is not lost, though! You can ditch the summertime sadness and turn out some snappy grilled veggies at your next cookout with the help of your trusted chimney starter, which can be used to grill food at extremely high temperatures without wasting any fuel.
The Problems With Grilling Crisp Green Vegetables
It's a given that charcoal and live-fire grilling involves sacrificing a certain amount of control over your heat source. Of course, you can monitor the coals, arrange them in your kettle grill to create hot and cool sides, open and close air vents, and so on. But you don't have the ability to instantly crank up or lower the heat with the turn of a knob, like you do on your stovetop.
This is part of the primordial appeal of grilling—building and taming a fire is an enduring human challenge. In the context of backyard cookouts, there are tools at our disposal that stack the odds of fire-harnessing success in our favor. We can thank charcoal briquettes and chimney starters for keeping our beloved white-tennis-shoe-wearing, finger-gun-slinging suburban grillmasters from ripping their shirts off and yelling at an anthropomorphized volleyball at every family barbecue. Hopefully.
With the hard part figured out, we can dial in on the finer details of grilling technique and hold those New Balance–clad feet, or just some asparagus spears, to the fire, ensuring that nobody has to endure floppy grilled vegetables ever again.
Many of the problems with preserving green vegetables' characteristic crispness during grilling can be chalked up to poor heat management. Just as with asparagus or snap peas cooked indoors, you want to take a hot-and-fast approach in order to maintain crunch when preparing them on a grill.
Easy in theory, but rarely done in practice. The person working the grill doesn't deserve all the blame; it's also an issue of equipment, and recipes versus reality.
When you're searing or stir-frying vegetables on the stovetop, temperature-conductive cookware is the only thing separating them from the heat source. With grilling, there's a greater distance between the coals and the cooking surface, and the heat emitted by the charcoal is not constant—the second that the lit charcoal is spread out in the grilling chamber, it starts losing heat. This means that unless you've built a Francis Mallmann–level fire, the window for high-heat cooking on a standard home grill is pretty small.
Recipes Versus Reality
This leads into a problem that plagues many grilled-vegetable recipes—in order to function as stand-alone recipes, they must be written in a way that doesn't line up with the reality of at-home grilling.
Call me crazy, but I'd bet that most people don't go to the trouble of building a fire just to grill one bunch of asparagus. I've certainly never done it. In the real world, most of us grill vegetables as a side dish, and this is reflected in their boarding-priority grouping on the grill.
Proteins are first-class passengers, while vegetables usually end up in coach, waiting forever at the gate before getting wedged into the middle seats (or, worse, falling through the grates) of the grill. This setup can work for slow-cooking vegetables, like potatoes or carrots, but it's not what you want for crisp green ones, like broccolini or green beans.
In order to give them the proper high-heat treatment they require, without having to use a whole bag of charcoal in the process, we simply need to flip the script and have them board first, grilling them directly over the intense high heat of a lit chimney starter before the coals are dumped out into the grill.
The Solution: A Chimney Starter
Using a chimney starter is the best and most efficient way to light a fire for grilling without having to use lighter fluid. Its construction is simple—it's essentially a tall metal cylinder with holes punched in it and a grate at the bottom for holding the charcoal.
A chimney starter works with the power of convection. When a lit newspaper is placed at the bottom, igniting the bottommost coals, the hot air rises up, pulling fresh oxygen in through the vent holes and through the bottom. This constant supply of fresh oxygen, coupled with the fact that the metal efficiently reflects heat back toward the coals, means you need nothing more than a single piece of newspaper and a match to turn six quarts of coals into a roaring inferno within 20 minutes.
Usually, once the coals are glowing and covered with gray ash, they're dumped out of the chimney starter into the grill kettle and spread out for increased cooking surface area. But if you're looking for concentrated high heat for grilling, you can also cook right over the lit chimney starter itself.
There are recipes out there for steaks cooked using a modified version of the reverse-sear method, which finishes them with a blast of heat by placing them directly over a chimney starter. With vegetables like asparagus, there's no need for a reverse sear; you can simply grill the spears from raw on a wire rack set over a chimney, and they'll be done in record time.
It's an incredibly simple solution to the problems of grilled vegetables—one that I first came across while leafing through Aaron Franklin's recently released steak cookbook, Franklin Steak. That's some Alanis Morissette–esque "irony" right there.
The Chimney-Grilling Process
Set up and light a full chimney in the standard fashion, using a crumpled-up piece of newspaper or parchment to ignite the coals.
Once the coals are glowing-hot and covered in gray ash, place a small wire rack on top of the chimney, and allow it to preheat for five minutes.
In these photos, I'm using a wire mesh net that comes with Japanese-style konro grills, but a standard cooling rack works just as well. Just flip it upside down so that the feet are facing up, allowing it to sit flush on the chimney. Oil the rack lightly, as you would with a grill grate.
With the grill prepped, all you have to do is toss your vegetables of choice in a little oil, season them, and arrange them on the rack.
Obviously, you have less real estate to work with than on a full grill grate, so you have to work in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the grate. The good news is that the chimney's concentrated heat cooks vegetables super fast, so even though you're working in rounds, they'll still be ready in less time than it would take to cook them using the traditional grilling method.
Flip and turn the vegetables once they begin to blister and char. You can decide how dark to take them, but don't leave them over the coals for too long, or you'll lose the snap that we're after here.
So what kinds of vegetables can you cook using this method? So many! Asparagus, broccolini, broccoli, green beans, carrots, snap peas, radicchio, endive, Brussels sprouts; the list goes on and on.
Of course, you'll need to adjust your cooking time accordingly, and keep in mind that carryover cooking is most definitely in play here. You'll want to pull the vegetables off the heat before they're cooked through, or else you'll end up with more of that dreaded droopy asparagus. Thin asparagus spears, snap peas, and broccolini will take a little over a minute to cook. Thicker stalks of asparagus will take up to a minute longer. Everything happens very fast.
Take care to keep the more fragile and tender parts of the vegetables away from the heat blast of the chimney. Notice how I arranged the broccolini here so that the florets weren't directly over the coals. The same goes for the tips of asparagus spears, and the narrow ends of carrots.
Once the vegetables are cooked, it's up to you how to serve them. They'll be great on their own, but I like to pair grilled vegetables with punchy sauces and condiments.
For the recipes attached to this post, I've included some pairings that I find work really well with each vegetable. Broccolini gets dollops of my XO sauce, blistered snap peas sit in a pool of buttermilk-dill dressing, and asparagus spears go for a dip in Kenji's green goddess dressing. When vegetables are cooked right, there's really no wrong way to dress them up. Now you can spread out your coals, and grill the rest of the food for your cookout!
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