Now that we're at the height of summer it's only logical to take a break from the oven and have a brief summer fling with that sleeker, sexier, more exotic cooking vessel: the outdoor grill. It's a particularly good tool for vegetables, which, at their best, come off sweet and charred, intensely flavorful and smoky. I like roasted zucchini, but I like grilled zucchini even better.
Zucchini and squash can be watery and bland. When done right, the grill fixes these problems: the flesh softens and gets infused with smoky flavor, the exterior becomes burnished, and moisture is evaporated, intensifying flavor. Though I often grill up platters of zucchini without really thinking too hard about it—slice zucchini, brush it with oil, season it and grill it—this summer I wanted to break down the process a bit and see if I couldn't find a tastier version.
I headed out to the store and picked up an armful of summer squash: green, yellow, and light green. To start, I cut them in different ways to see if a particular shape would take better to grilling: lengthwise planks, disks, and lengthwise quarters (chunks were discounted, as they would fall through my grill grate). Some, I salted and let sit for an hour, to see if draining some moisture would result in a tastier product; others I marinated in a simple vinaigrette; still others I didn't oil before grilling, to see if the oil is truly necessary; and the rest I just oiled, salted and grilled as usual.
So what were my results? The marinated squash was immediately discounted, having absorbed no discernible flavor from the vinaigrette—better to make a flavorful vinaigrette to add at the end of cooking. The no-oil zucchini was terrible: without the heat-conducting properties of fat, the squash didn't really blister or sweeten properly, instead coming out dry, shriveled, and unevenly cooked.
Interestingly, although the salted, drained zucchini had released less than a tablespoon of liquid, it did have a slightly better texture and sweeter flavor, though not enough to make a difference if you're running short on time when preparing dinner.
As for the shapes? The key is in the thickness: 1/2-inch disks or planks were best, giving me good charring on the exterior while maintaining a moist center. Other than that, shape is entirely a matter of preference, as they taste almost exactly the same. The zucchini planks, with so much surface area exposed to the hot grill, get really dark and caramelized, fast. The lengthwise quarters, with three surfaces that each have to get turned onto the grate, they were a bit fiddly on the grill. The slight favorite in this respect was the old standby of zucchini disks, cut on a bias, which only have to get flipped once and brown nicely, getting soft though maintaining their integrity.
So what's the bottom line here? Ditch the marinated zucchini (save the marinade for after cooking), always oil your squash before grilling, consider salting and draining it if you've got the time, and as to shape, as long as they're thick enough, go with whatever suits you aesthetically.
Once I had found my version of perfect grilled zucchini, I set about thinking of three bright, fresh flavor combinations to top it with: high in acidity and heavy on the herbs, these recipe variations will perk up summertime appetites that sometimes lag in the heat.