Perfectly cooked grilled veggies for summer entertaining

Summer in California usually means lots of out-of-town guests expecting a true California culinary experience. It is my pleasure to plan menus integrating our spectacular local produce especially since many of my visitors are declared vegetarians. Outdoor grilling remains the most popular means of entertaining here, and at one time those without carnivorous tendencies or with dietary kashrut restrictions had to suffer the cole slaw, potato salad route without a substantial grilled main. Today one can make a delicious, aromatic meal on the grill without a hot dog or burger in sight.

Like meat, fish and chicken, vegetables take on a completely different character when cooked over charcoal or any type of grill. The natural sugars in some vegetables such as onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers, caramelize when grilled, imparting a depth and richness that no amount of sautéing could ever accomplish. Other vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms acquire the same woodsy smokiness as a good grilled piece of meat.

Almost any vegetable can be cooked on the grill with a few general guidelines.

• Because they have no fat, vegetables must be brushed with oil or marinated in an oil-based marinade before grilling.

• Never use butter in place of the oil — it will burn.

• The grill chef must turn the vegetables and regulate the heat carefully.

• Most vegetables do best when set directly on an oiled grill.

The following recipes showcase the best of California summer produce and may be used as accompaniments in a traditional barbecue, or stand on their own for a complete vegetarian meal.

Bruschetta with Grilled Eggplant | Serves 8

8 small Asian eggplants
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbs. chopped fresh mint leaves
salt and pepper
16 slices baguette

Trim ends of eggplant and cut lengthwise into 3/8 inch slices. Brush each slice on both sides with some of the olive oil, using about 1/4 cup. Grill on both sides until zucchini is golden brown. Remove to platter and while still hot sprinkle with garlic, mint and vinegar. Let cool and taste for salt and pepper.

For the bruschetta: Brush remaining olive oil on both sides of baguette slices. Cook bread on both sides over medium-hot grill until golden.

To serve: Top each bruschetta with a few eggplant slices or pass bruschetta with platter of eggplant.

Pasta with Grilled Zucchini, Sweet Peppers and Leeks | Serves 6-8

1 lb. zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 yellow pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
4 Tbs. olive oil
4 Tbs. white wine
3 tsp. fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried
1 lb. freshly cooked pasta of choice

Cut 2 large squares of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place half the vegetables in the center of each square. Drizzle 2 tsp. oil, 2 Tbs. wine and half the oregano over each portion. Toss lightly with hands. Bring the four corners of each piece of foil together and crimp to make tightly sealed packages. Place packages, seam side up, on hot grill. Cook 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Place pasta in serving bowl and open vegetable packages over pasta. Toss well and taste for salt and pepper. Serve hot or room temperature.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].