Sometimes a meal just tastes better when it is eaten outdoors. From a simple sandwich to a four-course feast, al fresco dining can be the hit of the season!
Grilled food has gone way beyond veggie burgers and hot dogs. It now seems to encompass every type of cuisine, using seasonal ingredients. It’s up to you to decide what type and size grill you consider a good investment. A hibachi on the fire escape and a built-in ceramic and stainless model can yield the same results with proper technique. It’s not the toys; it’s the technique. Whatever grill you decide to buy, be sure it can contain the flames and the heat of the fire.
Accessories are pretty important, too. Your grill doesn’t have to have a lid or a cover, but you do have to have some way to close the grill. A metal colander can be used to cover grilling food, creating a steaming effect. Don’t use a plastic colander! Invest in a metal colander with handles for grilling purposes.
If you plan on doing different types of cooking on your grill, you’ll need a cast iron pot for stews and a hinged wired basket for grilling veggie burgers, extra-firm tofu, or slices of vegetables, seitan, or tempeh. You’ll want a sharp knife to cut into the grilling veggies to determine their doneness. Long-handled tongs are easier to use for turning food than spatulas and can serve as serving utensils. Metal or heat-resistant wood skewers are useful for making veggie or tempeh kabobs that are easily turned on a grill. Heavy-duty foil is the type to use for lining grills or for wrapping food to be placed on the grill. Long-handled brushes are useful for cleaning the grill afterwards.
There are some tricks of the trade. To prevent food from sticking to the grill, you can either keep the grill racks oiled with vegetable spray (before heating — never spray into the fire), or you can wipe the grill racks with oil before you start cooking. This will not add an appreciable amount of oil to your cooking. If you are going to put some pots on the grill, take advantage of the heat. A hint for preserving pot bottoms is to coat the bottom with liquid soap. Just be sure there won’t be any food directly under the pot.
If you have a large enough grill, you might have several racks in it at different heights. This way, you can take advantage of all the time and effort that went into building the fire. You can wrap white or sweet potatoes or corn in foil and place them underneath the coals. You can grill heartier foods, such as eggplant, onions, carrots, or winter squash on the rack closest to the fire and more delicate items, such as extra-firm tofu, seitan, tempeh, mushrooms, or asparagus on the rack farther away from the flames. You might put together a vegetable stew with chunked tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, potatoes, and onions in a cast iron Dutch oven (deep pot) with a cover and place it on a rack farther away from the flames to cook slowly. If you have fresh apples, pears, peaches, or even sliced fresh pineapple, wrap them in foil with some spices and vegan margarine and place it next to the stew pot.
You have several choices when it comes to grilling vegetables or vegan meat alternatives. You can use frozen, unthawed vegetables or sliced, washed fresh vegetables. You can cut up vegetables or cook whole, small vegetables, such as tomatoes, baby carrots, or petite sweet onions. If you think your ingredients are too delicate to place directly on the grill rack, put them in foil packets and let them grill-steam on the grill rack. Heartier ingredients, such as carrots, potatoes, and tempeh, can be placed directly on the grill or under hot coals for 10-15 minutes. Or you can oil a grill rack above the coals and use thick slices of mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes. To cover your grilling items, use an upside-down metal colander, sealing in some of the juices by creating a steaming effect.
Grilling does take a lot of moisture out of foods, so some people like to marinate ingredients before grilling. Marinating also adds flavor to grilled items. For an elegant touch, use a wine and tarragon mixture for potatoes, tofu, seitan, or tempeh. White wine, oil, garlic, onion, and celery salt make a good marinade, as do beer, oil, garlic, and cloves. Soy yogurt, garlic, pepper, curry, and cardamom can give an Indian or Indonesian flavor to grilled foods and add color to grilled items. If you prefer not to use wine, then vinegar, soy sauce, oil, sweetener, and ginger can give an Asian flavor to grilling.
Vegetarian ingredients do not need to marinate for long periods of time. Look at the texture of the ingredient to decide on marinating time. Mushrooms, summer squash, sweet onions, and extra-firm tofu may only need 30-40 minutes to marinate. Tougher ingredients, such as seitan, tempeh, sliced carrots, potatoes, or winter squash, can marinate for 1-2 hours.
We have grilled asparagus, beets, carrots, corn, summer squash, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, pears, apples, peaches, apricots, extra-firm tofu, seitan, and tempeh with great results. Beets take on an inky glaze and their sweetness is magnified with the grilling. Grilled potatoes are crisp on the outside and sweet and moist on the inside. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan take on a smoky flavor. Imagine pairing tempeh marinated in white wine and tarragon with grilled beets and roasted white potatoes. Or how about Portobello mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinegar and basil with a roasted skewer of tomatoes, summer squash, and sweet potatoes?
Non-Grilled Outdoor Dishes
Portable foods like salads that don’t require any heat and can usually be made a day or two ahead of time are a good planning-ahead option. Every nation has its specialty salads. The French have the Salade Niçoise, an artfully arranged platter of cold haricots vert (slender green beans), wedged new potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, cold poached tuna, and earthy, flavorful nicoise olives. You can create a vegan version with crumbled extra-firm tofu instead of eggs and sliced smoked tofu for the tuna.
Leftover bread and summer salads are a good match. Choose the Italian method and create a cold bread salad: large croutons of bread are tossed and marinated with chopped tomatoes, onions, oregano, basil, black pepper, chopped olives, and oil and vinegar. Add your favorite cooked or canned beans, and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, and you have a meal or a hearty side dish.
Salads with Mexican or Southwestern flair can be served in soft or hard tortilla shells. Traditional green salads can be flavor-accented with fresh cilantro and chopped fresh, canned or pickled chilies (you choose the heat); tomatoes; onions; chilled black, white and red beans; fresh corn (cut it right from the cob into the salad); and avocado. Use salsas (in addition to tomato, think mango, pineapple, squash, tomatillo, and grilled vegetable salsas) in place of creamy salad dressings or as an ingredient in vinaigrette dressing.
Looking for more flavor accents? Use raita (plain soy yogurt or vegan sour cream with chopped cucumber, tomato, and onion) and chutneys for an Indian flavor in your basic salad dressings. Or, you can go Southeast Asian and add red or green chili paste and soy sauce to create a new salad dressing. Caponata (marinated eggplant salad, available canned) and tapenades (chopped olive pastes) add a Mediterranean flair to tossed salad greens and dressings. Prepared pesto (a combination of basil or spinach with pine nuts and olive oil) can be used chilled as a salad dressing or added to a creamy salad dressing. Onions, beets, and vegan sour cream put in the dressing, and for the big spenders, vegetarian caviars add a Russian accent to mixed greens. Try grating fresh beets or shredding canned beets into a baby green salad for sweetness and color. Turn your Thousand Island dressing into a mock Russian dressing with a dab of vegan caviar.
Asian and tropical ingredients can be used as a garnish or as a salad ingredient for more crunch, flavor, and interest. Toss in fresh, frozen, or canned water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, sprouts (bean, radish, broccoli, sunflower), mango, papaya, citrus (think kumquat, blood orange, and Asian grapefruit in addition to mandarin orange), and pineapple.
You can assemble salads so that they are ready to eat once you’ve set up camp by creating layers in portable containers that can either be tossed on site or served as is. Or, pack ingredients separately and let everyone assemble salads buffet-style. Provide lots of serving utensils.
More outdoor salads
If you are grilling, you may enjoy salads containing hot and cold ingredients. Generally the “bed” is cold (think tossed greens, chilled couscous, or cold pasta) and the topping is hot. Pack tossed baby greens and add a sizzling hot meat analog at the moment you are ready to eat. Some suggestions could be to serve a chilled mixed cabbage salad with freshly-grilled, sliced tofu hot dogs. The same goes for a vegan Caesar salad topped with grilled smoked tofu; a spinach orange salad with grilled tempeh; a cold rice noodle salad topped with fiery, chili-laced, grilled Tofurky chunks; or a pasta salad topped with a skewer of grilled mushrooms and tomatoes.
Crunch and drama can come from the condiments served with a salad. Make a selection of croutons, which can be seasoned with nutritional yeast, black or white pepper, chili powder, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Green, black, and stuffed varieties of olives can be chopped to top salads, as well as other pickled vegetables. (Think pickled onions, carrots, peppers, chilies, cauliflower, and celery, which are often available as a canned mix.) Chopped walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and pistachios can be used in a salad or as a topping, as can sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds. Cold beans and tofu add flavor, color, and extra protein. All of these ingredients are easy to pack and serve in an outdoor setting.
More outdoor dish suggestions
You might also consider cooking and chilling a variety of noodles or pasta and creating a pasta bar rather than a salad bar for your outdoor dining. Sandwiches are easy to pack and easy to enjoy outdoors. You can prepare sandwiches ahead of time, or do a “sandwich spread,” allowing everyone to create their own.
If you are grilling, the main ingredients can be barbecued items. If you are avoiding the flames, pack bread (pita, lavosh, and cracker bread make great edible containers for your sandwich), along with lots of sliced veggies and smoked tofu, nut butters, vegan cheeses, and vegan “egg” salad (a combination of diced extra-firm tofu, vegan mayonnaise, mustard, paprika, and chopped celery, onions, relish, olives, etc). If you have time, also bring baked, sautéed, steamed, or grilled and chilled sliced eggplant, summer squash, and mushrooms.
Everyone looks forward to dessert! If the grill is still hot, grill sturdy fruit, such as apple or pineapple slices. Create “dessert sandwiches” using the grilled fruit as “bread” and nut butters or fruit jam for the filling. Serve adults grilled fruit with a sprinkle of maple syrup or fruit liqueurs.
Fresh fruit salads can be pre-made and packed on ice until ready to serve. Pack frozen berries; they make a great snack while waiting for the main course. As they thaw, they can be “smooshed” with a spoon (pack in a container large enough to allow you to crush the fruit) and used as a sauce for the fruit salad or as a “dipping” sauce for cake squares or cookies.
Melons come in their own container. Cut smaller melons, such as Crenshaw, musk, or honeydew. Scoop out the fruit, and then repack the fruit or a fruit salad into one half. Close with the second half, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and you have a portable dessert. Use the empty half as a “container” for grapes, berries, or even pickles and olives!
Outdoor food safety
You’ll want to bring enough ice or cold-maintaining containers for your perishable items — food can start “growing” food-borne illness microorganisms if left in the food temperature danger zone (from 41 degrees to 135 degrees) for more than two hours.
This includes opened plant milks (soy, rice, almond, etc.), vegan cheese, sour cream or cream cheese, vegan mayonnaise-based salad dressings, and denser protein ingredients (tofu, seitan, tempeh, vegan meats, cooked beans) to name a few. Be certain to pack enough utensils so that each dish has its own fork, spoon or tongs and enough reusable containers or other waterproof material to cover food that will be left open, such as items to be grilled, salad items, cookies, etc.
Pack condiments in small containers, so they will be used up, rather than having the temptation to bring them home and combine them back into the larger containers in your refrigerator. Pack “clean up” materials for hands and dishes and trash bags for dishes that won’t be washed or cleaned on site.
Finally, frozen berries can serve the dual purpose of being a cool snack or dessert, and also as “ice” to keep other foods cold. You may want to freeze individual containers of water or juice to use in the same way.
Roasted corn is sweet and smoky. Depending on the type and intensity of your fire, you can place the corn under hot coals or on a rack. The cooking time will depend on your fire and how big the corn is.
- 4 corn ears in husk
- 4 teaspoons vegan margarine, softened
- 2 Tablespoons parsley
- 1 clove garlic, cut in quarters
Preheat grill to high. Remove silk from the corn by turning down, but not detaching, husks and pulling out silk.
Brush corn with margarine, sprinkle on parsley, and place one piece of garlic on each corn. Tie husk back around corn with cotton string or twisty-ties. Place on grill and turn once in about 10 minutes.
|Total calories per serving: 113||Fat: 5 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 17 grams||Protein: 3 grams|
|Sodium: 55 milligrams||Fiber: 3 grams|
Souped-Up Cole Slaw or Macaroni Salad
A great way to minimize leftovers is the “ready made” counter at the market! Purchase the salads or prepare extra yourself, add some additional ingredients, and you have a salad-and-entrée all in one! Serve with sliced fresh fruit, cold sliced beets, or a three bean salad.
- 4 cups prepared vegan cole slaw or macaroni salad
- 1 cup diced extra-firm tofu, smoked tofu, walnuts, or pine nuts
- 1 cup cooked, cooled, drained garbanzo beans, white or red kidney beans, lentils, or edamame
- 1 cup washed red or green grapes
- ½ cup raisins or dried cranberries
- 2 Tablespoons vegan mayonnaise or sour cream
- 1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
- ½ cup crumbled tortilla chips
Add all ingredients to a large bowl (except for the optional ingredients) and mix well to combine. If you desire a moister salad, add the optional vegan mayonnaise or sour cream. For a crunchy topping, sprinkle with sesame seeds and/or crumbled tortilla chips.
Calculated using cole slaw
|Total calories per serving: 181||Fat: 6 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 25 grams||Protein: 8 grams|
|Sodium: 93 milligrams||Fiber: 4 grams|
Raitas are yogurt-based condiments that help to “cool” spicy dishes. Raita can also be used as a dip, sandwich spread, or salad dressing.
- 3 cups peeled, seeded chopped cucumbers
- 1 ½ cups unflavored (plain) soy, almond, or coconut milk yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leafed parsley
- 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh mint
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl (try stainless steel, ceramic, or glass). Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour prior to serving. Raita should last for approximately four days in the refrigerator.
|Total calories per serving: 53||Fat: 1 gram|
|Carbohydrates: 9 grams||Protein: 2 grams|
|Sodium: 193 milligrams||Fiber: <1 gram|
Tofu and Potato Kebabs
These may be prepared, baked, and served cold, or be prepared and then grilled outdoors. In addition to extra-firm tofu, you can use thick chunks of portobello mushrooms, whole button mushrooms, smoked tofu, or seitan.
- 4 pounds small red- or white-skinned potatoes
- 2 pounds extra-firm tofu (about 4 cups) or 2 pounds stemmed and washed whole button mushrooms
- 1 cup your choice of sauce (teriyaki, barbecue, salsa, etc.)
- 2 red and 2 green bell peppers (1 pound total)
- Eight 6-inch skewers (can be wood or metal)
Steam or microwave potatoes until cooked, about 6 minutes for steaming (microwave times vary). Allow to cool.
If using tofu or seitan, cut into thick chunks, about 1×1-inch. Toss with sauce, cover, and allow to marinate for at least 1 hour (can be done overnight).
De-seed peppers and cut peppers into chunks, as possible, so they will fit on skewers. Skewer alternating pieces of tofu, potatoes, and peppers.
If preparing at home, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place skewers on nonstick sheet pan and bake for about 5 minutes, turning once. Allow to cool and pack for your outdoor dining.
If preparing outdoors, preheat grill. Place skewers on hot grill and allow to cook for about 4-5 minutes on each side, or until desired texture is achieved.
Notes: If you are in a real hurry, canned small potatoes may be used in place of red or white fresh potatoes. If you have some ambition, you may thread steamed (or frozen, thawed) green beans on the skewers as well.
Calculated using low-sodium teriyaki sauce
|Total calories per serving: 310||Fat: 7 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 47 grams||Protein: 16 grams|
|Sodium: 664 milligrams||Fiber: 5 grams|
Vietnamese “Beef” Salad
You can pre-make this entrée to serve cold, or prepare the salad and sauce ahead of time and grill the tofu or seitan outdoors.
- 2 pounds smoked tofu or seitan, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups) if preparing in your kitchen, thickly sliced if preparing on the grill
- 2 cups thinly sliced sweet onions (Vidalia or Maui)
- Vegetable oil spray
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 2 tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
- 1 cup rice vinegar
- ⅓ cup cold water
- 1 Tablespoon organic sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
To prepare sauce, simply combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl and stir well until combined.
Preparing at home:
Place half the onions and all the sauce in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Spray sauté pan with oil and allow to heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute. Add tofu or seitan and sauté for one minute. Add soy sauce and remaining onions and stir-fry until onions are soft. Line serving platter or individual plates with cilantro. Place tomato wedges on top of cilantro and pour sauce over tomatoes. Just before serving, place hot tofu or seitan on top of vegetables.
Thickly slice tofu or seitan (approximately 1 inch thick). Set aside. Place all the onions, all the sauce, garlic and soy sauce in a nonreactive bowl. Add tofu or seitan to sauce, gently tossing to coat. Cover and refrigerate until ready to grill.
Heat grill. Place tofu or seitan on a hot grill, reserving the remaining sauce. While tofu or seitan is grilling, line serving platter with cilantro. Place tomato wedges on top of cilantro. Pour remaining sauce over tomatoes. Place grilled tofu or seitan on top and serve hot.
Variations: This will work well as:
- “barbecued” tofu/seitan salad, using barbecue sauce rather than the recipe’s sauce
- mustardy tofu/seitan salad, using 1 cup of vegan mayonnaise combined with ½ cup of prepared mustard (and a teaspoon of prepared horseradish, if desired) rather than the recipe’s sauce
- Mediterranean tofu/seitan salad, using Italian salad dressing rather than the recipe’s sauce.
|Total calories per serving: 230||Fat: 10 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 12 grams||Protein: 23 grams|
|Sodium: 688 milligrams||Fiber: 1 gram|
Lime and Chili “Steaks”
For a “hearty” entrée, use extra-firm tofu, seitan, or portobellos to create a “sink your teeth into” grill entrée.
- 4 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons minced fresh cilantro or flat-leafed parsley
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes, or minced, deseeded fresh chili of your choice
- Four 2-inch thick slices of drained, extra-firm tofu or seitan, or four 4-inch destemmed portobello mushroom caps
Combine all ingredients except the tofu (or seitan or mushrooms) in a large bowl. Gently place the tofu (or seitan or mushrooms) into the mixture, turning to ensure both sides are coated. Cover and allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes (mushrooms can marinate overnight, but tofu and seitan may get too mushy).
Heat grill. Grill until hot, about 3 minutes, or charred, depending on your preference. Serve hot.
Notes: If you would like to save some time, you can bake the tofu, seitan, or mushrooms for about 5 minutes in a 375-degree oven, cool, and then either serve cold or place on a grill to heat and get some “smoky” flavoring.
|Total calories per serving: 216||Fat: 15 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 6 grams||Protein: 20 grams|
|Sodium: 17 milligrams||Fiber: 1 gram|
Pineapple is a natural for the grill. The texture will stand up, and the moisture and sweetness are amplified with grilling.
- 2 Tablespoons rice syrup, agave nectar, or maple syrup
- 1 Tablespoon lemon or lime juice
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 whole pineapple (about 2 pounds before trimming), trimmed, peeled and sliced into ½-inch slices
In a large mixing bowl, toss the pineapple with your choice of vegan sweetener, lime juice, and ginger. Heat the grill. Place the pineapple slices on the grill in a single layer. Grill for 2-3 minutes on each side, slightly longer if you’d like some nice grill marks, but don’t cook it for too long because pineapple can dry out. Serve as a sweet side dish or as a tropical dessert.
Notes: Grilled pineapple can be chopped into smaller pieces and used as the base for a savory teriyaki entrée, with rice, green beans or peas, and tempeh or tofu, tossed with teriyaki sauce. Grilled pineapple also complements sorbet or pound cake for dessert.
|Total calories per serving: 48||Fat: <1 gram|
|Carbohydrates: 12 grams||Protein: <1 gram|
|Sodium: 9 milligrams||Fiber: 1 gram|
Written by Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD
Dr. Nancy Berkoff, RD, CCE, AAC is a chef and dietitian. She is The VRG’s Foodservice Advisor and author of Vegan in Volume and Vegan Meals for One or Two.