When it comes to cooking vegetables, even experienced grill masters have plenty to learn.

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For more than two decades, Steven Raichlen has been America's top grilling guru, and his fifteen cookbooks are chock-full of meaty preparations for smoking, grilling, spit-roasting, and barbecuing everything from steaks and chicken to lobster and lamb. He's even devoted entire volumes to specific meats: Best Ribs Ever, Beer Can Chicken, The Brisket Chronicles. 

BBQ University Veggies on the Grill
Credit: Ben Hon

For his latest book, though, Raichlen took a decidedly non-carnivorous turn. It's called How to Grill Vegetables: A New Bible for Barbecuing Vegetables over Live Fire, and it offers recipes like smoked spice-crusted chickpeas and a veggie paella with grilled artichokes, beans, and corn.

How to Grill Vegetables: A New Bible for Barbecuing Vegetables over Live Fire

I caught up with Raichlen a few weeks ago at Barbecue University, the live-fire cooking school he leads over a long weekend each summer. For more than a decade that program was held at the Broadmoor, a resort hotel high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. The South recently lured Raichlen away, though, and Barbecue University has now taken up residence at the pristine Montage Palmetto Bluff on the May River just outside of Bluffton, South Carolina.

Steven Raichlen's Barbecue University 2021 Held at Palmetto Bluff
Credit: Ben Hon

When my fellow attendees and I arrived Friday morning at the broad, grassy lawn outside of Cole's Restaurant, we found an array of cooking devices—kettle grills, pellet smokers, gleaming gas grills, wood-fired Kudus and gaucho-style grills—arranged in a wide circle on the grass. A three-day course of study followed, each session kicking off with breakfast followed by three hours of hands-on class, culminating with a lunchtime feast where we sampled everything we cooked that morning.

When I sat down to chat with Raichlen after the Saturday session, I had one big question for him: what's up with all the vegetables?

"Each book I've tried to kind of tackle a particular aspect of barbecue," Raichlen told me, "because barbecue is so deep and so broad." His previous volume, The Brisket Chronicles, had been devoted to a particularly beefy topic, so veggies seemed a natural counterpoint.

"I've always loved grilled vegetables and they've always been a part of my books," he says, "but I'd never really written a whole book on vegetables."

Not all of Raichlen's longtime fans were thrilled by this new direction. When he was touring to promote The Brisket Chronicles, he notes, "a lot of my stops would be in places like Kansas City and Dallas and Houston. When I told everybody I was writing a book on grilling vegetables, I'd get hoots and catcalls."

But later something funny would happen. "Guys would come up to me after," Raichlen says, "and they would say, 'You know, I want to eat more vegetables. I'm looking forward to that book.'"

Raichlen notes that Americans in general—and millennials in particular—are growing more and more inclined to eat their veggies these days. Plant-based products that simulate meat, like soy- and potato-based burger patties or "chicken" nuggets crafted from fava beans, are all the rage, but Raichlen's focus is more on plants in their traditional form. "I did put in [a few] alternative proteins that were sort of raw building blocks," he says. "There's a couple of tofu recipes, there's a seitan recipe . . . but we really put the spotlight on vegetables."

There were plenty of vegetables to be found at Barbecue University, too. The course of study covers what Raichlen terms the "five methods of live fire cooking": direct heat grilling, indirect grilling, rotisserie, low-and-slow smoking, and ember-grilling (a.k.a. "caveman style"), which means placing food directly on a bed of glowing coals to cook. That last technique is especially suited for high-moisture veggies like onions, peppers, and eggplants.

There's no shortage of hearty meat and seafood dishes in Raichlen's three-day syllabus: smoked prime rib, Korean-style kalbi beef, salmon steaks cooked in the blade of a shovel. But vegetables play prominent roles, too. Sometimes it's as a supporting component of a meat course, like the ember-roasted salsa that finishes tacos al pastor. But smoked and flame-kissed veggies are the lead players in their own dishes, too: quarters of iceberg lettuce grilled for a wedge salad, smoked potatoes stuffed with taleggio cheese, zucchini "burnt ends" laced with barbecue rub.

Raichlen observes that when it comes to cooking vegetables, even experienced grill masters have plenty to learn. The first lesson he says, is often "that vegetables can be a legitimate part of the meal, which for some of my really diehard carnivores . . . " He trails off with a chuckle.

Beyond that, he finds many cooks underestimate the sheer range of vegetables that can be cooked over a fire. "Most people get that you can grill a pepper, asparagus, or corn, certainly," he says, "But a lot of people don't realize that you can grill an artichoke, or you can grill acorn squash, or you can grill a parsnip. Or you can grill kale!"

BBQ University Grilled Artichokes
Credit: Ben Hon

There's also a wide range of cooking methods beyond simply brushing veggies with oil and throwing them a hot grill. "You can spit roast a vegetable," Raichlen says, "or you can smoke a vegetable, or you can caveman a vegetable."

The most important lesson of all, though, is to give them plenty of time on the fire. "People just don't quite go far enough," he says. "Vegetables are in a funny way more forgiving than meat. If you burn a pepper or an eggplant—halleluiah! Because that's where the smoky flavor is."

The next time you fire up the grill for a backyard barbecue, trying adding a few more vegetables to the menu. Whether it's a smoked beet salad to serve as a starter or a flame-kissed main course like eggplant parmigiana cooked on a cedar plank, your guests are bound to be impressed.