Use grill to put your mark on veggies

05/17/2014 2:23 PM

05/18/2014 6:29 AM

The restaurant business has changed, and so has Curtis Isley.

Isley, executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, dropped 150 pounds over the past couple of years by filling his diet with healthy foods like grilled vegetables. He notes that restaurants such as the Hyatt’s Harvest Kitchen are offering guests more healthy choices than ever, too.

Peppers, onion, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, even lettuce – the list of veggies being grilled these days would fill a garden.

“It gives everything a whole new taste,” Isley said of the technique. “You get that smoke and flavor from the grill.”

Home cooks can get in on the trend. Grilling vegetables is a relatively simple process that doesn’t require a lot of complicated recipes. By the way, much of the advice that follows also applies to fruits such as pineapple, peaches and bananas that are finding their way on to grills.

Getting started

Isley starts by washing, trimming and slicing (if necessary) the vegetables to be grilled. For many vegetables, slices about 1/4 to 1/3 inch in thickness is standard. To keep pieces form falling through the grill, slice them on the diagonal or lengthwise, creating more surface area. Mushrooms, corn, small peppers and some other veggies can be grilled whole. For softer vegetables such as tomatoes, grill before complete ripeness is reached.

Isley likes to toss vegetables in a mixture of equal parts extra-virgin olive oil and soy sauce before grilling, adding whatever fresh herbs such as thyme or rosemary are handy. Minced garlic and shallots often get thrown in as well.

Easy on the oil

How much oil you use in cooking is determined by personal preferences. Olive oil keeps food from sticking to the grill and adds flavor, but it also contains calories and fat grams and can overwhelm the natural flavor of foods. Isley says the Hyatt has gone from using “ladles” of cooking fat to “a couple of squirts.”

Once on the grill, keep an eye out for flare-ups from the oil. Some char marks are desirable. About five to eights minutes total cooking time over medium high heat should be sufficient. The vegetables should soften but not be mushy, cooked just enough to lose their raw vegetative flavor. Done right, the brightly colored vegetables – scored by grill marks – will probably be the prettiest thing on your plate.

For maximum flavor and freshness, Harvest tries to buy as many of its vegetables as possible from local sources. In fact, the restaurant is about to start growing its own herbs in an indoor garden that will be an eye-catching centerpiece of the restaurant.

Serving ideas

Once grilled, vegetables are ready to eat as is as a side dish. They can be tossed with pasta (Harvest combines gnocchi with grilled corn and spinach in one dish), or served over rice or polenta as a main dish. Be careful what you add to the mixture. Slathering on butter or cream will shoot up the calorie count. Instead, try a squeeze of lemon juice or light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, or a pinch of Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.

If the architecturally inspired food of many contemporary chefs appeals to you, build a platform made of grilled vegetables for whatever protein you’re serving as a main dish.

One popular preparation that Hyatt chefs use is to cut heads of romaine lettuce in half lengthwise, brush lightly with olive and then grill as part of a grilled Caesar salad.

For other vegetables they concoct a sauce of plain Greek yogurt thinned with white balsamic vinegar and seasoned with fresh basil, garlic, salt and pepper.

The value of veggies

Why were vegetables important to Isley’s weight loss? In addition to containing important nutrients, they offer diners bulk with relatively few calories, leading to a feeling of satisfaction, not sacrifice. The other key to his diet, he said, was paying attention to the type and size of meat portions he ate.

Isley has had some professional success with vegetables lately, too, winning last summer’s Iron Chef competition at the Old Town Farmers Market with a grilled pizza topped with grilled corn, peppers, onion and bison sausage.

Among the competitors he beat: his boss, Hyatt executive chef Paul Freiumuth. No hard feelings there, Isley said,

“He was happy for me.”

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