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Barbecuing for Vegans: A Survival Guide

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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What with the explosion of vegetarians and others with special diets out there, many of you undoubtedly expect to host one or two at your Memorial Day barbecue. Many of you will ask yourselves, “What are we going to feed Jack?” (Or Marigold, or Geraldo.) You will ponder this question, forget about it, and then as you’re at the supermarket, stocking up for the feast, you’ll reach into the freezer case, unearth some dispirited-looking box of veggie burgers, and congratulate yourself for having done your duty.

Now, I’m not going to say that you haven’t. Indeed, I believe you’ve done more than your duty when you opted to provide any fodder at all for your special-needs friends. Having been both a vegetarian and a vegan, and having remained someone who does not eat cooked fish (“I made halibut,” the hostess says confidingly, as she leads me to the bedroom to lay down my coat; “it’s so hard with all the special diets these days, but everyone eats fish”), I have a very strong opinion about people whose diets do not conform to the local norms: That’s your problem. Choke down what you’re served, or bring your own, but don’t expect to issue orders to your hosts as if you were a doctor speaking to a hospital dietitian.

That said, I also have strong opinions about veggie burgers, veggie hot dogs and similar atrocities: I would rather eat a real piece of tofu than an ersatz piece of meat any day. I’ve had good veggie burgers in my time, but none of them ever came in one of those boxes in your local Stop & Shop’s freezer. I mean, they’re edible, by the time you’ve covered them in cheese, doused them liberally in ketchup and mustard, and slapped on a thick camouflage layer of lettuce and tomato. But I’d rather have all those things on a sandwich without whatever curiously crumbly-yet-chewy mixture some food processor has decided to designate as a “burger.” As for vegetarian or vegan sausages -- well, all I can say is that whoever coined that line about watching the sausage get made was undoubtedly talking about the unspeakable origins of those gray, paste-like things flopping limply on the plate.

So if you want to cater to a beloved vegetarian, and spare them the agony of chewing through yet another tasteless piece of ersatz flesh, I offer a few recipes. Each had to meet two criteria: It could plausibly be a main dish for a vegetarian, and it could plausibly be eaten by a non-vegetarian who just likes tasty food.

Grilled Stuffed Jalapeño Peppers

The cheese mix is obviously not for purists, but that smoky, savory mixture goes well with the spiciness of the jalapeño.

  • 16 jalapeños
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • ½ cup shredded provolone
  • 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 3 tablespoons Parmesan
  • 2-3 cloves of roasted garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
  1. First, a word of caution about working with jalapeños: Wear gloves, especially if you have any open cuts on your hands. And do not touch your eyes for any reason until you have removed the gloves.
  2. Mix everything except the jalapeños in a bowl. Set aside.
  3. Lay your jalapeños out on the work surface. Slice a long, thin sliver out of each jalapeño, then scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Do not bring your eyes close to the pepper to better see what you are doing. If you are tempted to do so, stop, Google a video of people being pepper-sprayed, and think again.
  4. Chop up the little slivers you removed from the jalapeños, and put that into the cheese mixture.
  5. Wash your spoon thoroughly, then use it to stuff your jalapeño peppers full of delicious cheese mixture. Do not overfill, unless you want burned, melted cheese stuck everywhere on your grill. If you have trouble keeping the stuff from oozing out, you can secure the peppers by skewering shut the opening with toothpicks that have been soaked in water for 15 minutes.
  6. Remove your gloves.
  7. Grill on a medium-low grill, 25-30 minutes. Now, there are two schools of thought on this. One is that given the risk of oozing cheese, you should grill them in a disposable foil pan, which is neater and safer. The other is that this denies you the deliciously charred skin you want, and you should grill them without foil between peppers and fire. It’s your grill, and you will have to choose.

Grilled Tofu

Non-vegetarians are often unreasonably afraid of tofu, because they think of it as a Strange Health Food rather than a Delicious Sauce Sponge. Or perhaps they have had bad tofu, of which much abounds.

The secret to grilling tofu is to dry the heck out of it, turning it into even more of a marinade sponge. There are multiple schools of thought on how this should be accomplished. I prefer a two-step process: First freeze, then press. This process sounds cumbersome, but your active time is less than 10 minutes. Just remember to start well ahead, as the whole process will take at least a day and a half for freezing, thawing and pressing.

  1. Take a block of firm or extra-firm tofu. Remove it from its water bath, cover it in Saran wrap, and toss it in the freezer for at least 24 hours.
  2. Thaw it on the counter or in the fridge.
  3. When it’s thawed, line a plate with paper towels. Lay more paper towels on top. Put another plate on top of your tofu, and pile a few cans atop the plate. You don’t need an enormous stack -- the tofu is not trying out for the bean curd weightlifting Olympics. Three pounds’ worth of cans is plenty. You just want to put steady pressure on the tofu in order to force the water out. Try to arrange the cans so there is steady pressure across the whole block.
  4. Drain off any liquid that accumulates every 20 minutes. After 40 minutes or so, your tofu should have stopped releasing liquid. Stick it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
  5. Slice into ½- to ¾-inch slices, then marinate and grill as you would a piece of meat. Just remember that you don’t have to worry about cooking the inside, so as soon as it looks nice and crispy, you can whisk it off the flame.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers

Mushrooms are loaded with protein, and fortunately, are also delicious. This was one of my favorite sandwiches even before I was a vegetarian, so make extra if you have mushroom-loving meat-eaters in your family.

  • 4 portobello mushrooms, burger-sized
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Splash of toasted sesame oil, if you have it
  • Pinch of Aleppo pepper or cayenne
  • Mozzarella slices
  • Roasted red peppers (they come in a jar in your supermarket’s Italian section, or you can grill your own over the flame)
  • Pesto
  • Sesame seed buns
  1. Mix soy sauce, vinegar, oil(s), garlic and pepper in a Ziploc bag. Marinate the mushrooms for 2 hours, occasionally shaking the bag to make sure everything gets covered by the marinade.
  2. Grill mushrooms pretty much the way you would a burger, 3-4 minutes on each side. When you turn it to the second side, top each mushroom with a slice of mozzarella. Toast the buns on the grill.
  3. Spread top of bun generously with pesto. Place burgers on the bun with 1 or 2 slices of fire-roasted pepper. Serve.

Cold Tomato Pasta Salad

I also eat this hot, but it is delicious cold.

  • 1 pound cooked penne
  • 2 boxes grape tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 12 basil leaves, rolled and sliced
  • ¾ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt to taste
  • Mozzarella balls
  1. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and arrange, innards up, on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Bake at 250 degrees for 2-3 hours, until soft but not dried out. Place in a large bowl, along with any liquid on the baking sheet.
  1. Melt the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan with the tablespoon of butter. Saute garlic, thyme and red pepper for 1 minute. Place into the bowl along with the pasta, basil and mozzarella balls. Mix everything together, then add pepper, and salt to taste. You can refrigerate for up to a day before serving.

White Bean Salad With Pesto

Please don’t make your vegan a three-bean salad. Beans salads are delicious. Throwing random canned goods into a bowl with bad store-bought Italian dressing is disgusting.

This can be made vegan using vegan pesto, which believe it or not, is surprisingly close to the real thing. (It uses nutritional yeast in place of cheese.) But if you have a vegetarian and not a vegan coming, go ahead and use the cheesy kind.

  • 16 ounces arugula
  • 1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans
  • Lemon juice (I just used Minute Maid frozen lemon juice -- cheaper and more convenient than fresh-squeezed)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 recipe of Marcella Hazan’s pesto (or store-bought pesto, or your favorite recipe.)
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • 1-2 ounces lemon vinaigrette
  1. Make your white beans. Rinse the beans and soak overnight in 4 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. I usually make them in a pressure cooker: 4 quarts of water, 2 teaspoons of salt, 1 tablespoon olive oil, at pressure for 12 minutes in an electric or 8-10 minutes in a stove-top pressure cooker. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, use extra water (cover by about 2 inches) and check periodically to make sure it won’t boil off. Simmer for 1 to 1.5 hours on the stovetop, until tender. 
  2. Mix beans with the pesto, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and about 2 tablespoons of lemon juice (check for flavor).
  3. Combine everything in a big bowl, and serve.

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