I have a friend — every vegetarian or vegan has at least one — whose favorite topic of lunchtime conversation is questioning my food choices.
“Humans are meant to eat meat,” she’ll say, quoting some debatable evolutionary evidence. “Why would it be so difficult to get enough protein from eating plants anyway? Besides, you eat cheese — so if you’re not eating meat on ethical grounds, why do you still support the dairy industry? And if vegetarians and vegans want to avoid meat, why do they keep on coming up with complicated substitutions to imitate it?”
Fortunately, we have plenty of other things to talk about, so our lunches are usually pleasant anyway. I’ll admit she has a point about the dairy: vegan cheesemakers have made enormous progress in recent years but have yet to capture the voluptuous mouthfeel of a ripe Brie or triple crème Brillat-Savarin. And she’s right about the ersatz meat issue, too. Not only is it too processed and expensive, it’s also an uncreative cop-out. Why spend money on something Beyond or Impossible to imitate the same old beef or chicken when there are dozens of fruits and vegetables to coax new and interesting tastes and textures from?
The last meat I remember eating — over 10 years ago — was a chicken and andouille gumbo I made from a recipe I’d spent the better part of two decades perfecting. I can’t say I miss eating meat, but I do miss a good gumbo. When it came time to try to make a meat-free version, I didn’t try substituting soy sausage and seitan chicken for the main ingredients. I came up with a mushroom-based version instead. My nearest and dearest tell me it is as good or even better than the one for carnivores.
So, when the Independent team started discussing this week’s summer barbecue stories, my mission was clear. Cue the “vegan barbecue is an oxymoron!” comments. I’m here to prove them wrong.
Grilled watermelon may not sound like a convincing meat substitute, but then it’s not meant to be. A brush of garlic-spiked soy sauce and the heat of the grill transforms summer’s favorite fruit into something delicious, a sweet and savory slab with a texture closer to fresh tuna than ground beef. And no one’s claiming that corn ribs have much in common with the anatomical ones besides the shape and the fact that they’re a delightfully messy vehicle for barbecue sauce.
You can customize the burgers as you would regular ones. The Watermelon Board (yes, such an entity exists) recommends topping these with slices of white cheddar cheese for that classic cheeseburger effect. I prefer a good handful of arugula and a sprinkle of crumbled feta instead. Spicy brown mustard and hot sauce are good accompaniments, too, but save the ketchup for the corn ribs: it will make the burgers too sweet.
The corn also lends itself to variations. Many recipes go for an effect similar to Mexican elotes, with mayonnaise and cheese, but I like playing up the ribs angle and using a tangy-sweet barbecue sauce instead.
I also wanted to come up with a different kind of potato salad than the mayonnaise-based summer picnic standard. Since vegan mayonnaise is one of the more successful plant-based products on store shelves, adapting a favorite traditional potato salad recipe for a vegan menu is easy enough. My recipe is inspired by the version of potato salad served everywhere in Spain, minus the potentially divisive inclusion of pimiento-stuffed olives — add them back, if you want, or go for a vaguely French inflection with a handful of green beans, lightly blanched for color and gentle crunch. It’s another recipe that lends itself to all kinds of customization.
The next time I have lunch with my friend, I’m sure she’ll make some remark about why I insisted on calling these recipes “burgers” and “ribs.” I’m also sure that when I invite her to my next vegan barbecue, she’ll be having too good a time eating to care what anything is called.
Grilled Watermelon Burgers
Makes 4 servings
4 slices of seedless watermelon, about 1 inch thick, cut into squares roughly the size of the buns you will be serving them on. (The burgers will shrink a bit during cooking.)
¼ cup olive oil, plus some vegetable oil for the grill
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced fine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Toasted hamburger buns (I like King’s Hawaiian if you can find them, but plain old white bread buns are fine, too) and your favorite condiments
- With a paper towel, oil the part of the grill you will be cooking the burgers on. This will help prevent sticking. The grill should be at medium-high temperature (about 400 degrees). If you don’t have a thermometer, just use your hand: if you can hold your open palm 4 inches over the cooking surface for just 3 seconds, the heat is about right.
- Whisk together the olive oil, soy sauce, and garlic in a small bowl.
- Place the burgers on the grill and baste the top surface with the olive oil and soy sauce mixture. Cook the burgers for about 5-7 minutes, then flip over and baste with more olive oil and soy sauce. Cook for an additional 5 minutes or so, or until they firm up and shrink a bit. Remove from grill, grind a generous amount of black pepper over each burger, and let rest 2-3 minutes before placing on buns.
BBQ Corn Ribs
Makes 4 servings
4 ears of fresh corn, shucked
- The hardest step of this recipe, and one which you must do in advance, is to cut the corn into “ribs.” Slice off the ends of each cob so they stand upright. Using a sharp kitchen knife, carefully split the cob lengthwise. (Go slowly, rocking the knife gently as you go, and steady the cob on top while slicing.) Put each half, cut side down, on your cutting board and cut each half again lengthwise. You will have 4 ribs from each cob, or 16 total.
- As with the burgers, make sure the grill is well oiled and at the proper medium-high temperature. Brush the ribs with a bit of olive oil and place on the grill, cut side down.
- Grill the ribs for about 5-7 minutes; they will start to curl slightly. Turn and baste with the barbecue sauce. Cook for about 5-7 minutes more or until the ribs are nicely caramelized on both sides. Remove from heat and baste with additional sauce. Serve with any remaining sauce on the side — and plenty of napkins.
Makes about 1 cup
2/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup cider vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
Chipotle or other hot sauce (optional) to taste
Whisk together all ingredients. Sauce will keep, refrigerated, for two weeks.
Spanish-ish Potato Salad
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds small red potatoes, unpeeled
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
2 green onions, chopped fine
2 tsp. minced fresh tarragon or basil
2 tsp. chopped fresh parsley
½ pound fresh green beans, lightly blanched, cooled, and cut into ½ inch pieces or ½ cup sliced pimiento-stuffed olives (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Cook potatoes in heavily salted water. (This is the key to great potato salad, no matter what recipe you’re using.) Drain well and let cool while you prepare the dressing.
- For the dressing, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic in a small bowl and mix well until emulsified.
- Cut the cooled potatoes into halves or quarters, depending on size. Put them in a large bowl and add the red pepper, green onion, herbs, and the string beans or sliced olives if you’re using them.
- Toss everything together, lightly but thoroughly. You want everything well combined, but you also want the potatoes to keep their shape. Add a good amount of freshly cracked pepper and toss again. Correct seasoning, throw whatever extra chopped herbs and parsley you have on top, and serve. Room temperature is best, but the potato salad can also be served chilled.